Cambridge Observed (with Some Digressions about Boston)

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never been to L.A. but I think I can arrive at a pretty decent picture by taking Cambridge, Massachusetts and imagining the exact opposite—developing that photonegative. Or, rather, L.A. would be the hellish negative and Cambridge the bright reality (probably). At least, in my ignorance, I would tend to think so, because I love Cambridge (and Somerville and parts of Boston). Sit down in any coffee shop or bar and you’ll hear people talking about their PhD programs and gossiping about their academic advisor’s mid-life crises. Is it easy to satirize? Sure—but what isn’t? All the girls are dressed in black and gray—they’re Serious People. There are no canary yellow sports bras exposed to daylight… Ah, this brisk Northern air! This bracing Yankee atmosphere! Unlike my imaginary nightmare Bladerunner vision of L.A., people don’t go clubbing in Cambridge (well, technically, some do)—they hold potlucks, at which unshaven physicists and their small, cryptic fiancés discuss the eventual heat-death of the universe. This is a good thing. I like this (apparently).

Cambridge, Somerville, and the collegiate portions of Boston form what might be the world’s largest economy based on knowledge—or, at least, on data. Mark Twain said that, in Boston, people care about what you know; in New York, they care about how much money you have; in Philadelphia, they care about who your parents are. I can’t speak to whether this is still true of Philly, but the first two claims still hold, strongly. I don’t hate New York or even dislike it—it’s so multi-formed, multi-eyed, multi-armed that you can’t really say what it is (except for “big” and “intimidating”). New York contains worlds nested within worlds—and, hey, most of them might suck. New York is everything, and 90% of everything is awful. But Boston is just a few worlds—and Cambridge is only one, the academic world. And I’m a Boston kind of guy—or, really, a Cambridge kind of guy. (I get that there’s a “big” difference, but whatever).

Boston’s great, but being an aspiring member of various elites, I need to voice my preference for Cambridge—and, even above Cambridge, I prefer Somerville, a dusky gem of rare value, unknown to the wider world. Union Square, a veritable El Dorado of alternative culture, remains hidden from the clueless—gracefully concealed by a lack of subway access—and Davis Square (possibly my favorite spot in the Greater Boston Area) is the vibrant core of Somerville.

Not too long ago, I was watching a game at Fenway (on TV) and my Dad (who’s a Yankee fan) pointed out, not unpleasantly, that Boston crowds always look like Boston crowds—the people sitting behind home aren’t rocking Versace and sipping Moet. They’re just humans, gloriously normal, middle-class, taking their kids to a ballgame. They’re not like Yankee fans at Yankee stadium—jet-setters, obviously camera conscious, as they lounge in overly dignified splendor behind home. It’s another point (or dozen) in favor of the Greater Boston Area.

Most importantly, I think Boston and Cambridge both have a good mixture of New England reserve and non-native, out-of-town friendliness. If you go up to backwoods New Hampshire, it’s all reserve. I imagine the Saudis are less reserved, despite the completely enclosed booths families sit in at Arabian fast food joints. But Boston has a pinch of accommodation—and, damn it, that’s all you need! Boston people aren’t silent and brooding—they’re not Finns. It’s just that the things they say to you might not be the things you want or expect them to say to you. But who the hell are you? Some chemistry student from Omaha? Get used to it. Life’s not a Lutheran Church picnic.

The Quest for Novelty

by Sam Buntz

The mind thinks that information is the way out. The more details it can gather, it supposes, the closer it will be to amassing an ultimate agglomeration of Truth. The various practical applications arising from this rage for information, seem to justify it—after all, we have iPads, microwaves, and medical care exponentially superior to that of any previous century. It must be adding up to something. But, worthy as these innovations are, the craving for information—for image, for detail, for forbidden knowledge (for videos of beheadings and of naked women crushing hamsters with high heels, to cite two real examples)—only increases, until it results in a final consolidation of Error, as opposed to a consolidation of Truth. It is nothing but sound and fury. Fortunately, this Body of Error can’t help but expose itself—when real attention is turned towards it, it shrivels in the sun. Yet it is exceedingly crafty and strategic in fending off its demise: it simply seeks to keep human attention bouncing around, from one object to the next, without ever settling in concentration and seeing the matter plain. In such a state, human beings can’t even really be said to have any attention—the objects of their awareness are not determined by themselves, but by external powers, by that bundle of Error.

