The severe Schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible.– Sir T. Browne
At times in this series of essays, I have alluded to the trade at which I toil throughout the week, but I have not fully explained that my trade–that of an educator and literary critic–is one based on the modern philosophy of contradiction. I say contradiction because the modern theory is that a contradiction is not only true but the basis and foundation for all thought. It is a contradiction to say that absolute truth does not exist and then to stake one’s whole life and being on the truthfulness of that statement. In the same way, the modern will prance around and state absurdities like “gender is a fiction” or “race does not actually exist” and then base his entire theory of gender and race on the reality of gender and race. Now, truth may have its foundation in paradox. Man may be most alive when he gives up his life for another. But to waltz around this planet and proclaim that nothing of consequence actually exists is the same as saying the theorist does not exist. And if the theorist does not exist, it becomes increasingly hard to take the theorist seriously–as hard as any other fiction. It would certainly not be such a horrible thing if the theorist was a fiction, for then no one would actually listen to him. But the modern contradiction is that the theorist proclaims that he’s a fiction but very much asks you to treat him as a reality.
Now, theorists of literature who hold this position ought naturally to take little stock in those real theorists and be only concerned with fiction. Philosophies should not be made from Hegel or Heidegger; they should be made from Huck Finn and Boo Radley. The reality, of course, is that the last thing that should be taken seriously in a literature classroom is literature. A modern classroom reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets will talk for forty-five minutes about the (fictional) gender of the recipient and five minutes about the words on the page or love. The unfortunate reality is that the theorist has now trumped the artist. We used to, albeit incorrectly, assert “art for art’s sake.” We now proclaim “theory for theory’s sake.” Classes and seminars are devoted to theory instead of art. And the real reason the theorist is so afraid of the artist is because the artist shows the theorist that the most beautiful things in this world are the general truths all men share. The man who is truly literary is that man who acknowledges those common things that bind us and yet can see them as if they were uncommon.
Because much of my time is spent listening to lunatic theories, I try to spend a good deal of time with people who I deem common men–those Joe Gargery’s who walk among us. The academic should do a couple of things each week to escape that geyser of nonsense that springs forth from his colleagues on a daily basis. He ought to spend a good amount of time outside, and he ought to have as many discussions as possible with common men–men that care nothing for theory because common sense is their guide. I say, the modern academic would do well to try out his theory on the janitor. But as I was saying, this past week I thought it wise to go on an epic hike with two friends who know nothing about literary theory but know enough of Tolkien to know beauty when they see it. The hike consisted of treacherous marshes, and we weaved our way through bramble that towered over our heads. It happened that we were in a rather large cove, and peering out to the west, we spotted, about a mile by way of the flight, that area of land that was the corner of the cove and the larger part of the lake. As common men, we decided that it would be foolish not to make way to that area where we would set up a fire for dinner. So we headed out through the marshes and bramble, located in various coves within the larger cover. Thundering sounds proceeded from the nearby army base, and we pretended to believe that old ships were attacking each other across the way.
Over two and a half hours later, we arrived at our destination just as the sun was setting over the northwest banks of the lake. A small boat was within the cove, but presumably after hearing us jabber on about hitching a ride back, it left us. As that sun slowly sank and gave off its final flares, our own fire–a tiny sun in itself–commenced its flames, and two pipes were pulled out of back packs, in which coal black tobacco was also lit making yet two more tiny red suns in our smoking bowls. Our three tiny suns worked in unison with the larger sun as we waited for the fire to die down and produce red coals. I mentioned we should take our shirts off and find a conch so we would know who was allowed to make decisions. Only one of my common friends got the reference, but I must note he only agreed and didn’t say a word about gender.
The sun did descend finally and it became increasingly difficult for us to see. I must note how much we did see, however, even after the sun was firmly set beyond the hills. Dinner was eaten in the shadows of dusk on a flat piece of wood and a spoon made from a stick. We made up some modern, nonsensical poems about the cove but made sure they were very serious, as most modern poetry is. Eventually, the sun completely descended and thousands of new suns shone forth against the black sky–suns that complimented the embers in our bowls and the fire. After pushing the fire off the cliff and packing our bags, we headed back in the cold and dark. The temperature had dropped ten to fifteen degrees, and without a flashlight, it was nigh impossible to see.
We had to once again make our way through the tall bramble, but this time, we did so with only a flashlight as our guide. About three-quarters of the way through, we noticed a rumbling of some sort in the bramble. We froze. We waited. Cautiously walking toward the noise–our destination lie in that direction–we remembered that earlier we heard the sound of coyotes in the distance. But with one mighty thrust the great blue heron appeared from behind the bramble scurrying along the ground with a hurt wing. We were about ten feet from the beast, and its wings and bill looked quite enormous from up so close. A man is fortunate to see these great beasts in their majestic flight. He is even more fortunate to see them perched on a stone like a great king from a short distance. But never had I observed the great heron take on the attitude of fear. It had always looked in control; it had always looked as the authority of the cove. And now here were three bumbling explorers with a flashlight, staring with wide eyes at the majestic creature who could peck our eyes out with its beak–at least four feet long. And yet we are the ones sending fear into the heron. We were the ones who could be ambling about in the wilderness and find great wonder in the world. I say, it is the common man who alone is left to wonder in this world. The theorists have so filled their heads theory, they’ve forgotten that theory is only a sign pointing to a reality. “Theory for theory’s sake” is as helpful as “air for air’s sake.” You necessarily need theory, but if you do not use theory to enjoy literature but literature to enjoy theory, you will only learn to read literature poorly and enjoy bronze over gold. You will, in effect, be a great heron who cannot fly because he believes his wings are made for walking. And if the theory itself is a theory of fiction, then I suppose he will never fly, for he is a heron without wings.
Sam Snow, theficklefarce.com
Written with a head cold,
October 26, 2014
Transcribed by Adam the Scribe II
In The Catacombs of Kansas State,
October 28, 2014
By Cedric Lockwood Morris
Oil on canvas, 1941