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Anna Karenina

Conformity is motivated by a need for communal belonging or acceptance, or to deflect the worse pains and consequences of failing to be accepted by one’s desired group. Based on the anxiety of expulsion, punishment and ostracism, or disapproval and towards the enjoyment of privilege and status. When failing to conform, or when losing face, the resulting wounded pride or shame may lead to acts of disobedience, or to acts of slinking off for comfort in groups that suffer the same fate. May also lead to a temporary “mystical” epiphany that displays the hysterical shadow of the conformist self. A species of adolescent narcissism continued into one’s dotage, and, if, not so much willed as merely assumed: beyond the possibility of true action. Literary figures associated with true conformity as I define it: Ivan Illyich and the husband of Anna in Anna Karenina. George in A Doll’s House. Ivan’s final illness is an act of grace. He dies out of the conformist self, truly desires to be something more than an appearance.

True obedience is motivated by a genuine love and admiration and passion for the principles and traditions, and innovations beyond all hope of gain or status, and even to the point of appearing to be the opposite of what one is: disobedient, prideful, and contrary. The self in spiritual or moral crisis, beyond what others may think. Not so much non-conformist, but, rather searching for what Martin Buber called total self giving. In a sense any sincere attempt to live the Shema. Based on love and true integrity to the core values and source of one’s being. Figures in literature who fit this bill: Levin and Anna in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Cordelia in King Lear. Obedience does not rules out sin or error. It rules out the possibility of sin and error as utilitarian ends to acceptance. “Don’t get caught” does not exist for the obedient. It is the aphorism of the conformist.

In short: Conformity is preservation of appearances and reputation. Obedience is preservation of the spirit, and core values of the spirit beyond reputation or appearances.

Obedience is pre-moral to the degree that it seeks the origins of action based on principle and truth. Being pre-moral, it involves agon or birth pain. The obedient are capable of action in so far as they either test the moral fabric of their time not out of being contrary, but out of being passionate, or live its true spirit. They suffer, and what they suffer is detachment from the world of appearances and approval. Saints go through such persecution–very often from the church or faith that later perceives them as saints. It is not enough for the obedient to conform, and for this reason, they are capable of great mercy towards sinners, and those who are outcast. They are also the few who can challenge power without seeking to eat of the poisoned apple of power.

Even when conforming to “anti-establishment”-ism it is done with an agenda. If consciously “non-conformist” it revels in its “daring” and “evil.” If consciously conservative, it seeks always the “proper” image, and may be the first to persecute saints. Unlike the sinner, the conformist is not inept or even wounded–at least not visibly. Conformists are the gate keepers of both the establishment and anti-establishment orders. They are the successful bureaucrats of what is proper or properly improper. They are whores of the appropriate. Their goal is the power of the arbitrary, and for this very reason, that they allow no one (except themselves) to act in an arbitrary manner, but hold all accountable to whatever law serves their ends. Their shadow is strong and will often undo them. Terrified of scandal they will run from it until they run right into it. They hold the line. For them judgment is always paramount. They are incapable of true action, and are both somehow servile and untrustworthy at once. Of all the types Jesus Christ railed against, this is what he found reprehensible in the spiritual leaders of his age: this preference for conformity rather than obedience. He took a measure of them when he said: “Do what they say, for what they say comes from God, but do not do what they do, for they lay heavy burdens on others they, themselves, are unwilling to carry.”

Conformity is at all times visible. Obedience is seldom visible, but may be intuited by those who, like the obedient, wish to move beyond mere appearances.

My goals for teaching: to help students move from conformist, or conforming non-conformist to minds capable of true action within the realm of the obedient. To that end:

1. To know what mechanisms, and traditions, and limitations move them and make them creatures of mere motion, and to either test, amend, or move beyond these mechanisms to some fuller sense of true action.

2. To test all actions, all hope with a full knowledge of their imperfections, to show mercy and understanding for the imperfections of others, and to clearly delineate for themselves what they perceive to be the beautiful and the good.

3. To help my students be fearless about being troubled, uncertain, restless, and to make these states of being more than merely the hormonal or socially driven rites of youth. To make a lifelong commitment to what Martin Buber called answering relational being with one’s whole being.

4. To understand my own mechanisms and limitations and to amend, or improve where I can, and to be aware when amendment or improvement is not immediately possible.

I spoke of ontology before, the significance of being that stems from a poem, but there are minor poems, small triumphs of imagery, of rhythm, or beauty that make us think: “Why am I so concerned with truth or significance? Right now, my lover is asleep, and the venetian blinds are leaving their shadow across her face, and I wish I could stay here. Fuck Tolstoy. Fuck King Lear. I want to kiss her nose.”

