“‘Invisible Spheres’: Gnosticism and The Matrix”

by Sam Buntz

[Note: if you haven’t seen the first Matrix movie – and you should only see the first one and should definitely ignore the sequels – you’ll probably be better off not reading this article, because it will completely ruin everything: it’s packed with spoilers.  – Sam.]

“What makes us free is knowledge: knowledge of who we were, of what we have become, of where we were, of wherein we have been thrown, of whereto we are hastening, of what we are being freed, of what birth really is, of what rebirth really is.” – Gnostic credo of the Second Century, A.D.

“The Matrix cannot tell you who you are.” – Morpheus, The Matrix

It may seem redundant to write another philosophical investigation of The Matrix:  far more ink has been spilled on this movie, comparing it to Plato’s allegory of the cave or to the simulacrum of the French theorist Jean Baudrillard (which the actors apparently had to read on set), than on most other blockbusters or pop-cultural phenomena.  But, ever since I saw The Matrix, it seemed to me that its philosophical and spiritual framework was actually grounded in a worldview infrequently discussed in these writings: I mean that system of thought and practice known as Gnosticism – a religious movement that flourished during the first five hundred years of the first millennium, A.D.  It was often but not always a renegade Christian movement: most Gnostic groups saw Christ as their redeemer, but some did not, such as the Mandaeans, who still exist in present day Iraq, and who consider John the Baptist a true redeemer and think Jesus a false prophet.  I’m sure someone has compared The Matrix to Gnosticism, but I’ve avoided looking for any such studies, in order to give, what hopefully will seem to be, a few original insights and comments, rather than have my thinking swayed by someone else’s compelling arguments.

The Gnostic vision of the cosmos is strikingly akin to that of The Matrix: as in the film, the world we are living in is not the real world, and although evil computers and robots have enslaved humanity in The Matrix’s false reality, it is an equally malign cohort of satanic guardians or “Archons” – analogous to the “agents” in The Matrix – who fulfill the same role in Gnosticism.  The Archons are presided over by the “Demiurge” (the Greek word for “creator”) – the false god of cruelty and cold justice who governs our world.  (The latter-day Gnostic, William Blake, punningly called him “Nobodaddy”).  Herman Melville was well-read in Gnosticism, and often used its worldview in his novels and stories: Captain Ahab, for example, is a kind of Gnostic, and his quest to kill the white whale bears a certain similarity to the main characters’ quest to take down the Matrix.  Ahab sees this world as a delusion, hopelessly sunk in error, created by a malevolent or at least bungling creator, who has set the white whale – symbolizing the impersonal order of Nature – to tyrannize over us (as in The Book of Job).  In order to reach reality, one must “strike through the mask” – strike through the delusive world of appearances – which, in Ahab’s cosmos, equates to killing the white whale.  Once one has broken through to the other side, one sees the existential truth of the human condition: “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” This is to say, one sees that, although aspects of “physical” life inside the Matrix appear to be blissful and enticing, the true mental reality of how the Matrix has been constructed is a nightmare, a delusion – Melville’s “invisible spheres” are the equivalent of the film’s “desert of the real.”  It is the realm in which the evil mechanism of the Archon-computers grinds away, producing reality — it is the place where the cruel architecture of our world is continually manufactured, where “the dead are liquefied to feed the living.”  Yet the Gnostics believed that our true home was a distant spiritual realm (far above yet also containing and interpenetrating our world of ignorance and fear), presided over by the True God of Love and Mercy – this spiritual world is equivalent to the city of Zion hidden deep in the center of the earth, “where it’s still warm,” as discussed in the movie.

Not only is the world unreal in The Matrix, but so are the personae of the deluded selves contained within that world – except for those who have woken up from the “unquiet dream” of life in this digitized universe.  The “self” that exists in the Matrix is not one’s real self.  As Morpheus tells Neo, the Matrix can tell you nothing about who you really are – it is simply a vehicle for the agents, the Archons, to perform their project of keeping humanity ignorant of its true nature.  Any person who is still trapped in the Matrix can suddenly be possessed by the agents and become their surrogate: in the same way, the Gnostic teacher, Basilides, believed that what we traditionally think of as the human “self” – the mind, which the Gnostics (writing in Greek) called the psyche – was, in fact, a “den of demons,” a nest of mad impulses and desires, beyond one’s control, writhing over one another like vipers — but still under the power of the Archons.  Against these internal demons, Basilides and the other Gnostics held that the pneuma – literally the breath or spirit – was the true self, continually at war with the false psyche.  Both of these competing powers were couched within a body – called the hylic self (hyle is Greek for “matter”).  Human beings could be conscious of their existence as any one of those three constitutive selves: those identifying entirely with the body were stuck in the emptiness of the physical world, being, functionally, mechanical beings.  Those aware of themselves as psyche were at least redeemable, but only those who knew the spirit, the pneuma, were on the fast-track to “resurrection,” which was understood as a spiritual event occurring in this life.  Basilides proposed a scheme of reincarnation to explain how everyone would eventually make it out of this mess and become aware of the true self (though other Gnostics had different ideas about how the process would eventually work out, some of them rather less humane, unfortunately –  Jorge Luis Borges wrote a great essay on Basilides, which I would recommend, entitled, I believe, “A Defense of Basilides the False” — as the teacher had been christened by his orthodox opponents.)

For the Gnostics, people could comprehend the possibility of salvation only if they had heard the “Call from Beyond” – the voice of the true God, echoing through the deepest chambers of the self.  For Neo (Keanu Reeves), this call from the world beyond the Matrix manifests as a message on his computer – “follow the white rabbit” (a la Alice in Wonderland.)  Shortly thereafter, he meets a woman with a white rabbit tattoo, and follows her and her friends to the club where he meets the crew-members and their captain, Morpheus, (Laurence Fishburne) who will, soon enough, wake him up from the Matrix.  After being alerted to one’s true situation in the world, the next stage of the process for the Gnostic initiate, as for Neo in the movie, is to “know thyself” – to know the hidden spark of the pneuma, which comes from the True God.  The Greek word gnosis, after all, simply means “knowledge.”  Since the Gnostics saw our worldly Matrix-life as a kind of  “death-in-life” (the Gnostic scriptures refer to it as kenoma or “emptiness”), Neo needs to go through a time of trial and testing before he can realize the divine nature of his own self – he has to struggle to break out of this unreal life.  The Gnostics liked to say that Christ was actually resurrected before he was crucified, because, for them, the resurrection was not a physical, but (as mentioned) a spiritual event – the moment when the self came to know itself at the deepest level.  And that, again, is the Oracle’s advice to Neo in the movie: “Know thyself.”  It is this kind of self-knowledge, which allows him (after attaining a sort of resurrection, at the end) to gain complete freedom within the Matrix and to see it for the lie that it really is.  When he has fully woken up, Neo sees everything around him as code, running through all things in the form of bright green digits.

