The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
Memorial Day weekend summons up lots of associations--the advent of summer and all that we associate with it. Warm weather, barbiques, bathing suit season. If you're like me, you grew up calling Memorial Day "Decoration Day" because that was the time when we decorated all the family graves--I told you in an earlier talk my family has been located for generations in SW Missouri so this meant a lot of grave decorating for us on Decoration Day and a lot of visiting at the cemeteries with friends we hadn't seen in a while. I don't remember that we ever had picnics but I do remember the usual run of war movies on television, and of course the veterans with their poppies at the grocery store and such places. The icons we associate with war and heroism have somehow strangely been transfered into advertising logos today--American flags at the car dealers, patriotism used as an appeal to make you need furniture or groceries, This is largely because the new era of war movies-- like two of my particular favorites Apolcalypse Now and The Thin Red Line--are more interested in the chaos of war, showing the surreal confusion that the soldiers felt and were lucky to survive. Some of the writers I teach wrote about that confusion too, at a time far before our postmodern era, when the "war to end all wars" was being fought by honorable men with a clear system of rules. Even before our modern era, writers like T.S. Eliot and ee cummings knew that the effects of the war on the human being were not good ones and that despite all the patriotic trappings, war did damage to the spirit of a person. Because they couldn't imagine anything worse than the horrors of the WWI battlefield, these writers identified what Eliot called a "disassociation of sensibility" which had to take place. In this context, sense had to be disconnected from sensibility, or head from heart in other words, in order to create a sane way to experience the modern world. It was a strategy for keeping the emotions from responding to things unthinkable.
The survival strategy was not an altogether good solution, however, in that the individual had to pay the price of separating mind from emotion eventually. Those of you who know Eliot know that he helped define our modern era with phrases like "the waste land" and "the hollow men" because he studied the effect of this disassociated sensibility on its people and its culture. My favorite illustration is in the character of J Alfred Prufrock a man who has squeezed off his heart to the point of sterility and now works his job, measuring out "his life with coffee spoons" only able to dream of a more sensuous side to life which he ultimately cannot take the risk of reaching for. Other writers of this era handle similar themes in stories about people who are very careful with their emotions--Hemingway for example is said to have created a verbal style which helps him convey caution in the very word choice and rhythm of his sentences. A Farewell to Arms is the very metered account of Frederick Henry's love for Catherine Barkley--when the feeling get too much, the words and sentences get very controlled. I could name more examples but the point I want to leave you with is that when sensibility becomes disassociated, there is a disconnect between brain and feelings and it was a problem that poets attempted to solve with their language.
Besides inventing the term "disassociation of sensibility" Eliot also invented a term for its cure--called the objective correlative--big words for an idea which is much simpler. The idea was to use an image which would in a lightening bolt reconnect the head to the heart so the language itself is the conduit between thought and feelings. Poets, of course, have always specialized in this use of language, called an image in poetic jargon. Images are words that create sensory impressions; by doing so, they take us almost viscerally where they want us to go-- As Eliot does when he says "now that the lilacs are in bloom, she keeps a bowl of lilacs in her room, and twists one in her fingers as she talks," or Robert Frost when he said "the woods are lovely, dark and deep. One of my special favorites is by W.C. Williams "This is just to say I have eaten the plums which were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold." As I said earlier, in that lightening bolt of a moment you can smell the lilacs, taste the plum, and you have yourself recreated the scene. You know the delicious sense of guilt which is not guilt at all which comes from having nailed the last of the plums in the refrigerator and so language has become feeling, brain has connected with the senses.
Earlier this year we heard Emma Emeka tell us about her mystical moments, and as many of you will remember, I told Emma in the talkback that I didn't think myself especially privy to that wavelength. Emma, being Emma, is perhaps more prone to receive her messages from God than I am. And earlier this year we heard Ellen Taylor tell us of what she believes are moments of grace, moments when we are saved from killing our kids after they throw tantrums at the grocery store. I have had these other ideas of objective correlative moments rattling around in my head for a while because what interests me is that they give me a way to explain those special moments in living when life makes instantaneously a miraculous kind of sense--one of those overwhelmingly true moments which come from things other than words and their associative power. Life at these times seems somehow connected; perhaps it is because we ourselves become the conduit for what is to be connected. The kinds of objective correlative moments I have been thinking about are I think also sometimes associated with sensory impressions. The smell of my peonies which takes me back to grade school, or hearing a few bars of "Love to Love you Baby" transports me back to my disco days, to the friends I discoed with, to a certain bar in Columbia, Mo., to my grad school years, an on and on and on. These moments serve to represent time and sometimes place. The very smallness of the trigger can seems disproportionate to their power call back whole sections of our lives. Who would guess that the smell of baby wipes can bring back to me most of Anna infancy. Or that the flavor of grape juice returns me to what then seemed to me endless, langourous, sleepy Sunday mornings at the First Christian Church in Neosho, Mo. Virginia Woolf describes these moments aptly as a time when there is somehow a stay against the hustle of the world. A moment of clarity where the private consciousness somehow seems to lift itself out of life for a few seconds and makes a permanence which she believes is more real than topical events, or even history. When you stop to think of some of your moments, my guess is that some of them seem more permanent than any of the clutter that fills up the nightly news, and more worth having.