Well, maybe others just take everything that makes life bearable for granted, or maybe they use this moment to consider how, in sleep, a lover may as well be a tree—that there is a certain terrifying aspect to the lover unconscious and unaware of, well, of me! I’ve had girlfriends wake me up because they were lonely. Sometimes, I don’t mind, especially if we start making out again. But sometimes it annoys me. None of this will win me a Nobel prize. But what I remember about Anna is not the plight of very rich noblewomen in 1870′s Russia; I remember the moment when Count Vronski breaks his horse’s back, or when Oblonski (Steve to his friends) wakes at the beginning from a very pleasant dream (dancing decanters with pretty legs, and opera) to realize he and his wife, Dolly are on the outs because he’s been schtupping the children’s governess.

I remember the details. I also mis-remember them, an equally wonderful thing, since what we mis-remember can be so vivid. I know people who misremember whole relationships, and, once their sour husband is dead, they get weepy eyed over finding an unmatched sock of his tucked away in a drawer. We do not mis-remember concepts or attitudes, or “truths” because they are the rather rickety frame on which we dab the mud of our memories and false impressions, and make for that doomed hut we call consciousness. As a friend of mine says: “caress the details, the divine details.”

The ontology of some poems is as follows: to capture, in however full a way, the precise, oh so precise feel of pussy williow against your neck the last time you saw Vanya, who spun about, and struck the soft spring ground with a stick, and then vanished into her career, her resume, the lie of just the facts which can never, never summon forth the quickened pulse, the despair of knowing you would not see her again and that she probably married some guy who never noticed anything except that he thought he ought to. Poets remind us of the obvious, the glorious obvious that we have forgotten while we were busy “living” our “meaningful” lives.

If you write enough poems that capture such a moment, you will be considered a minor poet, but we should investigate this term minor: rather than meaning less than great, it can mean great in a small, and specific way. Consider this Robert Herrick gem:

Feign would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg
which is as white and hairless as an egg.”

In our humorless, and supposedly explicit (though not at all erotic) culture, we have lost the gift perhaps of appreciating such exquisite, and mincing desires.

I am worried. I am worried that people are out there having sex and never noticing what a leg feels like against their leg. What kind of world is that? Minor my ass. That’s the whole of the sky! It’s as important as believing in God, since God is in the details—not the maxims.

This brings me to truck out one of my old time favorite “minor” poems, “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis. Besides the five senses, there is also kinetic imagery—those combinations of words that create a certain sense of movement in a poem, that describe movement. Rilke has a great kinetic image in his poem about the gazelle (Look it up on line. It’s there, and if you can tell me what that kinetic image is, I’ll give you ten extra credit points). Francis is the greatest minor poet America produced. Donald Justice comes close, and May Swenson gives both a run for their money. And Robert Haydn ain’t no slouch, either, (Those Winter Sundays may be the best sonnet written by An American poet in the 20th century). But, poem for poem, you don’t get more perfect than Francis. His work makes me so ashamed of everything I’ve ever written. This is the best depiction of a man stealing a base ever. It is also the best use of kinetic imagery I know, And look what he does with the word, delicate, in the last line!

The Base Stealer

Poised between going on and back, pulled
both ways taut like a tightrope-walker,
finger tips pointing the opposites,
Now bouncing tip toe like a dropped ball
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on,
running a scattering of steps sideways,
How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases,
taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now!

Francis uses gerunds (ings) properly—to create suspense, to create tension. The word delicate has a certain bounce to it—a perfect sense of bounce. It sounds like its meaning: ready to burst or break. “Come on, come on” in line five gives a sense that anticipating the runner’s break for second is becoming sheer torture. You don’t have to like or even know baseball to appreciate this. If you have never seen a ball player get ready to steal, or threaten to steal, watch a video on YouTube, and you will see the triumph of kinetic accuracy this poem happens to be. And notice how he uses his T sounds! The hard T sound appears in almost every line, sometimes as the initial sound of the word (taut, tightrope, tip toe, teeters, tingles, teases, taunts) and also in medial or terminal positions (between, taut, pointing, opposites, scattering, steps, skitters, ecstatic, delicate). It’s an essay on how to use -ings, and how to thread a sound through a poem for maximum effect. It’s a minor masterpiece, and I do not use minor in a demeaning way. Literary theorists use literature as an excuse for ontological truths (or gender, or sexual, or identity issues). This is a legitimate way to ransack texts, but it will not teach you how to write. Ontology begins with detail selection—in terms of word choice, verbal relationships, rhythm. A theorist wouldn’t know what to do with this poem, unless the theorist started to write a book on kinetics in terms of verbal constructs and the cultural bias of admiring athletes as per one’s gender, or class. Minor may only mean a theorist can’t find much to theorize about. Now Herricks little couplet could be an example of the “objectification” of a woman’s body parts. But suppose we get rid of all appreciation of the body in poems… have we not turned a human being into an “idea” then—a political or theoretical entity. I don’t know. But our culture is terrified of details. All governments and religions are terrified of details, especially when they temporarily re-route or short circuit “general” ideas. Power depends on symbols we don’t really think about—on orienting us towards the automatic. There is no more revolutionary act in poetry than to see or depict something from a fresh point of view, to liberate it from the graveyard of received ideas. “Make it new,” said the early modernists. I would qualify that statement to read: “make it obvious, and better still, makes us startled by the obvious.”