In Tents #33 More on Figurative Language and Interpretation (Who You Callin’ a Moron?)

September, the beginning of school, thirty-seven years since I signed on with the BYU moving crew to move the books into the new library. That was back when the new library was not the addition under the quad between the library, administration building, Harris Fine Arts Center, and Jesse Knight Building. The new library then was a six-story addition south of the J Reuben Clark, Jr. Library, whose name had just been appropriated for the law school, which offered in return the name of Harold B. Lee.

I kept getting this odd sensation I had noticed occasionally for several years, of the world expanding and contracting around me. Now it was coming more regularly as I had to look up to assemble book shelves taller than myself. What had been a rather pleasant sensation became debilitating. I tried lowering my head and feeling the screws into the holes with my fingers. I ended up going by the MacDonald Health Center, who gave me a name for the sensation–dizziness. They sent me to the hospital who set up a spinal tap–without exploding drummer, though if I changed elevation from flat on my back Thanksgiving weekend I would enact the scripture about spueing out of the mouth.

One of the top brain surgeons in the country had just moved his practice from, I think, southern California to Orem, and he told me I had a benign sub-occipital neuroma on my eighth cranial nerve. He said they occured in about 1 in 133,000 in the population, though if you got one your chances of getting another doubled.

“I don’t know where he got that figure, maybe from autopsies. They’re very rare,” a doctor at the University of Washington told me 10 years later at a follow up. “Your operation probably put your hospital on the surgical map.”

Dr. Gaufin asked me if I wanted to spoil Christmas by being in the hospital, or by anticipation. I chose anticipation, and he scheduled a 9-hour operation for December 29th. It took half again that long because the tumor was closer to my brain stem than he had thought, and he took special care to preserve the nerve that controls facial movement, though he told me beforehand that he wouldn’t be able to preserve the hearing in my left ear. He told my father that working with that nerve had been like cutting one layer of Saran wrap into two layers.

But no one thought to tell my parents, and as 9 hours became hours ago my mother was frantic. My main memories of the next few days have to do with a thick bandage on the back of my neck and skull and a lot of pain, a splitting headache. I had a prescription for Darvon, but my father advised me to use it sparingly lest I become addicted.

I had a strange dream of touring through Europe with my friend Bucky Swindle, and he kept telling me to put my clothes on. I also dreamed I was a disembodied spirit who got to live forever, but I only got to sleep in other people’s dreams, and they were always waking up.

I also remember the nurse trying for what seemed a half hour or more to get an IV in–in two different places.

And for New Year’s Eve I remember my mother reading me a J. D. Salinger story. I was surprised because I couldn’t imagine her reading Catcher in the Rye. I gave up when the urge to talk like Holden Caulfield became overwhelming. I don’t know what story she read me, and I’m sure she doesn’t remember anymore.

I made a remarkably quick recovery, about six weeks, during which time Gary Gilmore became the first person executed in the country in ten years, a fact I mourned. June came and I headed for the ancestral dryfarm with my cousins, our fifth summer together. As my birthday drew nigh I got a letter from my brother Dennis one day. A birthday present, a poem:

Song for His Left Ear

for Harlow Soderborg Clark
surgically deaf

By sheer nerve you’ve gone Van Gogh one better:
cut your ear off from your brain, but
left left it blooming in your hair.
You’d auditioned city living nineteen years –
till thickened by the screech, slam, purr and snarl of traffic
one nerve sent early warning,
spun the city past your eyes,
milking your fear of falling and scalding the fall with fear.
The diagnosis care round with Thanksgiving.

Now there’s twice the life to hear with one ear shot.
Your surgeon only cut the old line out
in his New Year’s resolution of your lost tangle with balance;
his Christmas mining of the flesh against your skull
gave you full control of what you choose to hear . . .
as well as what you hear because it’s there.

You can listen for the fog that muffles headlights,
hear the current surge on filament and singe,
throwing the world’s shadow on the fabric of your mind;
you can hear Beethoven as he heard himself –
with the advantage of one ear for what musicians hear.
In the basement cool of your bed at night
you’ll rehearse the creak and shuffle of the stages of your life
till you hear the tears that start at the recall
and the flushing of the blood at the remembering
of the feats, humiliations, joys, defeats, applause . . .

when familiar with trhe motions and emotions of a life
you have ears for the inaudible
whispering you to act.

