The Myth of Objectivity in Journalism

The Myth of Objectivity in Journalism :
A Commentary

Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

The oft-stated and highly desired goal of modern journalism is objectivity, the detached and unprejudiced gathering and dissemination of news and information. Such objectivity can allow people to arrive at decisions about the world and events occurring in it without the journalist’s subjective views influencing the acceptance or rejection of information. Few whose aim is a populace making decisions based on facts rather than prejudice or superstition would argue with such a goal.

It’s a pity that such a goal is impossible to achieve. As long as human beings gather and disseminate news and information, objectivity is an unrealizable dream.

Perhaps a good place to begin would be with a definition of terms. I think we can generally agree that the definition of objective is being without prejudice or bias, the presence of full understanding, honest, just and free from improper influence. Subjective, on the other hand, would be peculiar to a particular individual as modified by individual bias and limitations. Can we all agree those are reasonable definitions? Then let’s see how they apply to journalism.

Let’s begin with an examination of how people gather information about the world around them in order to arrive at what they consider an objective view of it.

The brain has no actual, physical contact with the world. It doesn’t even have pain nerves, and thus needs no anesthesia when operated upon (of course, the skin of the scalp and the bone of the skull are not likewise blessed and do require anesthesia when the brain is operated on). Everything the brain knows or reacts to comes to it in only one way: through the senses.

People, like all other sensate beings on Earth, gather their information through their senses. Human senses include the ability to detect electromagnetic waves in the 3900-7500 angstrom range, air waves in the 20 to 20,000 beats per second, air-borne and liquid-borne molecules of proper size, quantity and configuration, and to generate nerve impulses triggered by objects impinging on body surfaces with enough force. These senses are better known as sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, and are the only methods, as far as we know, of perceiving what exists and happens in the world around us.

However, when one notices the limits on each sense, one cannot fail to realize that it is impossible for any person to perceive all there is to perceive. The electromagnetic spectrum extends far below into the ultraviolet and radiation and above into the infrared and radio than the narrow visible light range that humans can see. Many animals can hear and smell far better than humans. Touch requires an actual physical presence with the object being touched.

Humans, however, do not have to rely only upon their personal senses to gather information about the world. They can also make use of extrasomatic (meaning «out of the body») senses.

Humans construct instruments and machines, extrasomatic senses, that can perceive what humans can not. The microscope and the telescope can make the too small or the too distant to see visible. Radio telescopes, X-ray machines and infrared film and nightvision scopes can allow a human to see mechanically or by computer generated views far above and below visible light. Microphones, amplifiers and speakers can detect and convert to the audible range sounds above and below the human range of audibility. However, no machine can replace the sense of touch, and the most advanced gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (a machine designed to detect, analyze and identify minute quantities of molecules that humans can smell or taste) is not even close to as sensitive as the human tongue and nose, and the latter has only one-millionth the sensitivity of a bloodhound dog’s.

Of course, the above has very little to do with the average person since the average person does not walk around with either a radio telescope or a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. Average people depend on their own senses to identify what is in the world around them. In addition, people design instruments and machines to detect what the builders expect to detect: if the unexpected appears often it is rejected as anomalous, a flaw in the equipment, or misreading of the data. A prime example of this is the Bell scientists who serendipitously discovered the background radiation of the universe. They spent weeks trying to get the noise created by the radiation out of their instruments and finally concluded that the fault wasn’t in the instruments but in what they expected the instruments to do. That did not include detecting the noise.

There are other extrasomatic senses. Such extrasomatic senses include printed material such as books and newspapers, films, video and audio tapes, and radio and television. With these it is possible to be told or shown what other people have sensed. However, such sources of information have the built-in drawback of being constructed from the limited senses of the authors. Add the complicating factor of the limited communication media of words and images rather than a direct communication of the sensations experienced and vicarious experience is a mere shadow of the real thing.

Due to the limitations on perception the world must be a construct, an illusion created from the raw material of photons, pressure waves, and other forms of primary sensory stimuli. These stimuli people process into abstract symbols such as «red» for a color or «sweet» for a taste. The abstract symbols are then assembled via the nervous system into conscious experience of people, places, and things.