The objective correlative is not just one of those left brain/right brain issues. As a poetic technique it was used in order to help the poet connect to his/her reader--a way via the senses of bridging the gap between people. When the images went to work, the poet had achieved aesthetic success. In some ways, I think of these moments as our own aesthetic successes. The harmony we feel is like that when a writer finds just the right word or the painter just the right brush stroke. Some of you who have read Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse will remember that in the novel one moment of completion comes when Mrs. Ramsay's roast beef is delivered to a table full of dinner guests and she feels herself to have created a momentary bit of unity and peace amidst a otherwise chaotic world. The scene is described like this: "Everything seemed right just now she had reached security,,,she hovered like a hawk suspended, like a flag [she] floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them eating there, from husband to children to friends, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said. Nothing could be said. There it was all around them. It partook of a piece of eternity. There is a coherence in things, a stability, something is immune from change. . . Of such moments, she thought, is made the thing that endures." Another character in this novel has a similar yet different moment of understanding. Lily Briscoe, the painter of the group, has struggled throughout the novel to finish her painting but somehow she just can't get it right. Finally understands that it is the brush stroke which will render the lighthouse that her painting needs for aesthetic completion. And significantly, it is on the last page of the novel when she figures that out so that novel and painting and reader achieve their completion simultaneously in one wonderful, satisfying moment.
I believe we all have our moments of success--whether they are, as with Mrs. Ramsey, when we are aware that a party is going particularly well, that your guests are connecting, or when we have had a particularly good talk with our children and feel as though we pulled things off really well. These are aesthetic moments of a different calibre to be sure, but moments of beauty nonetheless. Some of these moments have little connection to anything really. It could be the sound of bird or the smell of something good in the oven. I , for example, am lucky to live within earshot of the QU Chapel and so hourly can hear a few bars of music which---well, take me places that language cannot. In some of these moments beauty comes as truth--we feel things we never forget or see things that stay with us forever, but even the harder pieces of insight illustrate the point. Last weekend, for example, I watched Natural Born Killers--a movie I had been avoiding for years. In it, the main character, Micky is being interviewed just before he is to die by a smarmy and much more dishonest journalist; Micky says "one moment of realization is worth a thousand prayers." He's right, of course, Some of these moments bring pure delight, some an awesome sense of being a time traveler, others zing in the truth in a way that you never forget it.
What is particularly interesting in this is that you never know when you are going to be forging the links which are going to be material for your future objective correlative moments or who they will come from. And sometimes you wonder what you are doing that will be part of your children's lives. Despite all the field trips, lessons, and trips to the museum, it is likely to be the smell of your bubble bath or the music you played on the stereo that will redeem the past for them. Or perhaps it is a few lines from a childhood book that stays with all of you forever. Things like this tend to sneak up on you. I remember most distinctly being downstairs one Sunday morning about 2-3 years ago. It was Anna's birthday and also, coincidentally, the day of a pot luck , so we had brought in a cake. I was cutting it, looked up, and there in front of me I saw-- a roomful of friends, the faces and the people who I felt most connected to in Quincy, It was a remarkable moment because I felt and knew at one time. I knew that I had chosen to come to the UU church for a reason--in all honesty in the beginning it was to find a network of friends apart from my job, But at that moment I felt a whole lot more and it took me completely by surprise. I felt the connection and knew it. I felt like Mrs. Ramsey at her dinner party-- as she said, like I "hovered like a hawk suspended, or like a flag that floated" strangely aware of connections, of a strange stability in things, a connection.
And as you'll recall, I began by talking about Memorial Day and all that we associate with it. I wanted to lead you back into thoughts of summer before I end because as a word and as an image there is probably no other as evocative in our language. If your're a teacher or have students in your life, little need be said about what summer brings for you. But even if you aren't, I believe it is one of the times when we give ourselves over to more of our sensory lives . There is a special kind of timelessness and openness; there is more sun, more time for play, more time to sleep, more travel, more experience. If you think of summer as a trigger for one of those objective correlative moments, you can see how its images, the sights, sounds, smells. help us to memorialize different parts of our lives. So, as summer vacation begins, here's your homework: take stock of all your magic moments. You wouldn't think someone like Virginia Woolf and a character in Natural Born Killers would have much in common, but both would agree, As Micky said, a moment of realization is worth a thousand prayers.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.