There are yet more subtle clues to a greater Gnostic scheme in the Matrix –  for instance, the name of the ship that Morpheus captains through “the desert of the real” is the “Nebuchadnezzar II” – named after the Babylonian king whose madness forced him to wander in the wilderness for years, as described in the Book of Daniel in the Bible (this sojourn in the wilderness being an analogy for the ship’s flight through “the desert of the real.”)  In William Blake’s school of Biblical interpretation, the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity in the wilderness is the tale of fallen humanity’s exile in the world of delusion, attempting to find a way out.  (Incidentally, the Buddhist term for our state of existence is samsara, which literally means “wandering”). The prophetic seer, Daniel, presents the possibility of escape – since his character is a form of the spiritual pneuma, or “divine imagination,” as Blake would have it, rather like Neo.  Daniel alone, among the king’s counselors (all of whom, in Blake’s esoteric interpretation, actually dwell within the king’s/humanity’s self) can show the king his true nature and resurrect him into sanity.  Thus, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar (though particularly, Neo and Morpheus) is like the “divine imagination” within the body of the deluded human race, as it sleep-walks through the world. Joe Pantoliano’s character is the nemesis within that form — like the psyche, the Archons’ servant — trying to derail the project of the rest of the crew.  It is the crew’s job to make “mental war” (which in the film, is represented analogously by literal war) on the agents who have usurped control of the human race.

A more exhaustive investigation of Gnostic mythology and its relation to The Matrix is certainly possible – I wanted only to provide the end of a silver-thread that might, eventually, after being wound-up, lead to an exit from the labyrinth.  Gnostic mythology is incredibly dense, and one might be able to identify different characters from The Matrix with specific figures from some of the various Gnostic myths.  Neo is obviously both Christ, the redeemer, and every Gnostic (since every Gnostic has access to Christ, and is a potential Christ, through the power of the pneuma.)  But The Oracle, for example, could be identified with the un-fallen form of the Sophia – or Wisdom of God – since she provides Neo with helpful hints in pursuing the self-knowledge and God-knowledge that he needs to attain salvation – for himself and for humanity.  One could, no doubt, attempt a possibly arcane yet convincing demonstration of how the crew-members and other secondary characters all fit into a Gnostic pattern.  I’m sure there’s an entire book’s worth of material contained in this subject.

Now, I don’t even know if the Wachowski siblings are familiar with Gnosticism – though I would strongly bet that they are.  Yet, since, for the Gnostics, it is the inner pneuma that provides the knowledge one needs and not any external source (external sources can, at best, only inspire one to seek inner knowledge), to say that the Wachowkis have channeled an authentic Gnostic gospel onto the silver screen is, in my view, perfectly legitimate.  No book-knowledge of Gnosticism is necessary.  These ideas have been in the air in a less definite form, after all – the plays of Samuel Beckett depict our world as an illusory nightmare, akin to the Matrix (and Pozzo in Waiting for Godot is a perfect Archon or Demiurge), and the novels of Cormac McCarthy make strong allusions to Gnosticism (indicating that McCarthy is, practically, a Gnostic), while the “cyberpunk” genre of science fiction provides many of the tropes used by the Wachowskis in making their movie (the stories of Philip K. Dick are a good example).  Our sense of the world as a void in which we nevertheless seem to perceive objects – as in a dream – can be found in all forms of pop-culture.  And a computer hacker like Neo is, in many ways, a perfect analogy for the Gnostic – hungry for knowledge, the hacker competes against a vast and mysterious system, designed to frustrate his or her efforts, presided over by distant and possibly malign forces (like Mark Zuckerberg, I suppose).

Though the Gnostic worldview may seem peculiar to some – running entirely against the idea that the world is the creation of a benevolent deity, but also, equally, against the idea that there is no deity and no true purpose to life – its power has endured through the work of literary artists like Blake and Melville, and now, clearly, through the work of major movie directors like the Wachowskis.  Among others, Quentin Tarantino praised The Matrix, saying that, if it wasn’t for the sequels, he would easily have called it his second favorite movie since 1992, the year when he first started directing (Tarantino’s discussion of Superman’s true identity in Kill Bill is an effective parable of the Gnostic self).  The Matrix was so affecting and so influential, not just because it’s an intense action-heavy extravaganza with awesome special effects and slow-motion bullet-dodging (though it is that, too), but because it reverberated with audiences in some secret chamber of their imaginations, intimated that “call from Beyond,” which the Gnostics spoke of (at least, that’s what I think…)  It will likely prove an enduring cinematic achievement, packed with genuine philosophical and spiritual value – and it might even inspire some people to investigate these issues more intensely, possibly even spark them to fulfill Captain Ahab’s Gnostic quest: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks… If man will strike, strike through the mask!”

“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Desire’s Apocalypse”

by Sam Buntz

“For I am every dead thing, / In whom love wrought new alchemy. / For his art did express / A quintessence even from nothingness, / From dull privations, and lean emptiness; / He ruined me, and I am re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.” – John Donne

“You have to lose. / You have to lose. / You have to learn how to die, / If you want to, want to be alive…/ Okay?”  – Wilco, “War on War”

Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a primary example of what Gram Parsons called “Cosmic American Music.”  Its themes are definitely “cosmic”:  desire, death, despair, and religion – but they are immersed in a distinctly American atmosphere.  You could call it an example of “how the gods come to dance in America” – for the album indicates that they come to dance with fervent love and desire (“I’m the Man Who Loves You”), with mad destructive impulses (“Jesus Etc.” and “War on War”), and, additionally, with blissfully dumb joy (“Heavy Metal Drummer,” with its “I miss the innocence I’ve known / Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”)  But Jeff Tweedy’s own struggles with crippling depression, migraines, and prescription drug addiction inform even some of the softest songs with a rougher edge – the album provides a portrait of a man being, in the words of John Donne, “rebegot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.”  (Tweedy wrote all of the lyrics – but Jay Bennett, who broke with the band immediately after YHF was released and would later die of an accidental pain-killer overdose, co-wrote the music.)