As external realities, the people, the places, and the things exist only as bare frameworks. The mind projects covering, form, warmth, color, and other attributes which the mind itself creates onto them. Thus each mind manufactures its own illusory world upon a minimum of shared reality. The shared reality is those things that people sense in common: the feel of corduroy, the smell of a rose, the appearance of a tree, the sound of a violin, the taste of an apple.

People may share reality, but the world constructed from that reality can and does vary according to each individual’s perception. Each person’s world conforms to its own set of culturally defined expectations and in such a way as to appear satisfyingly real in total to its creator. The taste of roasted beetle grubs can be delicious or repulsive depending upon the taster’s culture. The definition of feminine or masculine beauty depends on if the viewer is European or Australian bushman. As Arthur Clarke says, «any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.» Thus if a culture does not include television as a natural part of its world, it must be un- or supernatural. Any report of television to others in that culture is considered unreliable, no matter how much a part of the reality of other cultures television might be.

Preconceptions, prejudices, biases, cultural norms and mores, education, superstition, peer opinion, all play their role in an people creating their own realities. This process I call filtering.

No matter what the senses perceive, the mind has to understand the information in terms that it can believe. This information filters through the person’s experience, education, culture and upbringing. These in turn can affect the person’s sense of politics, morality, religion, race, sex, economics, and even humor. These filters are preconceptions, biases, prejudices and attitudes that influence the way the mind processes information and therefore how the individual constructs his or her world and reality.

For example, several witnesses see a traffic accident no one could survive. Nonetheless, nobody is hurt. All the witnesses see, objectively, the same event. Yet, what they «see» differs according to how they filter the information: a devoutly religious person will see the hand of God in sparing the victims; a politician may see a necessity for government action to make that intersection safer; an attorney may see a potential lawsuit; a sexist may blame a driver of the opposite sex. It is a problem well known to law enforcement and the legal profession: eye witnesses can’t seem to agree on what they saw. It is not the fault of the witness. It is simply that what is perceived must be understood, and understanding usually comes through relating new information to old. Whatever the old information is influences how the new is understood.

For another example, take the case of several young black men walking down a street. What are they: a peace gathering, a civil rights march, a street gang, a protest parade, the local black student union? Or are they simply several young black men who, by pure chance, happen to be walking in the same direction at a pace sufficient to bring them close together? Any of the above answers could be correct. They could also all be wrong. Until one asks each man what he is doing, preconception will create the reality of the observer. Of course, even the post-questioning reality can be wrong if one or more of the men lie.

Because the world is a subjective construct unique to each person, it isn’t possible for there to be an objective discussion of the world or the events that take place in it. What is possible is for people to describe the world they have created on the basis of what they have perceived.

However, even after a description the realities of both parties will not perfectly coincide. Until ESP becomes a viable form of communication, descriptions must be in words. However, words are notoriously slippery things: no word means the same thing to everybody or even anybody. For example, the lead in a news story might be, «There was a demonstration in downtown Chicago today.» What does «demonstration» mean: a protest march, a Cuisinart sales show, an example during a lecture? Where exactly is «downtown Chicago «? When is «today»?

Although the person making the statement knows what he or she means, the message received by a listener may bear little or no relationship to that intended. Thus, the rest of the news story is an attempt to explain what the lead means. However, bear in mind that the explanation must necessarily use words, which in turn need explaining—with words. It thus appears impossible for anybody to realize objectively what another person has perceived.

(The sentence above contains an example: my thesaurus got a workout as I examined and rejected more than one hundred words before selecting «realize» and «perceived» as those I deemed most likely to be useful to the reader in understanding my point. I could, of course, be wrong.)

Granting that a sense of objective reality is not possible, how much less possible objectivity must be when reporting the news.

Journalism requires making a series of decisions, the first and most important deciding just what is news. Derived from the word «new» it can be any information that an individual has not already received. However, in modern parlance news is a report of recent events or a matter of interest to newspaper readers or newscast listeners. This definition can be narrowed further. After all, if news is that which is of interest to newspaper readers then the comics, the horoscope and the crossword puzzle are news, a conclusion with which few would agree. Let us, for convenience, define news as a report of recent events.

The first decision to make is what is recent: today, yesterday, last week, five minutes ago, since the last news report? Someone, in journalism usually an editor, makes this decision, and thus that person’s world determines what is recent.