So, the mind marches on, concocting new marinades and seasonings with which to disguise that tasteless and mysterious tofu—the underlying substance of life. As T.S. Eliot puts it, these external distractions seek to “Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled, / With pungent sauces, multiply variety / In a wilderness of mirrors.” The goal is novelty—mechanically and automatically sought in order to fend off knowledge of the underlying silence, the fundamental emptiness or darkness of experience, which we consider (with almost no justification) to be a threat. We do not suspect that an invisible sun might be buried within that eternal night… Obviously, the pursuit of novelty for its own sake—to keep attention moving to fresh objects, in a state of incessant flux—can only result in madness. (The utter loss of attention might really be the definition of “madness,” as it is commonly understood). As the attention becomes fatigued with familiar objects, it seeks to incite passion through bizarre channels, tripping down obscure alleys. (This weekend, we were just informed that a convention of “Furries”—people who dress up like giant stuffed animals in order to have sex—was disrupted by a chlorine gas leak, likely due to sabotage). It seems to be true that, while, as a whole, the rate of violence has gone down in the world—compared to earlier eras—humanity, thanks to this unhinged quest for novelty, has never looked quite so ridiculous and undignified.

In a way, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The further the quest proceeds and the mind’s affections continue to go haywire, the more this great Body of Error seems obvious. Here, the risk is that, in attempting to expose the Body of Error, the critic fails to see or notice anything that is not the Body of Error, and hence becomes just another unconstructive complainer, howling in the cheap seats. Anyone can see that there’s something ridiculous about Miley Cyrus humping giant teddy bears on stage—but not everyone who notices that this is ridiculous can articulate what the alternatives are. If you bask in ridicule—in giving it or receiving it—you haven’t really separated yourself from the mass of accumulated falsity. Your attention is still subject to that shifting and treacherous sea.

But what is the alternative? In venturing an amateur guess, I would say that the alternative is, as already implied, a practice involving concentrated attention, concentrated will. Kierkegaard wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” But what one thing? Where should attention be concentrated? And how? It would be somewhat presumptuous to fill in the blanks, on my part, demonstrating a certain pretension to sagedom.  Yet it is impossible to end this essay without offering something more. Simone Weil’s voice might serve to bridge the gap, establishing a living connection with the Body of Truth, existing across the gulf from the Body of Error: “The combination of these two facts — the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it — constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality.”

Thomas Hardy’s God

by Sam Buntz

If we lack a hope that transcends the vagaries of time and space, the best we can do is not to hope: to never expect much. That was the wisdom of Thomas Hardy, later echoed by poetic descendants, like Philip Larkin. Yet, while Hardy is a poet who advises stoic endurance in the face of the world’s “neutral tinted haps and such,” he goes further than his disciples. While Larkin also advises endurance, he is, compared to Hardy, somewhat spiritless: he has no appetite for a cosmic quest, and disdains poetic mythmaking for that reason. Despite being shorn of orthodox belief by the revelations of Darwin, Hardy actually did have the urge for such metaphysical exploration. Unlike some of his followers, he doesn’t cease to think after receiving an initial impression—he pursues, he speculates, he wonders. As John Irving put it in A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hardy was “almost religious.” He had the temperament and the wonder, but he lacked hope for an eternal world, for final bliss. He knows all about time, but is uncertain regarding eternity.

A great example of Hardy’s philosophical mind in action is the poem, “The Masked Face.” The speaker finds himself in “a great surging space,” with no “firm-fix’d floor” and locked doors at both ends. A mysterious masked face arrives to tell him that this place is “Life.” When the speaker complains about the locked doors and the confusion reigning in this weird locale, the mask-veiled being replies:

“There once complained a goosequill pen
To the scribe of the Infinite
Of the words it had to write
Because they were past its ken.”

And in an untitled poem, labeled a “fragment” (though it seems complete enough), Hardy talks about another metaphysical trip. The speaker visits the Dead—all who have ever lived—where they wait in a hidden gallery. He asks them what they’re waiting for, and they reply that they’re waiting for “God” or “the Will, or Force, or Laws” or “vaguely…the Ultimate Cause” to finally “know it.” To the speaker’s repeated questioning they explain that they’re waiting for God to “know how things have been going on earth and below it: /  It is clear he must know some day…” They continue:

“‘Since he made us humble pioneers
Of himself in consciousness of Life’s tears,
It needs no mighty prophecy
To tell that what he could mindlessly show
His creatures, he himself will know.

