‘A Certain Tone of Feeling’ and ‘The Pen of the Gods’

by Sam Buntz

“A Certain Tone of Feeling”

I write about politics on my blog sometimes—and I always regret it. It’s not just that I have a penchant for second-guessing myself (which I do) but that I ultimately feel like, by spouting political jabber, I’m only buying into another moth-eaten conception of the “Good Life”—yet, a conception, always, at bottom, cold and inhuman. To take two extremes: Libertarianism and Communism both, in their popular expressions, are devoid of any feeling, any real hint of sympathy for the human race. In making their critiques, wrath is typically the resonant tone (wrath against exploiters or presumed exploiters and wrath against moochers or presumed moochers)—and wrath is always its own undertaker. The Collective and the Individual, as features of political textbooks, are both abstractions… the coldest, hardest abstractions. A purely mental “love” for humanity is really no love at all. To the contrary, only a special quality of feeling, like longing or devotion, can awaken the intellect to loftier perceptions—or make any of its twisting designs valid.

Living in Ayn Rand’s utopia or in Karl Marx’s utopia, we would be confronted with a strange situation—a fine-tuned adjustment of all externalities, leaving us, despite all promises, with no real inlet to our actual selves. The terrain of the psyche would still remain wild, despite the fact that the outer world had been “solved”: the inner self would be a baffled, chained passenger rotating on one ideal wheel or the other… Sympathy in all things—it’s an old Romantic truth, which the pundits of today (like the pundits of all ages) can never accept. But it’s still true—what Whitman said: “Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral.”

By getting political about this or that—even if I manage to cloak the politicking in jokes and ironies and self-conscious, fundamentally insincere attempts to provoke—seems contrary to these purposes. I’m leaving another, more important function unfulfilled—and it’s not just a function that I assume I’ve been assigned to fulfill in one way or another. It’s the primary duty (if I may modestly say so). The notion that we can somehow engineer human-heartedness is a pipe-dream—we can make it easier, by adjusting certain social conditions, but there is no formula and never will be. Only a person, acquainted with solitude, with silence, and with the inward reaches of the self, can ultimately access that tone of sacred feeling. It’s probably harder to come by than we assume.

 

“The Pen of the Gods”

If life is—contrary to some appearances—a story, and not just a fit, a frenzy, and a nightmare; if life has an author or even is an author… then, I sit content, “calm and composed before a thousand universes.” I think I really do believe that’s the case, and I find it genuinely astonishing. If the story really can swoop through the grossest absurdities, the worst atrocities, and somehow, in the fullness of time, still make sense, I am utterly humbled and amazed. If, in the beginning, everything was perfect and stayed perfect, obviously the story wouldn’t have been a story… But if the story can dare all things—can actually, at one point or another, weave through all possible digressions, all genuine variations of cause-and-effect, and all forms of stark nonsense—and still, in the end, remain a good story… well, then I tip my hat to the author or authors (considering that we, each of us, might be one of them) and play whatever part the pen has assigned. That’s more than good Stoic philosophy—it’s a commitment to decent writing.

I’m trying to keep awake and ready for the next twist in the Fable. I know it won’t be the scheme I’ve projected—since it’s never been—and part of the point of the Story is to baffle our expectations, to fulfill its own narrative demands rather than those of our own cheap-seat comments (we’re both spectators and characters, apparently). In Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” the twist is that there is no twist—nothing really happens to the main character, despite the fact that he expected something would, all his life. That Nothing is the Something that happens. And why isn’t that good enough for me… or you? Who am I to say it isn’t? But, of course, now that I’ve guessed that possible outcome, I’m hoping the Story won’t be so crude as to give me the very ending (or non-ending) I’ve been anticipating. I have more faith in the authors than that—I think the writers’ room will come up with something, even if it requires multiple incarnations as a catfish or a grasshopper or a speed freak. The sordid and mundane will be made meaningful in that long-awaited fullness of time. Oh, Divine Pen—blur no word, blot no line!

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