Then there is the necessity to determine what events constitute news: disasters, either natural or man-made, economics, politics, religion, people interacting with each other or animals or nature or . . . ; what is of interest? Anything that happens is an event; does that make whatever happens news? Again, someone must decide because it is impossible to relate everything that happens. However, the decision of what events are news once again depends on the decision maker’s world. Of course, the decision maker receives that power on the basis of years of experience in determining what is news . However, that merely proves the above point that experience is a basis of a person’s world.

It must be obvious that the basis for the selection of events that constitute news is the subjective criteria of the selector rather than objective criteria. However, what about the reporting of the news: can that be objective?

The answer is no. A news report is a series of words describing the event. As in selecting which events are news, someone must decide which words best describe the event. These decisions are based on the reporter’s world as he or she examines the facts gathered and decides what words those receiving the report will best understand. Taking an extreme example, let us assume a reporter who is «pro-life», a description that also assumes a world-view, but is generally accepted as meaning against human abortion. This reporter is to write a story on the technology of abortion. The reporter may unconsciously chose words in writing the report that reflect the pro-life stance and state, «another way to kill the baby is». The statement would merely be a given part of the reporter’s world view that any abortion technique is a way to «kill the baby». A «pro-choice» (another self-conscious way to say someone who is not anti-abortion) may write the same story and use the phrase «terminate the fetus». These words do not carry the same emotional weight as «kill the baby». They are thus less likely to evoke a negative reaction in the receiver of the report.

Television, using pictures in reporting the news, might allow the argument that pictures don’t lie. Since people can actually see what is occurring or has occurred, the event is reported objectively. Nonetheless, the pictures are as subjective as words. Again decisions based on a world view are made: at the bottom the reporter or camera operator decide where to aim the camera, at what focus, at what distance, using a close-up, a medium or long shot, and at what angle. All are decisions that affect the content of the pictures. An example is the Iran Hostage Episode in which the mobs would sit around basically picnicking until the cameras appeared. The mob would then stand, chant and wave banners. The chants would be in English or French depending on which cameras appeared. A close-up camera shot can make ten people look like a mob; a long-shot can make thousands look like a local dispute. What shots to use are decisions made by people who depend on their world views to determine what is important, what they want to show, what is news.

Added to what to say or what to show is how to say or show it. Selecting the order in which news stories appear can be an indication of their relative importance. On television whether or not there are pictures can determine importance. How much time or space devoted to a story can determine importance. Bear in mind that importance is a relative determination, and in news the determination is the province of the editor. He or she determines what is important and, on the basis of his or her world view makes the above decisions.

The reporter also makes decisions in determining how to present the information in the news. However, the reporter’s world view can alter the information, particularly on radio and television when the reporter is personally presenting the story. Most people are sensitive to voice tone or body language, and take them as cues how to react to words or pictures. A television reporter, by a slight smile or a slight lift of an eyebrow or a tilt of the head can alter the meaning of a word or an entire report; a radio reporter, by an ironic tone or a slight laugh under the words said can make words that would ordinarily be accepted as serious, ludicrous.

Objectivity is not a possible goal in human interaction, and that includes journalism. As long as human beings gather and disseminate the news, then subjectivity will be the rule, not the exception. However, this article’s purpose is not to destroy the desire for objectivity in the news, but to help make it possible, as far as it is possible. If the reporter is not aware that his or her reaction and thus way of presenting the news is affected by that reporter’s world view of the news, then the reporter’s subjective view of the news is the view given, not the objective view that is the goal.

However, if reporters are aware that their world view is a component of the news, then reporters, if they are ethical in a sense that most people will accept, will consciously minimize the impact of subjectivity. They will not only accept, but allow for and consider that no one person’s world view is the only reality. They will examine their work to be sure that prejudice, bias and a personal world view is not the one that dominates in gathering, preparing and disseminating the news.

Hive of Nerves

To be alive spiritually is to feel the ultimate anxiety of existence within the trivial anxieties of everyday life

By Christian Wiman | June 1, 2010

It is time that the stone grew accustomed to blooming,
That unrest formed a heart.

