Since Friday I’ve been working on my relationship, sharing visualizations of inconceivably precious forms of intimacy. The organizing principles are healing and celebration, involving us in a powerful whirlpool of emotions, running the gamut from grief to dizzying passion. Underneath that runs a steady flow that guides us into deeper and broader connections. So we found ourselves kneeling on the floor, I catching her long hair from behind and stretching her will out into the world where it caught whales and trees and birds, and then her pushing me down on the bed and slowly dragging those long strands over my face so that understanding and love can bring order to life.
And then she stops and wonders what she is doing in the midst of this process, not conscious of the powers she possesses and so uncertain of her ability to manage the dangers she perceives. As I struggle to formulate an assurance, we spin apart. My last clear communication from her ended with her disappearance into a vortex of female faces, creating a cocoon in which she could incubate, but also from which others offered themselves as alternatives. I simply re-iterated my commitment to the self-discovery of my lady, and let her depart with the assurance that I would meet her on the other side to be certain that nothing had been lost.
In the pauses in this work, I’ve been re-reading Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets. Santayana, philosopher and Christian apologist, combines a deep knowledge of culture and beautiful literary style in the service of revealing the choices we face as we struggle to find meaning and purpose in life. Santayana offers the works of Goethe, Lucretius and Dante as a progression that illuminates the submission of our animal nature to moral discernment, unfortunately with the growing risk of detachment from the joys and perils of human experience. Due to this tension, Santayana finds no superior voice among the three, instead celebrating each as a trustworthy illuminator of the power found in choosing either to do (Goethe), to create (Lucretius) or to serve a higher purpose (Dante).
To do is exemplary because it protects us from nihilism, the conclusion that any single life is insignificant and useless. In exploring this path, Goethe’s anti-hero Faust learns to discard self-judgment for personal wrongs committed against others, and so becomes capable of ruling an entire nation, granting purpose to his people by immersing them in struggle. Upon his death at one hundred years, Faust vanquishes Mephistopheles, demonic grantor of mystical power, who predicted that Faust would eventually learn to surrender purpose and be content with any experience at all, even to lick the dust. Instead, having demonstrated that each individual can find purpose in creating struggle against the world, Faust’s soul is received by angels and carried up to heaven.
Against this idea that we are glorified by struggle, Lucretius celebrates the orderly structure of the world, filled with creative forces that reclaim resources liberated by death. The philosophy of materialism stretches even further, propelling scientific study that allows the rational mind creative opportunities that would never be revealed in nature, and so to engage in an orderly process of improving the human condition. Among the virtues of Lucretius’s program, Santayana heralds self-control, and the defeat of superstition – the latter often abused by religious illusionists to steal the power of an adherent’s natural urge to improve his lot. Chief among the defects is timidity that arises from an awareness of life’s fragility, timidity heightened by the view that we had best live as though this is the only life we have – timidity that would be scorned by Goethe.
Of course, most of history is the story of how those characterized by Goethe twist the power liberating by understanding to subdue ever larger populations. Dante, following Aristotle, celebrates adherence to moral codes that sustain social order. Even more, in an era of deep Christian faith, Dante heralded the possibility of human perfection, of a rising into another realm in which all struggle would cease, each individual recognizing the benefits of submission to the will of a God that loved them without reservation. Dante’s ambition is for every person to be freed from constraints, excepting only the constraint to submit to the dictates of being guided by God’s love for others. Notwithstanding Dante’s outraged prosecution of the authorities of his era, Santayana follows Lucretius in decrying the passivity consequent to subscription to any externally imposed morality.
After his comparative analysis of the three works, Santayana proposes that a fourth poet must be sought to resolve the contradictions between the three philosophies, a poet whose celebration of vitality yet proves that self-control and other-service lead us into our most powerful and satisfying experiences. Incongruously in the context of his analysis, my reaction was “That would have to be a woman.”
But as I sat and pondered my experiences since Friday, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was a thread that tied all of this together. Santayana brings us the writing of three iconoclasts, men who felt a strong need to assert themselves against the society they inhabited, each with a dour view of the fairness of life. And in my relationship, we have this expansion into ever greater realms of experience that recoils against fear of personal insufficiency. In both cases, the problem is other-trust. Faust trusts only in himself; Lucretius trusts only in personal discernment; Dante trusts only in God; and my lady does not trust that others will support our relationship.
What does it take, to lay mistrust to rest? We have the evidence of Good Friday services, in which multitudes gather to celebrate the worthiness of a man that was willing to die to redeem others of their faults, followed by Easter in which the resurrection proves the overwhelming power committed by God to the realization of that redemption. How can we not be discouraged by this standard of loving, a standard that cannot possibly be sustained in relationships between lesser beings?
Enough: it was done. The powers that stood behind Jesus did so because he arose in confrontation with sin, and in surrendering to its power became capable of diagnosing it. The era to come will be the era of healing in which those that suffer obtain the power to send sin on its way.
Lucretius, in elaborating the dynamic between creativity and destruction, chose the mythical figure of Venus to represent the surging of life, and the figure of Mars as the force of destruction. In the introduction to his unfinished work, Lucretius pleads with Mars to surrender to the pleasures of Venus’s bower, protecting the poet from interruption during his great task. This pairing is not unique to Greek mythology: in the Hindu pantheon, Parvati is responsible for cooling Shiva’s passions after he enters his dance of destruction. In celebrating struggle Goethe obviously sides with Mars, while Dante casts theology in the person of his beloved Beatrice.
The idea that women are responsible for tempering the wildness of men is buried deep in our cultural heritage. In women, that belief manifests as a cautious predisposition to believe that men will turn their passions against their lovers. My prayer is that women cast aside their ancient burden and organize their fertile energies around men of healing and constructive intelligence. Rather than catering to Mars, they should amplify the character of Apollo. Cast aside the terrorist to invest your energies in the healer, and discover reciprocity for your trust.