“I am an American aquarium drinker, / I assassin down the avenue, / I’m riding out in the big city, blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you?” So sings Tweedy in the first lines of the album’s opening track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” – and we immediately realize that, lyrically, this is going to be an unusual experience.  “An American Aquarium drinker” is, I take it, a kind of Walt Whitman-esque superman-everyman, who “contains multitudes,” who can drink entire seas and all the life contained therein.  (And I would like to point out that it’s somewhat clever to use the word “assassin” as though it were a verb, since it sounds like it could be one.)  Walking with this stealth-strut, the singer moves towards his beloved, towards a sordid yet sacred rendezvous where they’ll “undress just like cross-eyed strangers” before he holds her “in that Bible-black pre-dawn.”  Everything in the song makes it sound like a tender love song, even though the refrain is “I am trying to break your heart. / Still, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy— / I am trying to break your heart.” At the end, the opening “I am an American Aquarium drinker…” verse is replaced with “Disposable Dixie-Cup drinker / I assassin down the avenue / I’m riding out in the big city, blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you?”  Masterfully and subtly, Tweedy conveys the sense of emotional and imaginative diminishment entailed by this break-up (if that’s what it is), by altering the “American Aquarium drinker” – this lusty poet containing a decent sampling of all the oceans in his imagination – into someone drinking out of an office cooler, walking to and from work but always into love’s despair (if “Disposable Dixie-cup drinker” refers to the speaker, as I surmise, even though there is no “I am…”).  Yet the mood of the first song is not entirely one of desperation – it conveys a sense of things getting torn apart, but gently – a subtle, silvery dissolution, that resolves into a new form even as it dissolves.  And the lyrics match that description exactly…

According to interviews, Wilco were influenced not only by musical/lyrical sources in working on YHF but by literary sources as well: for instance, Henry Miller, William H. Gass, Samuel Beckett, and even Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.  Having listened to this album fairly frequently over the course of the last two years (if it wasn’t a personal favorite, I wouldn’t writing this) – I recently realized how strange it is that, when you pay attention to the percussion and, really, to what’s going on in general, you start with wonder at how some of it manages to hang together – especially that first song… It continually seems to be about to fall apart, yet the chord progressions hold, everything holds, and it all works magically.

The themes of the album all seem to connect with two major, over-arching themes (and I’m citing The Onion AVClub’s review): love and apocalypse.  Yet depression and despair are also to be found around every corner.  To see what form these themes take when they intertwine, it would be helpful to look at one of the album’s central songs, “Jesus, Etc.” – a surprisingly sincere religious song, as I understand it.  “Our love is all of God’s money,” Tweedy sings – meaning, of course, that the sum total of love in the world is what God’s got to work with.  We set the limit on it – it can be as finite or infinite as we want it to be, depending on how loving we ourselves are.  It is almost as though the song suggests that God’s strength is somehow the strength of human beings – that the two forces are one, and thus God has a strange sort of reliance on humans (for their redemptive work performed on His behalf), just as human beings need to rely on God, on the Love which represents Him.

The song opens with these lyrics – which, it now strikes me, are fairly startling, since, instead of pursuing the traditional practice of seeking comfort from God or Jesus, Tweedy seeks to offer comfort to Jesus: “Jesus, don’t cry / You can rely on me, honey / You can combine anything you want… ”  The “honey” might look ironic on paper, but in the song, I think it does seem like a genuine term of endearment.  Then we continue into a more apocalyptic mood, as Tweedy re-assures Jesus, “I’ll be around – / You were right about the stars / Each one is a setting sun.”  I find that last line to be one of the best in the album – though strictly on the darker side of things.   Yet the song avoids being “Christian,” exactly, if only because its portrayal of Jesus gets so weird.  If we accept that the “you” of the chorus (which comes next) is still Jesus (and there’s no reason not to), Christ then appears as a figure standing in the midst of apocalypse, affected by the very catastrophes that are befalling creation: “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape / Singing sad, sad songs / Tuned to chords / Strung down your cheek / Bitter melodies / Turning your orbit around.”  (I placed the dashes to try to indicate some of Tweedy’s emphasis in singing this – since, as sung, the stresses make these lines even more impressive than they are on the page – and I think they’re rather impressive on the page.)  Intentionally or not, there is a reference to the “Music of the Spheres” in here – melodies that have now gone bitter and sad are directing the orbits in which the worlds spin – and Christ is the spirit caught up in the midst of all this, weeping.  In a later verse, Christ is equally subject to a kind of universal desecration, suffering as the cosmos suffers: “Voices whine / Skyscrapers are scraping together / Your voice is smoking / Last cigarettes are all you can get / Turning your orbit around. “ Yet, in the verses between these two, Tweedy breaks in with the plangent verses about love quoted earlier – “Our love is all of God’s money.”  This line is sung to the same part of the tune that “You were right about the stars” is sung to, but instead of following up with, “each one is a setting sun,” Tweedy moderates to “Everyone is a burning sun.”  Whereas the stars fail us, gradually going out, the love that burns in human beings saves us – effectively, it is Christ.

None of that is meant to sound like a sermon – it’s just that when you need to explain what “Jesus Etc.” is actually saying, your explanation necessarily sounds like a sermon.  At any rate, I’ve devoted so much space to it, because I think it’s the album’s centerpiece (at least, in terms of its lyrics.)  Having already taken a fairly in-depth look at this song and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” I’ll now try to range at seeming random, in order to get at some of the better lyrics.  A chief poetic moment comes in “Radio Cure,” with its “Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I’ll never see. / Oh, distance has no way / of making love understandable.”  That first line is a great description of what human life is – following desires and impulses or performing chores and tasks willed by gods and impulses and forces of which we ourselves are unaware.  (There may even be a covert relation between this line and Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”)  The distance between the apple-picker and the kings and queens is, I think, related to the distance that can’t make love understandable – we have, as Matthew Arnold says, “been on many thousand lines… But hardly have we, for one little hour, been on our own line…”

A quest for self-knowledge, eluding one in pain and depression, is also clearly present in songs like “Kamera” (which is a pretty upbeat song, despite its lyrical content.)  The camera of the title is what will allow the singer to catch glimpses of his self’s true content: “I need a camera… I’ve counted out / The days to see how far / I’ve driven in the dark / With echoes in my heart. / Phone my family / Tell ’em I’m lost on the sidewalk / And no, it’s not okay.”  The passage through absence and darkness is brought out in “War on War” – the best lyrics of which I quoted at the top of this article.  The song gives pain and despair meaning by showing that they’re just necessary steps in breaking down the old corrupted self before a new, truly living self can emerge again.  In the apocalyptic “Ashes of American Flags,” we find, “All my lies are always wishes / I know I would die if I could come back new.”  If Nietzsche was right when he said “Art is the lie we tell, lest we perish of the truth,” Jeff Tweedy is admitting that his lies – whether in life or in art – are his way of attaining release from the limited sphere of everyday life and into a timeless present – into a world that is better, because fictional.  I construct the second line as meaning that he would willingly die a figurative death, willingly go through hell, if he knew that a phoenix-like resurrection was awaiting him on the other side.  But for now, his art is just a small consolation in purgatory: “I shake like a toothache / When I hear myself sing.”  The apocalyptic mood mixes with the love mood in “Poor Places” – where the people around the singer are decaying in some sort of Mid-Western or Southern hell hole (as I imagine it), yet he desires a love that seems to be yanking him out of the same situation.  “It’s my father’s voice, dreaming of / Sailors sailing off in the morning / For the air-conditioned room at the top of the stairs. / His jaw’s been broken, / His bandage is wrapped too tight, / His fangs have been pulled, and I really want to see you tonight.”  But, rather than going out to see this girl, he stays inside, as the refrain of the song makes clear (unless she comes over) – “It’s hot in the poor places, tonight – / I’m not going outside.”