—Paul Celan

During a dinner with friends the talk turns, as it often does these days, to the problem of anxiety: how it is consuming everyone; how the very technologies that we have developed to save time and thereby lessen anxiety have only degraded the quality of the former and exacerbated the latter; how we all need to “give ourselves a break” before we implode. Everyone has some means of relief—tennis, yoga, a massage every Thursday—but the very way in which those activities are framed as separate from regular life suggests the extent to which that relief is temporary (if even that: a couple of us admit that our “recreational” activities partake of the same simmering, near-obsessive panic as the rest of our lives). There is something circular and static to our conversation, which doesn’t end so much as frazzle indeterminately out. And though there is always some comfort in comparing maladies, I am left with the uneasy feeling that my own private anxieties have actually increased by becoming momentarily collective—or no, not that, increased by not becoming collective, increased by the reinforcement of my loneliness within a collective context, like that penetrating but enervating stab of self one feels sometimes in an anonymous crowd. It is a full day later before it occurs to me that not once, not in any form, not even with the ghost of a suggestion, did any of us mention God.

The greatness of James Joyce’s Ulysses is partly in the way it reveals the interior chaos of a single mind during a single day, and partly in the way it makes that idiosyncratic clamor universal. However different the textures of our own lives may be, Bloom’s mind is our mind; the welter of impressions he suffers and savors is a storm we all know. And that is the book’s horror too: some form of this same fury of trivia is going on in the mind of every sentient person on the planet. How much cruelty is occasioned simply because of the noise that is within us: the din is too great for us to realize exactly what we are doing to others, or what is being done to others in our name. Thus an offhand remark, which leaves us as easily as a breath and which we think no more of than a breath, cuts a friend to the quick. And thus a whole country can be organized toward some collective insanity because there is no space in individuals to think. Life has accelerated greatly since Joyce’s time, and now, as our selves scatter into bits and bytes, and our souls, if we are conscious of them at all, diminish to little more than a vague wish for quiet, even the linear associativeness of Ulysses can seem quaint.

How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life? It is one thing to encourage contemplation, prayer, quiet spaces in which God, or at least a galvanizing awareness of his absence (“Be present with your want of a Deity, and you shall be present with the Deity,” as the 17th-century poet Thomas Traherne puts it), can enter the mind and heart. But the reality of contemporary American life—which often seems like a kind of collective ADHD—is that any consciousness requires a great deal of resistance, and how does one relax and resist at the same time?

O the screech and heat and hate
we have for each day’s commute,

the long wait at the last stop
before we go screaming

underground, while the pigeons
court and shit and rut

insolently on the tracks
because this train is always late,

always aimed at only us,
who when it comes with its

blunt snout, its thousand mouths,
cram and curse and contort

into one creature, all claws and eyes,
tunneling, tunneling, tunneling

In the Gospels Jesus is always talking to the crowds in parables, which he later “explains” to his disciples. The dynamic is odd in a couple of ways: either the parables are obvious, and the explanations seem almost patronizing, or they are opaque, and the explanations only compound their opacity. (Or could it be—and I confess to relishing this possibility—that the explanations illustrate Christ’s wry sense of humor, which is nowhere else evident?) In any case, the notable point is just how little the explanations amount to, how completely the ultimate truths of the parables—just like dreams and poems—remain within their own occurrence.

Behind every urge to interpret is unease, anxiety. This can be a productive and necessary endeavor, whether it’s literary criticism or theology or even the dogmas and rituals of a religion (since all religion is, ultimately, an attempt to interpret God and numinous experience). Such effort deepens and complicates our initial response, even as it gives us an aperture through which to see our moments of mystery, crisis, and revelation more clearly—to give them “meanings,” to integrate them into our lives. The trouble comes when the effort to name and know an experience replaces the experience itself. Just as we seem to have grasped every level of meaning in a poem, the private and silent power that compelled us in the first place seems to drain right out of it. Just as we plant the flag of faith on a mountain of doctrine and dogma it has taken every ounce of our intellect to climb, our vision becomes a “view,” which is already clouding over, and is in any event cluttered with the trash of others who have fought their way to this same spot. Nowhere to go now but down.

“If that’s what he means,” says the student to the poetry teacher, “why doesn’t he just say it?” “If God is real,” says the parishioner to the preacher, “why doesn’t he simply storm into our lives and convince us?” The questions are vastly different in scale and relative importance, but their answers are similar. A poem, if it’s a real one, in some fundamental sense means no more and no less than the moment of its singular music and lightning insight; it is its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity. A god, if it’s a living one, is not outside of reality but in it, of it (though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive). Thus the uses and necessities of metaphor, which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into strange new truths. Thus the very practical effects of music, myth, image, which tease us not out of reality but deeper and more completely into it.

Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved but a narrative to be inherited, and undergone, and transformed person by person. He uses metaphors because something essential about the nature of reality—its mercurial solidity, its mathematical mystery and sacred plainness—is disclosed within them. He speaks the language of reality—speaks in terms of the physical world—because he is reality’s culmination and code, and because “this people’s mind has become dull; they have stopped their ears and shut their eyes. Otherwise, their eyes might see, their ears hear, and their mind understand, and then they might turn to me, and I would heal them.”

I don’t think the “answer” to the anxiety felt by everyone at that dinner party is Christianity. In fact I’m pretty sure that is not the case, as we represented several different traditions (including no tradition)—and anyway Christ is not an answer to existence but a means of existing, and I am convinced that there is no permutation of man or mind in which he is not, in some form, present. (This from the Catholic nun, Sara Grant, speaking about, and quoting from, the Kena Upanishad: “Brahman is not ‘that which one knows,’ but that by which one knows, as though a crystal bowl were aware of the sun shining through it. ‘When he is known through all cognitions, he is rightly known.’” But it seems to me you could quote Christ himself in support of this idea: “To believe in me, is not to believe in me but in him who sent me; to see me, is to see him who sent me.”)

I do think, though, that both the problem of, and the solution to, our individual anxiety is a metaphysical one. Some modern philosophers (Heidegger, Kierkegaard) have argued that existential anxiety proceeds from being unconscious of, or inadequately conscious of, death. True, I think, but I wonder if the emphasis might be placed differently, shifted from unconscious reaction to unrealized action: that is, our anxiety is less the mind shielding itself from death than the spirit’s need to be. It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music which, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things. It is not hard to hear this music, but it is very difficult indeed to learn to hear it as music.

Who is it that clasps and kneads my naked feet, till they unfold,
till all is well, till all is utterly well? the lotus-lilies of the feet!

I tell you it is no woman, it is no man, for I am alone.
And I fall asleep with the gods, the gods
that are not, or that are
according to the soul’s desire,
like a pool into which we plunge, or do not plunge.

The operative word in these lines from D. H. Lawrence, who wasn’t a conventionally religious person, is soul. It’s a word that has become almost embarrassing for many contemporary people, unless it is completely stripped of its religious meaning. Perhaps that’s just what it needs sometimes: to be stripped of its religious meaning, in the sense that faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical incrustations and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart. That’s what the 20th century was, a kind of windstorm-scouring of all we thought was knowledge and truth and ours—until it became too strong for us, or we too weak for it, and “the self replaced the soul with the fist of survival” (Fanny Howe). Anxiety comes from the self as ultimate concern, from the fact that the self cannot bear this ultimate concern: it buckles and wavers under the strain, and eventually, inevitably, it breaks.

“Glimmerings are what the soul’s composed of,” writes the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, an interesting—and, I think, accurate—thought, if the word glimmerings is read as both literal and metaphorical: the soul is not simply the agent that does the seeing (the entity to which metaphorical glimmerings are given), it is in some way the things that are seen (the world that glimmers); or, perhaps more accurately, it is the verb that makes an exchange between the self and reality, or the self and other selves, possible. It is the soul that turns perception into communication, and communication—even if it’s just between one man and the storm of atoms around him—into communion.

The meanings that God calls us to in our lives are never abstract. Though the call may ask us to redefine, or refine, what we know as life, it does not demand a renunciation of life in favor of something beyond it. Moreover, the call itself is always comprised of life. That is, it is not some hitherto unknown voice to which we respond; it is life calling to life. People think that diagnosing the apostle Paul with epilepsy or some related disorder nullifies any notion that God might truly have revealed something of himself on that road to Damascus. But God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is comprised of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. “I think there is no light in the world / but the world,” writes George Oppen. “And I think there is light.”

There is a distinction to be made between the anxiety of daily existence, which we talk about endlessly, and the anxiety of existence, which we rarely mention at all. The former fritters us into dithering, distracted creatures. The latter attests to—and, if attended to, discloses—our souls. And yet it is a distinction without a difference, perhaps, and as crucial to eventually overcome as it is to initially understand, for to be truly alive means to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence, to feel one’s trivial, frittering anxieties acquiring a lightness, a rightness, a meaning. So long as anxiety is merely something to be alleviated, it is not life, or we are not alive enough to experience it as such.