–Dennis Marden Clark

Dennis’s poems have always seemed to me miraculous. How does he do that? I savored his puns for years. And about 20 years later later I realized there was a double meaning in the title. It was not only an elegy for my left ear, but a song to be heard by the ear that was left, the right ear.

My father told me one day how Dennis works as a poet. I was taking a creative writing class and he mentioned that his oldest son would think about the words that described a situation or surrounded it, the words related to it, and would look up the synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, history, etymology, different meanings and connotations–and try to work as many of them into the poem as he could.

(I learned later that Wallace Stevens had a similar habit. When someone in his office was going to be in Hartford he’d have them stop by the library and copy some words from the OED, before there were copy machines, the writer emphasized.)

Now, I’ve just given you two accounts of my life. One is fairly factual with a little of what I was thinking at the time. The other is highly figurative. But the highly figurative account is also highly factual. Dr Gaufin did shear a sheer nerve at Christmas to resolve my losing tangle with balance, the diagnosis did come back at Thanksgiving, and with my left ear shot my right ear has to take in everything within earshot.

Even the most fanciful claim is factual. I can “hear Beethoven as he heard himself,” except I can’t, because I have “the advantage of one ear for what musicians hear.” But I only have one ear for what musicians and poets hear, so I’m in between hearing and non-hearing. Those two lines capture endless measures of my emotional, intellectual and physical life. Indeed, I spend a great deal of my life in the borderlands.

It is common wisdom to say that we shape the world when we put it into words. Granted, and yet . . . . I often hear overtones of “shape the world to our purposes” in that widsom, unchallenged overtones, unexamined overtones (the unexamined overtones may not be worth toning over).

I have often heard something to the effect that if a story has an archetypal structure it must be an archetypal story–not a historical account. In The Greek Myths, in his discussion of the story and variants of Iphigenia (though he didn’t include the cantata “Iphigenia in Brooklyn,” with those great lines “What is it like to be running? / Only she who is running knows, running knows, running knows) Robert Graves identifies the story of Jephtha’s daughter as a variant.

But that doesn’t mean the story of Jephtha sacrificing his daughter wasn’t a real event. In The Great Code, Northrop Frye mentions the story as an example of the rash word that cannot be unspoken. I’m closer to Graves’s view. He sees the story of Iphigenia as an allegory of priests of a male god suppressing a goddess’s priestesses. That is, Graves sees the story as a historical event rendered allegorically.

But there’s another reason I don’t see Jephtha’s words as unable to be unspoken. His words are not the only rash words in that vicinity of the Bible which redound upon a family member. In I Samuel 14:24 Saul says “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies.” Well, someone in the camp eats, and Saul can’t get any answer from the Lord about going out to battle.

Saul gathers the camp around and says, “Draw ye near hither, all the chief of the people: and know and see wherein this sin hath been this day. For as the Lord Liveth, which saveth Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die” (v 38-39) Rash words surely, and just as surely the lot falls on Jonathan, who was out raiding when his father decreed the fast, and therefore tasted some honey.

But the men of the camp won’t hear of Saul carrying out his rash words. “Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground [see Alma 40:23]; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not.”

The difference between Jephtha’s daughter and Saul’s son was that the latter had a name–and a fame that the people would not allow to be slain. Protection the nameless don’t have.

While writing this I kept thinking, “Why this particular example? I know where you’re going, but why this route?” And a few minutes ago I understood why. The point I’m heading towards is that our lives fall naturally into figurative and allegorical patterns. We all have similar shapes, we all have to eat and excrete, we like to debate and excecrate, to drink and think. We all have to sleep, and our dreaming is more than perchance-it’s part of our biology. We all repeat things that have happened before, replaying both great and small events.

A few minutes ago I remembered that Jonathan wasn’t the only person not to fast because he didn’t know a fast had been decreed. When Dennis graduated with his MLS he got an interview with LDS Church Archives. The Sunday before the interview my father asked why I wasn’t fasting with the rest of the family on Dennis’s behalf. I felt terrible. I also hadn’t known my father had called a fast. I also hadn’t known I was replaying an ancient story.