“I’m the Man who Loves You” is the most direct expression of the album’s love theme, with it’s teeth-gritting Neil Young-style guitar solo, indicating vast reservoirs of desire behind its stuttering electricity.  Love has made the singer multi-armed, potent, an upward gyre of energy.  He tells his beloved, “All I can be is a busy sea / Of spinning wheels and hands that feel for / Stones to throw and feet that run, but / Come back home.”  Love is a more salient theme in “Pot Kettle Black” as well: “Sleeping eye sockets / Baby, suck your thumb / I’ll keep you in my locket / A string I never strum. / It’s become so obvious / You are so oblivious to yourself.”  Yet, clearly this is a weird variety of love – maundering through ignorance, through the lover’s oblivious-ness, resigned to possessing its object like a picture in a locket or a string set aside to be pondered but never strummed.  But in the final lines of the final song (“Reservations”) the singer clarifies that his sadness and his idiosyncrasies are but his own: “I’ve got reservations / About so many things / But not about you.”

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released at almost the exact same time that September 11 happened (at one point, that was the date for which the album’s release was scheduled).  It’s eerie how many of the songs—written earlier that year—somehow seem prophetic of the American mood after the terrorist attack:  “Skyscrapers are scraping together, / Your voice is smoking…”  This is but another instance of what T.S. Eliot said of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”: “It happens now and then that a poet by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own that is quite removed from that of his generation.”  The lyrics seem to have been written entirely out of Tweedy’s own struggles, yet, through such a strange coincidence of personal and societal moods, the album’s anxieties about apocalypse, personal disintegration, and the dubious success or failure of love, mapped out the national mood very well – even though that mood is very distinct from what Tweedy’s personal mood must have been.  Nonetheless, it seems to me the defining rock album of the past decade – a perfect crystallization of what a sensitive soul was feeling as he watched the planets jarring in their alignment.

“The Whirlwind at the Threshold”

Most of the people I know in Cambridge-Boston and whom I knew in Hanover, N.H., either gracefully possess or are afflicted with some sort of vast, all-over-leaping ambition – whether like that silently chugging engine of subtle ambition that Abe Lincoln is described as having or more overt and Machiavellian.  I know that I myself have plenty of ambition – not so much for my own fame as for the fame of what I create, to try to “leave a scratch on the wall of oblivion,” as William Faulkner put it.  But fame always does prove to be “the last infirmity of noble mind.”  There are certain few people in the world (not me), who, from birth, found that their greatest passion was to realize reality, and instead of dithering and learning much about brilliant yet peripheral matters, they aimed for the heart of the sun.  No egotistical distractions or ambitions penetrate into the consciousness of this kind of person – there is only the desire to realize Truth, and then to help others – no desire to be seen and heard, oneself.  Any popularity accruing from their noble deeds and words is merely incidental (as in the case of Buddha or Jesus).  When we can find them, we call such people saints. 

But the creative personality is trapped: not a saint, the poet or artist spurns many of the same things that the saint spurns – the ambition to make a lot of money, to run a business, to wage and win wars – all of the traditional enemies of the bohemian.  But the creative personality is in a fix, for its ego has not yet dropped out of the picture, and in many ways, it remains just as hungry, just as acquisitive, as the business-making personality, swept up in the currents of “the world” – as the saints and martyrs call that dread network of delusion.  It is hungry for communication, to some degree—which can be as egotistical a desire as one is willing to make it or not make it—but it is very hungry to leave a lasting impression.   

Yet the creative process is, itself, not a particularly egotistical one.  In fact, it is one of the least egotistical of all occupations – perhaps second only to that of the aforementioned saint or of a healer.  The ego tends to drop out when art is really being created – in the intensified, particular passion of the moment.  We don’t know who Shakespeare was because he is famously “everyone and no one” in his plays – there are not too many hints (that we can discern) of what Shakespeare really thought or felt (his religious beliefs, for example, are still a total puzzle,) yet his characters manage to think and feel everything.  But, although Shakespeare was notoriously tight with money (in fact, despite his portrayal of Shylock, Shakespeare was himself a usurer), I think it would’ve been impossible for him to rub his hands with greed while simultaneously channeling the thoughts of an Iago or a Falstaff.  Those base thoughts and emotions fade out as the actual work of creation takes place and then re-intrude once it has finished.

But, it seems to me, that, to some degree, the poets of other countries, like Persia and India and Japan, seem to have healed this division between the poet and the saint – if in relatively rare yet fairly numerable instances.  Rumi and Kabir, for instance, seem to have been true saints – and for Basho, the poetic vocation was synonymous with poverty and homeless wandering.  For him, it was a kind of direct engagement with the emptiness of existence – and with the seams of poetic wealth stitched throughout that great impoverished whole.  Walt Whitman, I think, successfully portrays a character (which he calls his “self”) who would’ve overcome these difficulties – whose ego has melted into an Emersonian Oversoul – but the merely actual Walt was intensely ambitious – though his reasons for being so ambitious were among the greatest ever, namely, to get people to read Leaves of Grass.

In other times and places, abandonment of ambition – or, more broadly, the renunciation of worldly desires – seems to have been a factor that was actually directly involved in the creation of great art, rather than serving as its death knell.  When the will to stampede others with one’s own ego has vanished, the impulse to pick up a pen or sit in front of a keyboard evidently does not.  We are all familiar with the Norman Mailers and Gore Vidals – writers who used the pen as the very vehicle of the stampeding ego – but there are notable instances of the reverse, of writers who used their art as, at least, a form of needed life-support, and, at most, a form of communion with God –  no particular worldly ambition polluting it.  The so-called “reclusion” of Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger is notable.  And William Blake toiled in relative obscurity, while remaining sustained by his imagination – his failed attempts to get the public to notice his work were not founded on an attempt to gather attention for the ego, but rather as part of an altruistic attempt to “restore the Golden Age,” the mission with which he believed he had been charged by Providence.  (This might seem like egotism, admittedly, unless you accept that Blake actually was charged with this duty by Providence.)