“‘By some still close-cowled mystery
We have reached feeling faster than he,
But he will overtake us anon,
If the world goes on.’”

In his work, Hardy took inspiration from Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who viewed the “Will to Live” as fundamentally pointless, even malign: we are all its helpless puppets, and our glory lies in renunciation and asceticism. But despite Schopenhauer’s profound influence, Hardy, in these particular poems, refuses to see life as a meaningless slog. He doesn’t consider the onward march of the Will as so much sound and fury. Rather, Life is a process that may, in fact, lead to a desirable conclusion, and there may be some greater design behind it—though not one consciously directed by the Biblical God. Rather, God is Life (or the Will) in Hardy’s estimation—a process leading towards some final comprehension. (This is very similar to George Bernard Shaw’s philosophy, as well). We have only to play our part in it, without complaint or accusation. Yet, at the same time, this shred of hope for the future—if it really is hope—is slathered with qualifications. God or the Will or the Ultimate Cause will reach some great reckoning “if the world goes on”, says Hardy (italics added). The sense of existential nausea, of reeling in immensities of time and space with no point of orientation, never really dissipates.

There is a certain tendency in some British artists—writers, playwrights, poets, film-makers—to indulge in misery for its own sake. “British Miserablism” is actually a school and a style. In a warped way, these artists look back to Hardy—but they fail to recognize that a tragedy is not a tragedy if there never was any chance for things to go right. If it’s always been 3 A.M. in the soul, and has never been high noon, where’s the loss? But, by situating his poetry in this greater semi-mythical context—speculating on the ultimate purpose of God or the Will, however vague it may be—Hardy lets us see genuine tragedy in the human condition. Things could be going right—we might’ve been born in the hidden room lying at the further end of that shifting, bewildering space called “Life,” discussed in “The Masked Face”. We might’ve lived to see the unveiling of the Mask, to note whether some more or less benevolent countenance lay behind. But we’re born in the middle of the process, unable to understand the purpose of the Infinite in authoring our sufferings—and our joys, for that matter (Hardy, in “Hap”, imagines higher powers, randomly scattering bliss and pain around his “pilgrimage”). That’s our real tragedy, in Hardy’s view. We can but serve and die, doing a little good in the process, and hoping merely that someone else will finally learn what it was all about.

But Hardy didn’t just influence poets like Larkin—poignantly unhappy, while dedicated to muddling through. He also influenced W.H. Auden, a writer who knew all that Hardy knew about time, but also knew much more about Eternity. Auden called Hardy an ideal mentor for the inspiring poet—since Hardy used so many verse forms and meters, and also provides numerous instructive examples of a great poet’s lesser and awkwardly shaped efforts—and understood the negative lessons Hardy taught about time and death. As Auden writes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “The glacier knocks in the cupboard / And the desert sighs in the bed / And a crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But Auden also affirms a hope transcending time and space—which Hardy never really could, since the vague hope he does have is ultimately bound by time, occurring at the end of a historical process. In “In Praise of Limestone” Auden imagines a higher world where “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from / Having nothing to hide.” This is a far more specific hope than Hardy’s desire to see the Will somehow become aware of what’s happening on earth. Auden has absorbed Hardy’s teachings, while daring to leap beyond them—reaching, as a poet, the same kind of final reckoning that Hardy intuited but did not dare to attain.

Closed Off

by Sam Buntz

“You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy:
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.” –Wallace Stevens, “Of Mere Being”

Psychologically, there are few things more damaging than the belief that one is living in a closed system. The notion that discursive thought can arrive at all possible answers—and that the universe is a system in which all possible questions can be resolved—is not only arrogant but, in a fundamental way, unscientific and irrational. For a specific example of this wrongheadedness in action, we can consider the search for an equation that can explain the entirety of existence—a “Theory of Everything.” Of course, most scientists engaged in the quest for this theory don’t consider why there should be an equation that describes all of reality, in the first place—for some reason, in their understanding, reality isn’t comprised of heterogeneous fragments, but forms an ideal whole: the four fundamental forces of nature need to resolve into one force, and the masses of all particles need to receive their values from one specific particle, and so on. I understand why I believe that reality forms a whole, or why a Roman Catholic believes this to be the case—but I have no idea why theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking or Lawrence Krauss believe this to be the case. And I have never heard them explain themselves in a coherent way.