I don’t mean to be describing an intellectual transformation, or a transformation that is available only to “intellectuals.” I suppose that for many people—people inclined to read essays like this one, for instance—the transformation might seem to begin with a mental decision and a definite application of the will. In fact, I think taking such a step indicates that some rift of meaning and feeling has already opened inside of us, and we are clutching, consciously or unconsciously, at the rock face and rubble above this sudden abyss. In the end if we are to integrate our anxieties into our lives—and thereby alleviate them—any merely intellectual understanding of them is inadequate.

Consciousness among contemporary Western intellectuals is an “apprehensive” quality: that is to say, we become conscious by taking hold of, or apprehending, our selves and reality, by standing apart from them. Not at all coincidentally, we grow apprehensive as we do so (for where, exactly, are we standing?). There are other, fuller ways of being in the world, which Eastern religions, as well as Christian mysticism, strive to articulate. (Meister Eckhart: “It is not that we should abandon, neglect or deny our inner self, but we should learn to work precisely in it, with it and from it in such a way that interiority turns into effective action and effective action leads back to interiority and we become used to acting without any compulsion.”) But again, the best evidence comes not from books but from people, some of whom would never think to pick up a book. Suddenly I am seeing someone out of my own childhood, recalling a habit of mind too attentive to be called passive, too intuitive to be called thought. I am thinking (thinking!) of a presence so in love with life, so in tune with time, that death seemed only to drive her further in.

She who in her last days loved too well to lose
A single weed to namelessness, in creosote,
Blue gramma, goatsbeard that is not thriving, is,
Amid the cattails’ brittle whisper whispers
O Law’, Honey, ain’t this a praiseful thing.

The itch inside of contentment, or the itch that perhaps is contentment, as if despite our problems with anxiety, inner rest required outer restlessness, as if peace with ourselves and our times were found only within frenzy. Or, for some, never found at all. W. B. Yeats:

Through winter-time we call on spring,
And through the spring on summer call,
And when abounding hedges ring
Declare that winter’s best of all;
And after that there’s nothing good
Because the spring-time has not come—
Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but its longing for the tomb.

This is life as pure death wish. There is a sense in which Yeats is right: what we seek is meaning for our ceaseless, anxious, and always-anticipatory actions, and death is part of that meaning. Any life that does not take account of death, that does not, in one way or another, hear the annihilating silence inside every sound, the nullifying stillness within every action, is a life that can neither harness nor redress that dark energy—which is to say, a life of which death already has possession. Yeats’s mistake, though, is to make death the entire meaning of life, which, ultimately, makes not only our anxieties, but also our actions, meaningless. Here’s another take:

When God at first made Man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by—
Let us (said He) pour on him all we can;
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way,
Then beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all His treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

For if I should (said He)
Bestow this jewel also on My creature,
He would adore My gifts instead of Me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to My breast.

In this poem, “The Pulley” by George Herbert, our very restlessness is a gift, as it reminds us, even when we are most content, what we most need and why we are on this earth at all. The poem is perhaps theologically suspect (why this rat’s maze of a world for a known result?) but intuitively true. We are driven ceaselessly onward in this life and are certain of our desires only until we realize them, at which point they seem to dissolve and shimmer further off, like a heat mirage on a road down which we can’t stop racing. Unlike Yeats, though, for whom that road ends at a massive wall into which we finally, fatally slam, for Herbert the very permanence of our longing is proof of longing’s eventual fruition. Which is not to say, though, that this fruition is forever forestalled. It isn’t “heaven,” exactly, except insofar as we learn to see, as he says in another poem, “Heaven in Ordinarie.”

At first, attending to the anxiety of existence can seem like a zero-sum game. Any attention turned toward the truth of the spirit is attention turned away from all we have come to think of as “life.” Thus we parcel out our moments of devotion—a church service here and there, a walk in the woods, a couple of hours of meditation a week—all the while maintaining the frenzy of our usual existence outside of those moments. This is inevitable, for the initial demands of the spirit are intense, but it is not sustainable, for the soul is not piecemeal. We are left with this paradox: only by hearing the furthest call of consciousness can we hear the call of ordinary life, but only by claiming the most mundane and jangling details of our lives can that rare and ulterior music of the soul merge with what Seamus Heaney calls “the music of what happens.”