But, despite all these digressions, the point I’m making is that the artist is a creature often sorely divided at heart.  No longer deluded by the claims of “the world,” and its ambition, he or she is still often completely deluded by some of the ego’s own appetites.  Despite the examples of saint-poets—extremely rare birds, in the first place—it is not likely that most major poets are going to suddenly become extraordinarily selfless and admirable people.  But since the ingredient of ego-less-ness is so important to the creative process, it may be that – to avoid the pitfall of becoming a kind of lesser Norman Mailer – cultivating just a smidgen of selflessness might actually be personally and artistically beneficial.   I was recently reading a W. B. Yeats essay where he describes the half-awakened nature of the artist and poet, which I have just been attempting to articulate.  One passage serves to sum things up very nicely: “When life puts away her conjuring tricks one by one, those that deceive us longest may well be the wine-cup and the sensual kiss, for our Chambers of Commerce and of Commons have not the divine architecture of the body, nor has their frenzy been ripened by the sun. The poet, because he may not stand within the sacred house but lives amid the whirlwinds that beset its threshold, may find his pardon.”

“‘No Identity:’ John Keats and the Artist’s Role”

by Sam Buntz

I have been both reading and thinking a great deal about John Keats, lately.  If I were Keats, at this point in my life – at the close of 23 and on the cusp of 24– I would be entering into my great period, lasting but one year.  I would’ve kissed off grad school and somehow attempted to lead a life devoted entirely to poetry without any bar or defense.  I would, in the next year, compose what will arguably become the greatest poems in English since Blake – including two unfinished Miltonic epics, five unimpeachably great odes, and an assortment of long and short poems, sonnets, and fragments, all deathless classics.  I would fall in love with Fanny Brawne, and towards the end of the next twelve months, be drawing up plans to revolutionize the English theater and try to match Shakespeare (whom I, as John Keats, would consider to be my guiding spirit).  And, at the end of that year, after what was intended to be a pleasant walking tour of Scotland, I would come down with tuberculosis, realize that all of my desires will remain unfulfilled, despair, cease writing anything except letters, sail to Rome, lose my much-needed and medically sanctioned pain-killing bottle of laudanum (which my friend had thrown over the edge of the ship, worried that I was planning to intentionally take an over-dose), and die an agonizing death at age 25.  My grave (in Italy) would bear the epitaph “Hear lies one whose name was writ in water” – wrongly prophesying my memory’s loss to the ravages of time.  In the coming decades and centuries, I would find myself deprecated by Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, and other “neo-classicists,” and hailed by the illustrious likes of Alfred Tennyson, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wilfred Owen, and others.

But, as it is, I’m fairly certain such a great and terrible fate is not preparing itself for me in the next year.  The fact that such a fate prepared itself for Keats provides an excellent argument for the existence of capricious gods who “murder us for their sport” but still appreciate a good story.  A “good story” is pretty much the only thing you can, with bitter irony, hurl back at cosmic destiny for having slain the man who may have been the most prodigiously gifted writer since Shakespeare, before he had achieved all that he could achieve.  If Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, or T.S. Eliot (for example) had died at the same age, they would have left nothing… or a few interesting fragments.  And Shakespeare might’ve had time to get off one or two early plays (but there would undoubtedly be no Hamlet, no Macbeth, no Lear, no Prospero, no Falstaff…)  Even the pre-Great-Year Keats is an interesting and precocious adolescent in his poems and an intensely absorbing writer in his letters – which even so unyielding a critic as T.S. Eliot admitted contained nothing but the truth.

But, to consider the actual poetry (with necessarily unpardonable brevity):

The young Keats (though, of course, being dead at 25, he is, as they say, “forever young”), made, in his early work, some philosophical reflections about the nature of poetry, which would apply equally well to his later poetic self – there was continuity between the “younger” and “older” selves, a well-woven braid of intellect, knitting itself toward a definite end.  In the early “Endymion,” he writes, “Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks / Our ready minds to fellowship divine, / A fellowship with essence; till we shine, / Full alchemiz’d and free of space.” Keats means that any “thing of beauty” that absorbs our attention – any privileged moment – causes us to forget our own identity and become absorbed in a larger unity (a sort of Buddhist/Hindu dissolution of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other.)  We are transformed (“alchemiz’d”) and escape from our imprisonment in what Blake called “the ocean of space and time.”  Keats becomes, as in Emerson’s crazy metaphor, “a transparent eyeball” – his individual identity melts away, and in the poetic fury of the moment, he becomes the beauty that he looks upon.

Now, the “young” Keats’ speculations on poetry gradually developed into artistic realization – he could articulate very well what he wanted to do before he could actually do it.  But when he finally does achieve this power, its quality is revelatory – it is a voice that speaks from everywhere and nowhere, like Shakespeare’s – the voice of the unearthed Grecian urn (in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), which Keats sees and hears as speaking in soundless song: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes play on: / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone…”  The message the Grecian urn brings him is consonant with that delivered earlier in “Endymion.”  Keats famously addresses the Grecian urn before channeling its message: “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”

In a letter, Keats wrote, “As to the poetical Character itself… it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated… A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women – are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.”  Keats attains this state of perfect identification with the entirety of Nature, leaving behind his own selfhood, in the final masterpiece, “To Autumn.”  The personal identity of the poet seems to have completely dropped out, leaving Autumn to express itself, using the poet’s mind as a source of illumination whereby the season can write its own poem: “Then in a willful choir the small gnats mourn / Among the river sallows, borne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies…”  (The poem needs to be read as a whole to get the full effect.)

