how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Psalms, part three

bell tower

My last semester in graduate school I took a class called Poetics. It was one of those classes that shook me to my foundations– intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. The class discussions were heavy and illuminating, and exposed to me to so many ideas I’d never had the opportunity to work through before. We talked about the intersection of our lives with literature, and why that mattered to us. Why were we all a bunch of literature grad students, sitting around gabbing about Chaucer and Dante and Camus? What did any of that mean, really?

The breadth and depth of what we covered is too enormous to get into right now, but I’ll never forget the first time something we were talking about really connected with me. The professor had asked us to read a few articles about sublimity, and we read Peri Hypsous by Longinus. According to Longinus, the “sublime” is something in literature, or art, that is capable of evoking “ecstasy” in the reader. It is primarily a spiritual and emotional response, and Longinus argues that the presence of the sublime in writing elevates the piece to “art” or “greatness.” This has gradually evolved into aesthetic literary theory: studying literature for its beauty– its sublimity.

I was staring down at my desk, listening to the discussion, fiddling with my pen and trying to refrain from doodling. The reading had been extremely difficult for me, as I hadn’t really understood anything Longinus had argued, and it seemed inherently biased. How could he possibly make the argument that some literature is “great” because of what is essentially an emotional response? Emotions are subjective, and no reader is going to have the exact same response to a work as another reader. There’s no possible means of quantifying an emotional response. It’s a useless way of examining literature.

Something the professor asked caught my attention– she asked us when we had our first “sublime” response to literature. What was the very first piece we read that demanded that we engage all of our attention, emotional and intellectual? I tried to come up with something– but nearly all the supposedly “great” literature had never really stirred me in the way that any one in the room was talking about. I’d never had that kind of response. Plus, the kind of reactions they were talking about just sounded so . . . melodramatic. They were tossing around words like “awe” and “breathless” and “wonder.” No book had ever taken my breath away.

But, like a starburst, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” sprung into my mind, so fully-formed I could almost see the words springing up at me off the page– I could see my English Literature textbook from 11th grade in perfect detail. And the words from section IV were on the tip of my tongue, waiting to spill out.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

And then I was not in classroom DH 2009. I was in the rickety office chair with the padding falling out the bottom and the chipping layer of cream spray paint flaking onto the torn vinyl. I was sitting at my school desk in the office, picking at the exposed particle board on the corner, reading “The Hollow Men” for the first time. The introduction in my textbook had labeled the poem “post-modern” and was using it as an example of how post-modern poets didn’t care about communicating anything, just wrote their words into meaningless, empty space.

But when I read it . . . it struck a chord buried so deeply inside of me it was a tone I’d never heard before. It resonated, and I felt my whole body thrum like the lowest bell on a campanile. My fifteen-year-old brain had no idea what to do with the poem– there was no “literal” meaning I could grasp, although my textbook included footnotes on some of the symbolism and imagery and allusions. Nothing about it made logical sense, but somehow . . . somehow, I just knew what it meant– but it was a sightless, stumbling, expressionless knowing. I read it countless times that day, over and over again, and I could feel the words soaking into my bones and changing me. I could see “sunlight on a broken column.” I could hear whispering “as quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass.” I could hear the faint echo of children singing “here we go round the prickly pear.” I could touch the “raised stones” in the desert.

The present snapped me back, and returning to that moment jarred me, put my teeth on edge. Something about sitting in that room suddenly felt so tiny and cramped and airless.

“The Hollow Men.” I think I might have interrupted someone in the middle of a sentence. “T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men.'” I met my professor’s eyes, and I felt tears stinging the back of my throat, threatening to make me cry in a room full of people. “The only way I can even begin to understand it is through the sublime, through my emotional response.”

Joy leapt into her face– I don’t know if she knew what I’d just experienced, just remembered, but she understood. “Yes!” she exclaimed, her whole body coming alight with life and energy. “Yes, I know just what you mean. ‘The Hollow Men’ is a perfect example for this.”

At this point, the memory fades out into a ambiguous golden glow. I sat through the rest of the class, beaming to myself.


Even now, when I read “The Hollow Men,” I can feel the same inexorable tug in my viscera. There’s just something there that sings when I read it, and, to this day, I still consider it one of the most beautiful, haunting poems I’ve ever read.

It took me a long time to realize this, but the questions I had about the sublime and Longinus when I walked into that classroom were the absolutely wrong questions. Every person’s emotional response will be different, and yes, this response is completely unquantifiable.

That doesn’t matter.

That doesn’t matter at all.

Emotions, and emotional responses, are treated as less than. As insignificant. As unimportant. As incapable of contributing to a productive discussion. Emotions, and the people that have them, are denigrated, mocked, belittled, and shamed. Reason and intellect are the only things that can make a difference. It’s “just the facts, ma’am,” because how we feel about those facts is beside the point. Or, even daring to have feelings about the facts somehow removes some of the “fact-ness”.

This is wrong. This is completely and utterly inhuman. There’s no dichotomy here. Emotions don’t pose a threat to reason. The best example I can think of is Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n____,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

That single, beautiful sentence is emotion. It is emotion begging to be heard. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t ultimately begin to succeed because of any one person’s logic, or any lawyer’s ability to debate. It started here– when we, as a nation, looked into the eyes of a six year old girl.

That is what emotion can do, and that is why it is feared and controlled. Because emotion demands a response. Emotion can’t be ignored, or shouted down. Emotion is part of all of us, and when we dismiss it, we fail everything about ourselves.

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