The idea that all things must, in some fashion, be unified or have a single purpose behind them comes from the imagination, from an intuitive sense, from faith, from strange inner suggestions about the shape the cosmos should take—it does not come from pure logic or reason. To suggest that it does is, in a way, highly unreasonable: pure logic doesn’t determine what we look for, but is only a method of pursuit. The ground of our first principles remains occult—and I italicize that word in order to suggest all of its meanings.

Within a closed system, completely defined by one equation, expectations never shatter. The world is pictured as clockwork—clockwork we haven’t studied yet, and clockwork we have. Minds reduce to physical patterns, immense chemical billiard games—the experts just need to figure out the angles and trajectories. Meanwhile, we live in rigid structures, rigidly defined. We are like the mouse in Kafka’s parable, complaining that its passage through a maze continues to narrow day-by-day—until a cat tells the mouse that it only needs to change its direction… before gobbling it up.

It is interesting that societies officially predicated on rationalism—societies, which made a dogma out of the belief that we were living within a solved system, determined by a final equation—devolved into madness and the starkest irrationality. They ended up replacing the transcendent mystery of the cosmos—a mystery that beckons humanity to seek for its solution, even as it confounds reason’s attempts to do so—with an image of the mundane human ego, projected and grotesquely enlarged on a million propaganda posters and flickering screens: Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un and all the other classic instances of ultra-secular personality cultism.

Somehow, in seeking to magnify the imperatives of the human ego, we narrow the world—and can continue narrowing it indefinitely. By refusing to ground the human spirit in a transcendent reality—one above yet intersecting with space and time—these ostensibly “rational” and scientifically minded regimes managed to constrict that spirit virtually to a point. While attempting to celebrate the human spirit by projecting it into the form of one human leader and the ego of that leader, they denied it and crushed it. They created a gross parody of religion, mirroring the worst forms of fanaticism faultlessly. It’s fair to say that overtly non-secular and theocratic regimes—like that of Iran—actually do the same thing: they substitute the minds of power-hungry, ego-driven clerics for the transcendent or for the God to whom they supposedly appeal. Without imagination, without openness to possibilities yet unrealized, reason becomes a noose: it can only tighten, hanging its most devout votaries.

The Healing Balm of Indifference

by Sam Buntz

There’s something about lazy, morally unallied characters that resonates with everyone (or, almost everyone). It’s refreshing to see one’s secret, inner aimlessness and lack of ideals dramatized—it awakens real sympathy. This is a definite paradox: we can care intensely about characters who don’t care at all. The classic example is Shakespeare’s Falstaff: perpetually mirthful, but devoid of moral direction. He’s endlessly creative, but he doesn’t use his creativity for a greater ethical purpose.  It’s a toy for his own amusement (and that of others). Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is another good example: he compares himself to an onion, consisting of layers without an inner core, and continually acts like a cad while winning the reader or playgoer’s loyalty.  Homer Simpson, the frat guys from Animal House, and any number of illustrious slackers are all fine, present-day instances of the same phenomenon.

A hollow person in a serious situation seems reprehensible—but in a situation with ethically low stakes, a hollow person can become a magnet for our affection. Perhaps this is because, before we side with good or evil, we all feel a similar sense of hollowness, of yet un-polarized being. We sympathize with these characters because we sympathize with ourselves. There’s a kind of crystalline innocence/ignorance to this personality—he isn’t bad, but he’s also unhampered by dogmatic notions of goodness. He is what theologians sometimes refer to as the “natural man”—a child of nature, and therefore innocent, but also corrupt; innocently corrupt.   (Also, there are plenty of female examples of the same archetype—from life and art. Somehow, using “he or she” would’ve interrupted the flow of the last two sentences in a weird way).

Thomas Carlyle argued that, in life, we should journey from saying an “Eternal No” through a “Center of Indifference” to saying an “Eternal Yes.” In other words, we ought to proceed from being mindlessly destructive—kids crushing ants for fun—through the apathy and cynicism of adolescence, to the creative ideals of a fully realized adulthood. Obviously, many of us never make the full trek—and, in our own age, I would argue that making it to the “Center of Indifference” is actually a pretty big accomplishment. The members of ISIS and North Korea’s ruling clique clearly never made it there—they utter their “Eternal No” into the void.