One aspect I haven’t addressed in Keats’ poetry is his “tragic acceptance of limits” – which is perhaps indicated by the fact that the autumnal gnats are so “mournful.” It is something he has in common with Shakespeare’s tragedies, but not, for instance, with a more forthrightly affirmative poet like Blake or Whitman.  Keats could write poignantly of our inevitable defeat at the hands of time: “She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die, / And Joy whose hands is ever at his lips, / Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, / Turning to poison as the bee mouth sips.” (I don’t think any poet before Keats would’ve imagined the bee’s mouth sipping at a flower — zoomed into the particular instance so casually.)  His final letter to Fanny Brawne—whom Keats, nearing the very end, has bitterly realized will never marry him or otherwise consummate their relationship—spells out his acceptance of tragedy: “I hate men, and women more.  I see nothing but thorns for the future – wherever I may be next winter, in Italy or nowhere…”  After lamenting how another suitor will be living near Fanny “with his indecencies,” he says “the world is too brutal for me – I am glad there is such a thing as the grave – I am sure I shall never have any rest till I get there…I wish I was either in your arms full of faith or that a Thunder bolt would strike me.  God bless you. J.K.”  This is, of course, heartbreaking – but I also find that no matter how severely one has lost at love, it is somehow heartening to read about how much more finely and supremely Keats suffered the same defeat, and managed to still conduct himself (in his letters, at least) with some of the old fire, despite his considerable despair.

I think Keats – along with Wordsworth – was the best poet after Blake, all the way up to and probably beyond the present moment (though I would say Whitman and Dickinson equal him).  When you consider that his memorable poems were pretty much all written in one year, this judgment becomes even greater than it apparently seems.  Yet it is instructive to consider how Keats’ acceptance of limits and of death jars with Blake’s own deathbed experience.  Of course, a dying young person is far more likely to die as Keats did (I think I probably would), angrily renouncing his/her unfulfilled desires and wishing (sort of half-heartedly) for the peace of the grave.  Yet Blake’s visionary art enabled a death in which he died joyously singing of the things he saw as the Gates of Paradise opened.  In a late letter, the now elderly Blake writes, “I have been very near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble and tottering, but not in Spirit & Life not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever.  In that I am stronger and stronger as this Foolish Body decays.”   I highlight these differences not to use Blake as a stick to beat Keats, since I love both – but simply to show how Blake’s more spiritual worldview has certain elements in it that are not present in Keats and Shakespeare – though those two poets perhaps have qualities that Blake didn’t have, or didn’t wish to have because they were secondary to his mission.  Yet John Keats is a poet who speaks to us startlingly well at the present moment – as a poet with no dogma or creed, he sang “by [his] own eyes inspired,” which is what many of us find ourselves compelled to do.  He realized, like his disciple Wallace Stevens (who wrote the following lines), the tragic origins of art: “From this the poem springs: that we live in a place / That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves / And hard it is, in spite of blazoned days.”

“Other People”

by Sam Buntz

Jean Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.”  This was all quite French of him, of course, but I don’t really understand what this statement means. “Other People” aren’t really at all like hell – in my experience (though they can sometimes be pretty bad).  I don’t think that I’m so excessively wrapped up in myself that I can’t enter into another person’s perspective or imagine it with a certain degree of accuracy, and I don’t feel like the judgments other people make on my own character are particularly final or hell-like (which is what Sartre meant, apparently) – but other people are, if we are willing to take them seriously, hieroglyphic and “difficult” – in the poetic sense.  It’s easy enough to relate to each other in terms of the masks we put on – and I don’t suggest that it’s wrong to put on a mask, sometimes, or even all the time if what you’ve got going on really is outright terrible – but when it comes to imagining the internal monologue of another person, we run into problems.  There are some close friends whose internal monologues, at this point, I think I can parody or occasionally channel poorly – but there is a vast hoard of acquaintances, friends and relatives out there whose inner selves remain totally mysterious to me: their outward actions provide no Rosetta Stone by which to interpret the characters etched on the tablet of the Inner Self.  And I’m not suggesting that these people are at all bad or are hiding a writhing nest of insecurities and anxieties (although, in some cases, that’s surely possible.)  It’s just that the things they say give me no idea of what they think about during the dull, vacant moments of today – which, unless you’re trying desperately to distract yourself, comprise most of the moments of the day.

I know that this problem might not be so troubling – I know that no healthy person sits around tearing out his/her hair because he/she can’t imagine someone’s internal monologue (though, I mean, it happens.)  But I know that in my vacant moments, my mind is constantly trying to figure things out, always trying to unravel the loops and tangles of thought and self, continually inter-knitting.  It’s a very Russian sort of affair, with a lot of re-circulating arguments about death and God and love.  Yet I am intrigued by the processes that must go on in a mind that is not afflicted with this near-constant need to disentangle reality.  What would it be like to let the knot of self-and-world alone, and abide between the pillars of the Mystery, watching them stretch off into shadow before and behind?   Does anyone really just think things like, “I’m going to walk my dog later and get some ice cream!  That’ll be so nice,” and not immediately follow it up with some sort of intense probing into the nature of ice cream or dogs?   Is it possible to just think in clear, vivid, declarative statements, without entertaining questions like this one, and not be bored?

Whenever I ask my little sister what she thinks about (because she puzzles me) she always says that she’s looking forward to going to the park and hanging out with her friends (or whatever) – but I don’t believe her.  No one thinks about that kind of stuff (unless, as I suggested, they do.)  I would assume that they’re actually wondering or worrying about something.  My sister seems too smart not to be internally aggravating herself with some trivial problem or titanic searching of the soul – though she’s infinitely more “well-adjusted” than I was at her age.  But, I mean, I assume it’s possible.  I’ve also considered that many people might think primarily in images – I’ve heard that this is true of autistics, for example (in some cases.)  And for a really steak-y frat bro, he might just have images of boobs flashing in front of his inner eye when he’s not trying to make some appreciative comments about Dave Matthews or or football or porn (which might just be true for the male of the species, generally).  But that seems like a vile caricature – it seems unnecessarily dismissive.  You also need to wonder what sort of material was going through your own mind as an infant or a very small child (a related question) – were you just a passive acceptor of all the information falling into you?  Or did you spit out something of your own, mentally?  I would imagine you had some process going on inside, were not just a creation of the environmental stuff getting poured into you – but I can’t say what, lacking language, that could really be.  Samuel Beckett claimed that he remembered being trapped in his mother’s womb and desiring desperately to escape – though he said he felt like he never really did escape.  So maybe there’s more going on in the infant/fetal mind than we suspect.  Maybe it thinks in Sanskrit or something.

Also, there’s this weird dysfunction that occurs when a lot of people get near a blank page or a pen or keyboard, which I think is related to my inability to determine from their speech and action what their thoughts are – their writing never has the fluency of their conversation.  I suppose we usually talk from a different and more external layer of the self, than we do when we write.  For myself, the case is the exact opposite – my conversation never has the fluency of my writing.  I think this, again, has something to do with the mysteries of the inner self, of the mind.  Whenever Lord Byron expressed himself through a character, he wrote tragically and melodramatically.  Whenever he wrote directly of and as himself, he was jocular and bemused.  But the former was the “deep” Byron, and the latter more superficial.  This is clearly related to that disjunction between the introspective part of the self and the external, expressive self that I was just discussing.  I wish that I, for one, had a more fluid connection between the two, and could speak with the same degree of ease and articulation with which I immodestly believe I write: Christopher Hitchens had this ability, and so did, say, Oscar Wilde or Samuel Johnson.  Apparently, Wilde could speak in extremely articulate compound sentences, as if composing a highly polished essay on the spot, without pause.  Yet he himself but infrequently exposed his inner self, and instead, consciously assumed a series of masks and poses – it probably would’ve been difficult to speak sincerely, from the heart of the deep self, and also remain so fluent.