Which raises a question. What’s at stake in my telling these stories about myself, when the purpose in this column is (eventually) to examine the stories of Jesus’s encounters with the Pharisees? By and by, Lord, by and by. But first let me ask a question. Suppose in 150 years someone comes across “Song for His Left Ear,” and has no idea who Harlow Soderborg Clark is, but knows what “surgically deaf” means. Will it matter to that person whether there ever was a person with the initials HSC? Won’t the poem be just as effective if that’s just a name the poet picked out, like Ramon Fernandez? Tell me, won’t the poem be just as effective if it’s not attached to a person at all?

While we say we shape the world into words, it’s at least as accurate to say we shape our words into world, shape our words to capture the world, that when we set out to render or capture something in words, we shape our words to to capture the world as faithfully as we can.

Though the poem itself may be independent of the person whose operation inspired it, surely it’s worth thinking about the fact that the poet would not have written it if he wasn’t trying to capture the experience of someone he loved and cared about. I’ll add that Dannie Abse’s “In the Theatre” would not be nearly as tragic, eerie, and profoundly unsettling if he didn’t introduce it as his father’s account of botching a brain surgery. And I doubt Abse would have written the poem if he wasn’t trying to capture the experience of someone he loved and cared about.

A nod here to Leslie Norris, who introduced me to Abse’s work, and strove mightily to teach me that poetry need not be defined by Eliotic pyrotechnics, that poems could come from the mundane and joyous world around us, that we can recognize the poetry in that world and shape our words to catch or reflect or fit that poetry. Both Dennis Clark and Dannie Abse did a wonderful job of recognizing the poetry in the lives of family members, and shaping words to fit that poetry.

And if I were writing my philosophy of composition I would end here. But I’m not. I’m trying to understand the nature of figurative interpretations. We usually think figurative vs. literal, and not that something can be both figurative and literal. We also have a very old tradition–probably ancient even when Dante wrote to Con Grande about the levels of interpretation–of seeing figurative interpretation as superior to literal interpretation.

So let me repose the question I asked earlier about whether it really matters to readers of “Song for His Left Ear” whether the poem is based on someone’s actual experience.

In his introduction to The Book of J Harold Bloom proposes that J was a woman in David’s court. He sees a feminine sensibility in J’s stories, in the same way, I suppose that some Homer scholars see the portrait of Alcinous’s daughter Nausicaa in Odyssey Book 6 as the author’s self-portrait.

Now if you’ve never heard of J, the oversimplified explanation is that Bible scholars see four main sources for the Pentateuch. J mostly calls the deity Jahveh, E mostly calls the deity Elohim, P is concerned with priestly matters, and D is the Deuteronomist. R is the Redactor who intercut the narratives before paying Steven Peck a visit with a ms. called The Scholar of Moab. The Book of J is David Rosenberg’s verse translation of the J material as a continuous narrative.

For Harold Bloom J’s eternal feminine makes her Jahveh’s Jewish mother. This also means that the God we worship is a literary character, Bloom says. (Of course so is Sewkrates, Nausicaa, Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Jesus, Harold Bloom, Harlow Clark, and (if we are to believe what he says in “The Book of Imaginary Creatures) Jorge Luis Borges. Among others.)

So here’s the question. Do you pray to Huckleberry Finn? Did Hamlet or Anna Karenina suffer and die for your sins and sorrows? Those are not rhetorical questions. I’m well aware that there are people who would say the story of redemption is what saves us. The Story. It does not have to be tied to a physical act in historical time. The Story is very powerful to save, and will save us if we let it. If you believe this I’d like to hear why.

And if you believe in the story of Jesus, why that story rather than the story of sacrificed daughters named and unnamed, or the story of Huck Finn saying, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”?

And if you don’t believe that the story of redemption alone is sufficient, but rather that the story has to accurately, truthfully reflect a historical act, why? What does the historical act add to the story of redemption? And is there room for the story to be both a historical narrative and a highly figurative, symbolic act?

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3 Responses to In Tents #33 More on Figurative Language and Interpretation (Who You Callin’ a Moron?)

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    In one of his essays, Tolkien (who had quite a lot to say on this particular subject) noted that members of an aristocratic class who have been raised with a certain type of literature are as a result more likely to imitate that literature in real life. (I think this was with reference to The Battle of Maldon.) An obvious truth, but one that seems to be ignored when people assume that just because behavior is archetypal, it can’t also be real.