But the valiantly indifferent are (at least, in our bad era) praiseworthy, if only because they haven’t regressed, haven’t ruined anything. They remain unsponsored and free—dwelling in possibility. (Purgatory has so much more room than hell… It’s pleasantly spacious, as it turns out). In a world rife with fanaticism, indifference is, as W.H. Auden said, “the least / We have to fear from man or beast.” I wouldn’t argue that not-giving-a-damn is a revolutionary act, or that we can’t do better than indifference—an Everlasting Yes is where we’re ultimately headed. But we’re so adept at doing worse—at being violently partial about any number of fleeting worries and cares—that indifference starts to seem like a counter-force as opposed to what it technically is, the absence of a position. A little lighthearted indifference goes a long way—in effect, it’s the real “chicken soup for the soul.”

Is This Philly’s Sound?

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never heard anyone describe the kind of music created by The War on Drugs, Strand of Oaks, or Kurt Vile as, specifically, a “Philly Sound” or the “Philly Sound” or anything like that—though I have read articles in which all three of those bands/artists have been compared to one another. (Technically, the classic “Philly Sound” is probably Philadelphia Soul, anyway—but we’re talking about what’s happening in the Now). That being the case, maybe it’s time to finally draw some lines and say what’s what? The boundaries between where one “sound” ends and where another begins have always been pretty arbitrary—like the way far-flung cultures divide the spectrum of visible color differently (one person’s blue is another person’s green). Yet, let’s take a shot at defining the sound, anyway, despite all that.

These three groups/artists all strike me as being part of “Cosmic American Music”—as the alternative country legend Gram Parsons named it. There’s a sense of expansion—canyons and plains implicit in the soaring synths and delay-heavy, reverb-heavy guitar, the visions of early pioneers (which is funny, considering the music is emanating from the East Coast)—along with a sense of smallness, of being a tiny person lost in a swirling, vast Domain. Both these feelings strike at the emotional core of so many Americans’ lives. Walt Whitman, probably the greatest American poet (along with Emily Dickinson), expressed the darker mood—the sense of smallness or contraction—writing in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”:

“Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.”

Although these Philly artists are using the idiom of rock, they all get what Whitman’s talking about. “There’s just a stranger living in me,” sings Adam Granduciel in The War on Drugs’ “Eyes to the Wind”—expressing the same feeling of desperate self-separation as Whitman, searching and failing to find his “real Me.” But it’s really the feeling-tone of the music, the guitar and synth-based soundscapes that convey this experience: the lyrics hint at it, but you can’t really find it without absorbing the sound.

In the liner notes for a re-release of The Last Waltz, Harold Bloom praised The Band and Bob Dylan for capturing a certain strain of “spiritual loneliness” in American music. The loneliness is “spiritual” because it’s creative—you’re isolated somewhere out in the vast terrain of America, yet despite all this, you sense massive creative potentialities hidden in your lonely self, which you then convert into musical or poetic realities. These Philly groups definitely access the same vein of “spiritual loneliness” (just read about the recording process for Strand of Oaks’ Heal and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream—both albums emerged from intense periods of solitude and creative effort), and Dylan fans like Granduciel and Vile would probably enjoy the comparison. Strand of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter (who really is the band) belts out, “I was lonely / I was having fun” as a pre-chorus on “Goshen ’97.” Specifically, he’s having fun making music, and the loneliness propels that creative activity. You need to fill that inner emptiness up—just like the pioneers, filling empty deserts and plains (except that those weren’t, strictly speaking, empty: there were actually Native Americans there—though that’s an issue or five away from the subject of this article, obviously). Although those lyrics aren’t, as written, poetry, they take on the quality of poetry when they become transfigured by the music in which they find themselves embedded.

None of these bands have lyrics that would transfer really well to the page—as is true in the vast majority of cases (Dylan’s always been the big exception to this rule, to some degree). Their words are crafted to work with music, not with the silent rhythm of a reader’s mind. But they’re still interesting: Granduciel and Vile’s lyrics capture the hum of thoughts drifting casually through a tired or distracted brain, and include the kind of things you tend to hear your subconscious muttering when you tune into it. Here’s Vile: “You could say I been most all around / But honey I ain’t goin nowhere / Don’t worry bout a thing / It’s only dying / I live along a straight line / Nothing comes to mind.” So, yeah… Whatever that meant. And here’s Granduciel, in a somewhat more coherent mode: “I come to my soul / Walking in the downtown / Talk to my soul / They won’t get lost inside again / On my way / I can see it the darkness coming my way / Well we’re here / Don’t get lost inside /Yeah, you won’t get lost inside at all…” It’s a little like Samuel Beckett… and it makes sense: it’s the same sort of conversation-with-your-own-soul that Whitman used to have, part of his search for the “real Me” or mystic “Me, Myself”. But it doesn’t really become art until it fits into a musical context. (It’d be wrong not to note that.)

