Keeping the (Poetic) Faith

watchman

“As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.”

“…a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” –Samuel Coleridge

Reading Go Set A Watchman brought me back to my childhood, when friends from the neighborhood moved away: when I would see them again, a year or two later, I was always surprised to see they had changed, and it took some time to adjust to these relatively new people. They were, at one time, both friends and strangers.

Much has been made of the characters’ changes in the novel, Atticus in particular. Along with the novel overall, these changes felt underdeveloped and rushed. I believe I would feel the same without comparison to To Kill A Mockingbird, but that is the most interesting part of the book: Watchman owes its existence to Mockingbird, yet the existence of the two books and the resulting inevitable comparisons will be troublesome, requiring at the very least, I believe, a certain suspension of disbelief.

Much of the dialogue was flat, but the most difficult parts to read were the parts from Atticus. As I read, I waited for him to redeem himself: I expected some simple, folksy wisdom regarding states’ rights, maybe some empathy for people who are slow to accept change, something that would complicate his character and help me understand him and accept the difference. Nothing came.

In the end, the book focuses on Jean Louise’s willingness to accept this new Atticus. She had, like many of us, a view of this man that was entirely contrary to this new version. Along with her, readers cringe and are left to come to their own place of acceptance. What else are we to do? This is a fictional character, a “shadow of imagination.”

In this way, Watchman turns Mockingbird on its head, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Watchman carries the emotional appeal of Mockingbird to its logical end: are we willing to see things from Atticus’s new point of view?

And this then is how the book may be an important one for this time, because of issues like same-sex marriage and the Confederate flag. The question the novel raises is interestingly paradoxical: can people be tolerant of those seen as intolerant? It might be a question we need to answer as a society if we are to continue to thrive.

“As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.” –Uncle Jack

Change is inevitable. People change. Values change. Technologies change. However, change’s inevitability should not be used as a logical argument.

The novel argues neither for nor against change. It does instead argue for tolerance, but not the nice-sounding tolerance espoused by Mockingbird, but what might be called “reverse tolerance”: a tolerance of those who are viewed as intolerant.

Had Atticus focused more on states’ rights to explain his role in the citizen’s council, he would be a more interesting character; instead he just sounds simple and scared of change. Although this is a work of fiction and Atticus is fake, a “shadow of imagination,” the issues of the novel and of contemporary society are real, as is the fear, particularly when dealing with issues of culture, religion, and sexuality.

Advertisements

When Life Imitates Reading The Scarlet Letter

You are staring at a page that is thick with words. The 20141229_105900paragraphs are page-length and there is little white space providing relief. You’ve been reading for some time now, but it nothing much, if anything, has happened. Honestly, you are quite confused by it all, you are not enjoying it (this probably wasn’t a choice book), and you feel the pressure to keep up. You are not sure if you are up to this challenge, and even if a large part of you doesn’t care about any of it, this reading is unavoidable and there remains a nagging sense that not being up to the challenge says something about you and that falling short will somehow negatively alter your life’s path.


You are staring into the darkness of the situation. Maybe someone has died or is dying. Maybe you just failed miserably and publicly and are now questioning other parts of yourself. Maybe it’s a serious no-win decision. Maybe someone left you for good or worse, simply turned their back on you. Whatever it is, it consumes you. It dominates every thought, and makes it seem as if nothing else is happening. Honestly, you are quite confused by it all, you are definitely not enjoying it, and you are aware, vaguely, that life is going on for others who are leaving you behind. You are fairly sure you are not up to this challenge—and while it’s clearly not your fault, or while there are reasons to explain or justify your role, there is no avoiding it and you are certain that falling short here will speak volumes about your limited worth as a human being.


The teacher has spoken of symbolism, metonymy, theme. Somewhere in this relentless outpouring of words there lies some deeper meaning (maybe a line or two of clarity?) or wisdom. There will be a test. You notice an inverse relationship: the less clear a passage, the more meaningful it seems. But this only slows you further, frustrates you more. This, this is why people hate reading. You read a line like this:

“Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life.”

You think, that may be an example of metonymy, but you still aren’t sure what is happening, or why; and only a slight respect for a book that has stuck around for more than a century and the fear of a library fine keeps you from throwing the book away. You despair, wishing you could go read something else, something clearer, an instruction manual perhaps, something that will just tell you what you need to know.


You’ve heard of silver linings and lights at the ends of tunnels. Things happen for a reason. You hope. This is a test; you are responsible for finding the meaning. The darker the moment, the harder you must look. Life slows more as you look for signs everywhere. You are going, hypothetically, past an animal hospital. On the sign it says, maybe, “A healthy pet is a happy pet,” and because you’re desperate for meaning (maybe an answer or simple solution?), you wonder if this could be saying something to you specifically: maybe you should be exercising more; maybe you’ve been neglecting those you love. This is just one example: you see meaning, or potential meaning, everywhere, even though you still aren’t sure what is happening, or why; and this relentless interpretation of all of life’s details is exhausting. You despair, wishing you could go back to a time when an animal hospital sign could be just an animal hospital sign, when there was no need for deeper meaning.


You know how to read. It isn’t the words—most of them, at least—that are giving you problems. It’s the way the words are strung together that’s giving you fits. In a perfect world, you would be sailing through this book, and the symbolic parts would glow with a holy light. But this is a world of broken mirrors, and you’re struggling. What you need is a filter: the ability to decide which words are more important than others.

You need to decide where the meaning is effectively and efficiently. And the patience to wait when it doesn’t.

If you’re just reading, take heart. This is just a book; this is just a test. Learning now to plod away, to keep your eyes moving, and training your mind to detect meaning and significance and to ignore what can be ignored. In a perfect word, these bad things wouldn’t happen, and everything would simply glow with holy light. But this is a world of broken mirrors, and we all struggle. What we all need is a filter: the ability to decide which words are more important than others.

We need to decide where the meaning is effectively and efficiently. And the patience to wait when it doesn’t.