aye I eye i

Well, it was great to hear the Missouri Poet Laureate, Donald Clewell, speak on one of my favorite topics — me.  Well, not me personally, and not him necessarily, but on the “I” of lyric poetry, which may or may not be autobiographical, but is often quite personal.  As my mythology students could tell you — I deal with this in two ways in my class on Greek mythology.   I try to dispel their notion that the “biographical” details provided by Hesiod in his poems, Theogony and Works and Days, really tell us anything about the poet.  In the first poem, about the creation of the gods and the world we know (or rather that he knew), Hesiod has to give himself some authority to speak on such lofty matters — so he tells the story of how the Muses appeared to him and invested him with poetic gifts as he tended sheep on Mt. Helicon in Boeotia.  I point out that Hesiod did not suddenly go from shepherd one day to poet the next, that becoming an oral poet would require long years of apprenticeship.  If Hesiod had such a moment of revelation, it likely occurred when he was a little boy.  Still, that story carries some truth — Hesiod does have a poetic gift as demonstrated by his poem, and so the Muses do speak to him, in some way.  In the Works and Days, a poem about farming, Hesiod claims that his brother, Perses, is older but is lazy and so the family farm is going to seed, but first Hesiod’s going to give him some advice. Hesiod the farmer doesn’t make any more sense than Hesiod the shepherd, and Hesiod would not be both — in the world Hesiod lived in, those two jobs would be separate jobs.  So again, we have Hesiod playing a role to help him establish his bona fides and authority. 

And there are several ancient lyric poets who tell about themselves, but how much of what they say is autobiographical, and how much is just a poetic persona — that’s not clear.  We have no problem with stand-up comics doing their shtick — which is always about them, but how much “really” happened, and how much is their reworking of raw material into their routine — that we cannot determine.  And, with comics, I’m not sure we care.  But even if we are talking about our own autobiography, the “I” in our story varies somewhat from our bodily presence in the world.  Our ego is intent on seeing ourselves in a particular way so that we rewrite our stories as we go along.  And we see ourselves in a way that is not always shared by those around us.  And we may have a narrative running in our heads that we mold our situation to fit.  I often tell people that, in the story of my life, I am Dr. Watson, which makes me somewhat like Woody Allen‘s character in Play It Again, Sam! where he fantasizes his ex-wife traveling around the country, Easy Rider style, and while making out with a biker, she notes, “My husband, he was a watcher!” to which the biker responds, with vigor, “Me, I’m a doer, baby!”  Well, I’m more of a watcher.  In other words, I am an eye.  Not literally, besides I generally see more with my mind than I do with my eyes — my eyesight  is often quite dicey.  Of course, that sort of vision brings in another i — imagination. There’s no reason why I can’t use a capital I for imagination — it’s just that I like the lower case i, and i like it too.  I’m sure it has to do with the dot — the i looks like a unisex restroom icon.  In addition, “i” is also an imaginary number (it is the square root of -1), which is pretty cool.  There’s so much I/i interference in our apprehension of the world — our senses are not entirely accurate, and then there’s our ego  (Latin for “I” standing in for Freud’s “ich,” German for “I”) — which works from the premise that we are characters with a certain personality, acting in a certain way, according to laws as the ego imagines them.  So we get information through equipment that isn’t totally reliable, and as we get older, that equipment seems to get less and less reliable (where’s the warranty?), and then we take that information and interpret it in the context of the “I” we imagine ourselves to be (which is not always the “You” other people see us as).  It can get very confusing, especially in times when our self-image, or our world view (in which we see ourselves as a part) is strongly challenged.  Do we modify our “I” to fit the changed circumstances?  Or do we deny the changed circumstances as illusory or unimportant?  I’m afraid I do both from time to time. I think that we must weigh any new information that runs counter to our theoretical “I” — just as we are not always right, neither is exterior information always correct.

Lately, I’ve been reading a book called Freedom Moves West, a history of the Western Unitarian Conference.  That conference had some really rocky times.  Cut off from the constant reinforcement of religious orthodoxy among the Unitarians of New England (and not all were that orthodox — look at Emerson, Thoreau, and Parker, for instance), the Unitarians of the West were often on their own to improvise their position based on their conscience, and the information they received on the frontier.  This freedom ultimately led to a strong humanism in the Western UU churches (not all, but a lot) and some in the AUA saw a real danger in taking freedom too far — without an anchoring in Christianity (albeit with a human Christ) the Unitarian orthodoxy felt that it was all just empty posturing and too much freedom was a danger to rather than a value for religious movement.  The Unitarian ego (Eastern chapter, at any rate) could not fit the new information with their self image, and the freer Western Conference could not tolerate what they saw as the shackles of orthodoxy on their freedom to think and imagine and worship. 

I’ve known some people who could not give up the structures of the past — a friend of mine once put it this way — if he were to admit some wiggle room in a particular area of belief then his whole life to that point would have been in vain.  He could not let go of the ego he always saw himself as.  I remember thinking, when he said this, that such a position often ends up being on the wrong side of history.  It also sounded to me that maintaining consistency in his vision of himself and his life was more important to him than entertaining any doubt.  It also reminded me of groups like the French Academy which tries to enforce orthodoxy in the French language — they often come across as fuddy-duddies when they rail against phrases like “le weekend” as not being good French.  They may be right, but, over-time, they’ll likely be overruled. 

Part of the difficulty is seeing oneself, one’s organization, one’s language as a fixed entity, something etched in stone. Languages are slippery things, always changing (often slowly, sometimes quickly), and we are always changing so long as we are alive — we can deny the change, or accept it, or even use the change for a greater transformation, but the change is happening.  Somehow, in the “I” we see ourselves as being, there has to be some room for i (imagination, or improvisation).  We are always in dialog, not only with others, but with ourselves.  At times, this can seem quite intimidating and exhausting, but a lot of the time I’m glad for my changing “I” and to it, I say “Aye, aye!”

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