A great album to compare with the work of these Philly bands is The Joshua Tree (Showalter’s on record as being a U2 fan; and I’d be surprised if Granduciel and Vile were going to slag off The Edge). Tracks like “In God’s Country” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” definitely get at that delay-laden, American Sonic Expanse—despite having been composed by non-Americans, of course. U2 was consciously trying to explore America with that album, and The War on Drugs, Vile, and Showalter all testify to the accuracy of U2’s musical observations—they’re the denizens of the America U2 explored back in the ’80s, even though they’re living in Philly and not halfway between Texas and a mysterious desert Nowhere. They inhabit the same psychological and spiritual landscape… The Irishmen staring out across the Western Shore were right—they had the perfect vantage point from which to contemplate (what it should be fair to call, without a hint of corniness or irony) the American Spirit.

But, as indicated in some of the above, life in this soundscape America isn’t just a lonely drag. There’s a spiritual bigness that goes along with the feeling of smallness. Whitman could go from the despair of “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” to the triumphant, cosmic expansion of “Song of Myself”: “I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, / I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.” Whitman is mystically becoming everything—and, listening to some of these albums, you get the sense that that could happen, considering the guitars’ capacity to evoke really large spaces. These new Philly sounds are an unexpected blessing in these dark days, and the fact that an ancient, storied state like Pennsylvania still has the juice—and can still launch us, musically, into this kind of psycho-spiritual headspace—is enough to cheer at least one former resident.

A Most Excellent World

by Sam Buntz

There is nothing more difficult for the imagination than to guide a story through utter darkness to a happy conclusion—a believably happy conclusion. We tend to think that King Lear is pretty great—but even it, unimpeachable masterpiece that it no doubt is, only leads us through extreme darkness to an end-point that is yet extremely dark. When it came to finding peace and rest and last, the Bard had no trouble in guiding his comedies to terminate in pleasant dreams—but to start where Lear ends, and to somehow weave the chain of events round to light, without boring the audience with metaphysics or shocking its fundamental credulity… this was beyond even the Bard’s capabilities (as was depicting sainthood). It may be that Life itself is the only story that dares the worst before reaching the best…  For instance, it’s not too hard to author a story in which the hero surmounts a history of petty thievery or the death of his own family to achieve something noble and good.  But it is difficult to create a “hero” who can really rise through genuine, extreme, personal darkness — through murdering his own family or ordering a massacre — to somehow attain redemption.  That taxes the imagination.

To some extent, you could argue that Dante achieved this great goal—since, as a character, he goes from initial despair in a “dark wood” to a final Vision of God. But, of course, all the real bad boys are left squirming in hell. To depict their redemption would’ve been more to the point—an ultimate tribute to and of the imagination. After all, Dante the Pilgrim was only ever a little off course… To make things clearer: it would be difficult for a human being to write a series of novels, plays, or movies successfully detailing the spiritual evolution of the soul of Hitler or of Ted Bundy, in the afterlife or in numerous future incarnations, in the hells and in our world, culminating in ultimate redemption and rebirth. Is there an imagination capable of authoring that story? I believe there is—to speak of Divine Imagination. But I leave the question with you.

Part of the difficulty in attaining this quest, or even getting it off the ground, lies in evoking a transcendent world—a “most excellent world”—using material dredged from a world that, to all appearances, is actually quite anti-transcendent, quite mundane, even pretty terrible. It is a kind of imaginative alchemy—the conversion of dross to gold—that only the most genuine creators can attempt. Dante gave it one of the all-time great shots, ladling on the special effects and the psychedelic, angelic choreography in his Paradiso, and you could praise Blake, Wordsworth, Rilke and others for their equally convincing intimations of immortality. This at least—putting aside the spiritual evolution of former tyrants and serial killers—is possible. It is within the imagination’s reach. (The Palme d’Or-winning Tree of Life managed to do this very effectively, to select a more recent example). If “faith” is allowed to still have a meaning, I think it means resting in the knowledge that the bridge of Divine Imagination will eventually span the chasm between the scattered shadows of the mundane world and the true daylight of the whole, the complete, the “most excellent” world.