    More directly on the central point you raise, Tolkien’s argument to Lewis was that the story of Jesus was a myth that just happened to be real. All of the things Lewis liked in the legend of Baldur were things he could admire about the story of Jesus. For a Lewis who had come already to believe (again) in God but who had difficulty understanding the need for a Someone Else (a Redeemer), this explanation worked, at least somewhat. And so we have at least one example of a Christian brought to Christ by Norse myths, and thus a rather startling rejoinder to Alcuin’s question, “What has Ingeld [a hero of Norse epics] to do with Christ?”

    Tolkien, I suspect, would argue that its historical reality is what makes the story of Christ a miracle, an irruption of the divine into human life that has the power to save actual people. If you want historical people to be saved, and not merely narrative people, you need a historical Jesus. (This, by the way, is one of my beefs with Joseph Campbell: he celebrates religious story while denying the power thereof, in an exercise of wonderful condescenscion toward actual believers–which I mean here in its modern, negative sense. It baffles me why so many religious people like him so much.)

    On the other hand… I remember Tom Rogers’s recounting of the answer he got from a learned Indian scholar who could not think of any religious sages other than Jesus who both gave his life for his people and preached that one should love one’s enemies. And then there are the writings of Rene Girard, who also suggests (if I understand properly; most of my exposure to Girard is secondhand) that the story of Jesus is unique among the scapegoating religious narratives of the world. So maybe there are some qualitative differences about the *story* of Jesus, in addition to the difference that we just happen to think it is historically real.

  2. Harlow says:

    Thanks, Jonathan. I always enjoy your comments. Your answer to Alcuin dovetails nicely with the idea that all things bear witness of the Savior.

    The thing I most remember about Joseph Campbell’s BYU visit circa 1983 or 4 was the comment, “If your marriage isn’t the most intense mystical union of your life you’re not truly married.” Maybe Campbell was one of those who feel that the story itself is sufficient, that it doesn’t need to point to something else. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on Campbell.

    I remember Tom Rogers saying once–maybe during his BYU Forum address (around 1976?)–that Mormons are almost unique in considering their scriptures historical records. He didn’t expand a lot on that, but it may have been a comment on how we associate truth with historical reality. It’s a common perception that other religious cultures accept their myths as sacred stories, but not stories that actually happened. But that may well be the view of people who don’t believe someone else’s story, and because they don’t believe it, figure the other people don’t either.

    There’s a haunting story in Paula Gunn Allen’s anthology Song of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1974-1994, where the angular linear figures on petroglyphs in the US Southwest come to life at night, and one chooses an Anglo woman as his consort. There’s clearly a parallel with the story of the Annunciation, but the story isn’t a parody, and I don’t sense the author writing ironically. It feels to me like an invitation not just to suspend my disbelief, but to believe the story.

    As for Rene Girard, when he spoke at BYU around 1984 he said myths are stories a culture creates to justify its acts of violence against a member of the culture. Here’s an example of Girard’s approach: Imagine a story about two people who hear a prophecy that one will kill the other. Both take steps to stop the prophecy, one by fleeing, the other by trying to kill the other. Which one has acted morally?

    Now you may think I’m talking about the story of Harry Potter refusing to kill Lord Voldemort, but the story I’m talking about actually sees the person who tries to avoid killing another as someone who commits the sin of overweening pride.

    Girard uses the story of Oedipus a little differently, but it’s an apt example. He published the talk as “The Bible is Not a Myth” in Literature and Belief, 1984 I think.

    I’ve thought a lot about Girard’s definition when I ponder on how thrillers and crime dramas particularly set the villain up as a person who absolutely cannot be redeemed and must be destroyed.

  3. Dennis Clark says:

    Well, Harlow, when you say “My father told me one day how Dennis works as a poet. I was taking a creative writing class and he mentioned that his oldest son would think about the words that described a situation or surrounded it, the words related to it, and would look up the synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, history, etymology, different meanings and connotations–and try to work as many of them into the poem as he could,” you should be aware that that is false, false, false.

    I didn’t have to look up those words; I knew and I spew.

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