IT IS A STRANGE THING how sometimes merely to talk honestly of God, even if it is only to articulate our feelings of separation and confusion, can bring peace to our spirits. You thought you were unhappy because this or that was off in your relationship, this or that was wrong in your job, but the reality is that your sadness stemmed from your aversion to, your stalwart avoidance of, God. The other problems may very well be true, and you will have to address them, but what you feel when releasing yourself to speak of the deepest needs of your spirit is the fact that no other needs could be spoken of outside of that context. You cannot work on the structure of your life if the ground of your being is unsure.

The first step in the life of the spirit is learning to let yourself experience those moments when life and time seem at once suspended and concentrated, that paradox of attentive oblivion out of which any sustaining faith grows. These moments may not be—and at first almost certainly will not be—“meditative.” They are more likely to break into your awareness, or into what you thought was awareness (“inbreaking” is the theological term for Christ’s appearance in the world and in our lives—there is no coaxing it, no way to earn it, no way to prepare except to hone your capacity to respond, which is, finally, your capacity to experience life, and death). This is why we cannot separate one part of our existence, or one aspect of our awareness, from another, for there is a seed of peace in the most savage clamor. There is a kind of seeing that, fusing attention and submission, becomes a kind of being, wherein you may burrow into the very chaos that buries you, and even the most binding ties can become a means of release.

There is a dreamer
all good conductors

know to look for
when the last stop is made

and the train is ticking cool,
some lover, loner, or fool

who has lived so hard
he jerks awake

in the graveyard,
where he sees

coming down the aisle
a beam of light

whose end he is,
and what he thinks are chains

Keys to what, though? For I can’t end with that flourish of poetry and privacy. Art, like religious devotion, either adds life or steals it; it is never neutral; either it impels one back toward life or is merely one more means of keeping life at arm’s length. (The subject matter and tone of art have less to do with this than many people think: nothing palls the soul like a forced epiphany, and one can be elated and energized by a freshly articulate despair.) Keys to what? In this poem, the keys are, on one level, to the constraints felt in the earlier section (the miserable commute, the crush of others, the “screech and heat and hate”), which prove to be their own means of release (“what he thought were chains / becoming keys”). On another level, the keys are to the mysteries of death; or, rather, the key is to the blunt, immutable, physical fact of death (the train “graveyard”), which opens, if only for a moment, to reveal a mystery.

And now it’s over. Now the man on the train—like the man who imagined him (me!), like Paul God-struck outside of Damascus (alas, it wasn’t quite like that for me)—must move. Now the revelation either becomes part of his life or is altogether lost to it. Either his actions acquire a deeper purpose, and begin to echo and counterpoint each other, or the moment and the man slip back into unfeeling frenzy, and the screech and heat and hate of his days lock metallically around him again.

Death is the only lens for true transcendence, but, paradoxically, transcendence is possible only when we cease being conscious of our own death. I don’t mean that we are unconscious of our own death, but that we pass through what we think of as consciousness—that “apprehensiveness” I mentioned, that standing-apart-from and taking-hold-of—into something more profound. What you feel in amateur photographs—it’s a large part of the poignancy—is the pressure, or the lack of pressure, actually, of all the reality missing from the picture, which is really just a chopped-off piece of life. An artist, on the other hand, makes you feel just how much missing life is contained within a given image; it is as if the image is surrounded with, enlivened and even created by, the invisible, the unknowable, the absent. It’s not accurate to say that someone who has learned to see like this has forgotten that there is a lens between himself and life. It’s more that the lens has become so intuitive and fluent that it’s just another, clearer eye.

That dinner party with which I began this essay was a failure of mine—not of nerve, exactly, for nothing I have said in this essay had even crossed my mind at that point. No, it was a failure of consciousness, which is always a spiritual failure. I believe there is a kind of existence in which meditation and communication, epiphanies and busyness, death and life, God and not—all these apparent antinomies are merged and made into one awareness. I am a long way from realizing such perception myself, but I have lifted the lens to my eye—there is a sense in which it must be voluntarily lifted, even if, perhaps especially if, it has been roughly thrust there by circumstance—and am learning.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Christian Wiman is the author most recently of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer and a volume of poems, Once in the West. He teaches at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music.

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