Digressing, I am now considering whether the self presented in this casual essay – or in everything I’ve written – is, in fact, the real self, or but another mask.  The investigation of these other inscrutable and yet unnamed friends and acquaintances, which I’ve herein been indirectly undergoing, may apply more finely to myself.  Perhaps some sort of stable soul is implicit in what I write, but the feeling is that of simply channeling a flow of thoughts – arising from and receding into the dark uncertainties of a mind that probably does not have a unified identity (not to suggest that I have multiple-personality disorder.)  I mean, I think we’re all like this to some degree – that, aside from when the soul decides to make its appearance, we exist “on many a thousand grains that issue out of dust.”  And this returns me to the original question, which I have addressed haphazardly, as to what the inner selves of other people (specifically, of the people who prove so mysterious to me and probably appear mysterious even to the people who are those people) actually are.  Aside from that strange constancy of soul, which we sense lurking beneath the mind’s own inconstant and often contradictory yearnings and mutterings, the inner self may just be a fiction – it may simply be a dreamy flowing away, which most of us are only vaguely aware of.

The stream flows onward, but never ripples back, as it runs up against reality’s crags and stones, to reflect on itself, except in relatively infrequent cases.  I’m not suggesting that the mind’s own inner excavations are necessary in order to live a good life – in fact, the people who live good lives probably don’t have too much of this, or have shaken it off (it’s clearly more important to be good than to be smart) and retain just the ingredient of reflective consciousness necessary for making correct moral judgments – but if you are afflicted with such a mixed-blessing-curse (that of being hyper-reflective) it is perhaps relieving to realize that the self’s propensity to gnaw on its own tail is not always helpful, nor is it inevitable – that another way of knowing the self and other selves probably exists, in which the self does not know by thinking, but just by simply being and seeing.  The mind of the poet differs from the mind of the philosopher, in that the former has more of this later kind of knowledge.  Through this knowledge, one simply sees things and people as they are and appreciates them for their beloved and fatal qualities (instead of evaluating or judging them – a faculty which is more useful in navigating the business of life than in knowing others.)  Perhaps both forms of knowledge – seeking after the self and others with thought, and seeking after the self and others with direct perception/awareness – are useful and necessary, though the accent must be placed on the latter mode.  When the self fully sees and exists with what is there before it, without forcing its claims, we generally call that experience “love.”  You can see the soul not through the lens of thought but through the lens of poetic perception, of the inner eye.  And – not to get sappy and dramatically unoriginal – this needs to be the last word on what we ought to make of “other people.”  For the soul, in my humble opinion, is not what flows away, but the silver hint of something more enduring – it is not the everyday self, but the Platonic Form of the self, the Big Self.  Yet to see the soul, one must enter into that strange mode of timeless creative and spiritual perception described by William Blake: “the single pulse of the artery, in which the poet’s work is done.”

“A Belated Introduction”

by Sam Buntz

Why “The Muted Trumpet”?

I should get around to explaining this.

I remember hearing an interview where Miles Davis was asked why he so often liked to play the trumpet muted.  Davis replied, “It sounds more human.”  Ultimately, I think that’s why I chose this rather ungainly and un-sonorous title – that, and its availability… although this whole explanation might be a little after the fact.

Yet, perhaps this blog is, in however botched a form, an attempt to be “more human”?  Eh?  Maybe, through the crush of wires and cybernetic ganglagigaphonia and bits and bytes, something slightly human is emerging from this vast metal chrysalis?  I don’t mean to suggest that I am peculiarly human or a bit “more human” than the next sap in line… BUT, I would suggest that, relative only to myself, the more I write, the more human I feel… I don’t know where the term “incitement premium” comes from, or what it means exactly, but I feel like writing generally helps me to raise the “incitement premium” on life.  Whatever that means in reality, the meaning I assign to it is that it—the inward-outward flow of language, the intellect’s own systole-diastole, and all the energy contained in that dreaming rush, informing it—helps “amp up” one’s consciousness of life, makes it finer, raises its premium, incites it, helps one touch near the quick, and live at the heart of the “Mystic Now.”

!!!

(Well – let’s not go crazy.  We may have to settle for the “Mystic Then” — the paradise lost, not present.)

But obviously that talk’s all a bit above my pay-grade.  What I really mean to say is that writing stuff—for I claim, rather modestly, to truck in that humble human material which we refer to casually and constantly as “stuff”—helps me wrench my head a few inches out of the gutter, and catch one good glimpse at the stars, before descending back once more into “…the nothingness of scorn and noise / The living sea of waking dreams…”  I’m paraphrasing Oscar Wilde and directly quoting John Clare, I believe—involuntarily—but it’s true.  It’s all true.

I don’t think I have any special insight into anything, but I may be able, at the least, to ramble on earnestly (as I am now hopefully doing) without directly instigating any eye-glazing.  I would like to perfect such a half-dreamy muttering—and be one of the voices that whispers disquieting thoughts into the half-receptive, half-weary mind as it presses itself nightly onto its pillow.  Doesn’t the modern—or post-modern or whatever this is (contemporary?)—world need a bucket to pour its intellectual leftovers in?  A kind of chum bucket of the mind – used to catch the sharks of… wisdom… or, you know, an equivalently high term.

Come to think of it, “Mental Chum Bucket” may have been a better and more appropriate title for this blog than “The Muted Trumpet” – but I wouldn’t want to spread confusion among my readership this late in the game… not that I have a huge amount of readers, exactly (though some, I have reason to believe, are from the noble and culturally rich nation of Hungary) – yet you, dear reader, whoever you are, are more than enough readership.  For you, I shall tie my tie—this morning and every morning after.

Sincerely,

Sam

“Zen and the Art of Alienating Sorority Girls”

by Sam Buntz

[Note: I don’t know what occasioned this absurd reflection.  One might as well blame the barometer.  Yet there’s a farewell to the college years hidden in there somewhere – an under-song of peace and reconciliation…beneath the bile.]

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon remembrance of things past / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought / and with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.” –SHAKESPEARE

This article has nothing to do with Zen.  That was just a “witty” title (I thought.)  But it does have a lot to do with alienating sorority girls.   The first sentence of another article (written for The Dartmouth college newspaper), in fact, the very article that alienated the titular (pun… not intended?) sorority girls by critiquing the Pan-Hellenic rush process, was: “All y’all hens better stop rattlin’ yo’ coop – hear?”

This is, in fact, a lie – the real opening sentence was of an inferior literary quality, was not in Southern dialect, and was boringly balanced to boot.  But this lie has a (tenuous) point.  The article might as well have begun with so direct and so daringly cocky (fowl-related pun, given the earlier hen bit…not intended?) a fusillade against and affront to the feminine virtues of Dartmouth women.  Believe me, my last intention was to offend the sensibilities and impugn the considerable moral values of our sorority girls – but that’s how it worked out.  I may have been too traumatized by the havoc I had wrought to reflect on it objectively – an earlier self would’ve simply descended into the impersonation of a raving Othello preparing to smother a collective Desdemona.  But, now, the grace of years has allowed me to regain some of that lost time – and lost perspective.

It’s been interesting to step out into the wider, bubble-less universe of the non-undergraduate world – by which I mean, grad school – and suddenly discover that I am thinking and talking about fraternities and sororities and Greek Life, not only less but – well, I’m not talking about them at all (except for right now, obviously… and when this dude blabbed about how his frat made his pledges swim in a kiddie pool full of piss.)  Yet, at Dartmouth, I remember walking around at midnight, muttering sonnets to myself (or whatever it is I do), and I would see other people walking from one frat to another – and whenever I tuned into their conversations, they would go something like this: “I can’t believe we couldn’t get on table [to play pong.]  Alpha Epsilon Unicefs are all so meh-bleh-neh, you now?” The respondent: “Fer sure – but the Sigma Delta Omegulons are all like bleh-neh-meh.”  To which the first rejoins: “Ohmygod, you are so meh-neh-bleh, Becky!!!”  It was as though we had constructed this crazy version of the Matrix where everyone walked around in really gross, sticky, grime-besmeared frat basements and had conversations like this – these subjects had been manufactured out of the loam, as it were, out of the bowels of night.  Instead of talking about TV or Dostoevsky or whatever, we talked about this quaint stuff.  Consequently, not belonging to a fraternity in a world where most people did, I felt both left out and proudly aloof because of how silly this all obviously was.  I mean, who cares if “the Rebulon Zagma Deltathons all dosed their pumpkin cider with PCP but it was cool ’cause squash players are like that”? (The indignant squash playing Deltathons now pour down their hatred—my inbox is stuffed).  I was securely, rigidly positioned on the steeple of my Puritanical Stoicism, surveying with a scowl the naughty, silly, and vaguely fun-looking decadence surrounding me.

But, honestly, my animus didn’t extend to the sororities.  It was a hornets’ nest I walked into, blindly – but a nest full of hornets that stung with their Philips-Exeter-educated tongues and scratched with their angry female nails.  I wrote the article because something like a third of all the girls who rushed a sorority didn’t get a bid, and I thought that was unfair – and a lot of girls who didn’t get bids really liked my article.  But I threw in some details that, while true, pissed everybody else off.  For instance, I’d picked up that the deliberations about who to offer a bid to were just catty conversations about whose Daddy owned what country and whose eyes were too beige and so on – and while all this was true, so achingly true (at least for a good number of the sororities at Dartmouth), I made the literally sophomoric mistake (cuz I wuz a sophomore, get it????) of actually putting it in the article.

Then the romantic-embargo and emotional-blockade began.  Which is to say, they went from shipping one broken crate of bargain-bin tangerines from Cuba a year, to zero.  (A joke!  A mere jest!  Actually, maybe the most serious thing I’ve yet said.)  I mean, the article jokingly compared sorority rush to apartheid (as a segue into a pithy Desmond Tutu quote, albeit) – but the worst you could say about that was that it was in bad taste.  Aside from this, the article said that it was unfair that so many girls couldn’t find a space in the mean ol’ sororities, and that instead of building more sororities (as was being suggested at the time), we should all just try to get along in our unaffiliated gulag as best we could, by relating to each other as humans without rank, instead of Gaffulon Zelta Zebrons or Bligma Phi Wigmas or what have you (you may have guessed at this point that my Greek is a little rusty – I haven’t brushed off the old Aeschylus in a while, I suppose).  I compared building more sororities to building another exclusive tree-house when the cool neighborhood kids wouldn’t let the uncool neighborhood kids into their already exclusive tree-house.  Why do we need such tree-houses? I mused.  Perhaps we should out-grow them, I idealistically suggested.  Perhaps we should just EXIST amidst one another in joyous abandon, free from pre-conceptions, like in some sort of weird PBS educational program.

No one took kindly to this message.  And with the aforementioned grace of the years, I can see why – I was calling something stupid that a lot of people liked.  I mean, not much of a revelation, but that’s what I’ve come to gather.  Yet, doubly stupidly, I called some stupid thing stupid that a lot of girls liked.  What was I thinking??   I mean, I just figured everything was bound to go wrong anyway, so what harm could it do to speed up the process?  (And that probably was the case – but there was no need to compound it like that.)  Yet what I’m getting to is that people remembered this article literally two years later (for the record, it had no particularly sexist content in it aside from the use of the term “catty” as applied to sorority deliberations [which was merely accurate]).  Girls in specific houses held it against me – as I made conversation with them over the intervening years, they secretly seethed, their vast reservoir of inward resentment endlessly undulating.  I was floored when someone actually brought up the article senior year, two years later, after I had virtually forgotten it.  And if you think it helped me gain any ground with the unaffiliated girls – well, let’s just say that, in retrospect, they were probably rejected en masse for perfectly valid reasons.

So, the moral of this story is – just don’t say a bunch of dumb accurate crap about the sororities at Dartmouth.  They will hold it against you forever, snapping the memory up in their little Gucci-purse minds and storing them beside the keys to the Mercedes that Daddy bought them with the money he earned from his secret human-trafficking side project… Okay – that was way too far.  I’m sorry.  Again, ladies.  This was all so wrong.  Writing this was a terrible idea.  I mean, these sororities are everywhere – they’re Pan-Hellenic (meaning across all of Hellenica)– so they can haunt me forever.  You know how you might spill some chocolate milk on something you’re writing, and then you try to get it off, and soon it’s covered in a thousand different condiments and Bed Bath and Beyond products?  This whole rotten article is just like that.  Put it down to upstart inexperience.   Once more.