The Gods in Homer and Æschylus

Although Homer’s The Iliad and Æschylus’ three-part drama The Oresteia belong to different times—the one Archaic, the other Classical—they both express the Greek condition, responding to the human plight as it is experienced in relation to a pantheon of gods who participate in the lives of humans and even resemble them. The gods meddle in and determine the affairs of men in both works; however, whereas in the Iliad man is a mere plaything, the Oresteia has man play a more active role.

downloadIn the story of the Trojan War as told by Homer, the gods’ agency takes precedence over that of mortals’, reducing them to puppets. The opening scene establishes this immediately, as we are told that the dire situation of the Achæans is due to Agamemnon’s having spited Apollo (1.9-12). By refusing to do a sacrifice, the king and his army suffer a reversal of fortune; they are purely at the mercy of the gods and their whims. This means that the course of the war is directed externally, independent of the warriors, so it is not a matter of meritocracy; that is, whether an army has good warriors becomes less important than whether it has good fortune. As such, the humans have little to no bearing on the outcome of the conflict except as it relates to their appeasement of the deities. Another implication is that free will is stripped from the warriors because Agamemnon is stuck with only two options: He can either do the sacrifice or not. Because his actions are framed purely within the context of the gods, his will is subordinated to theirs; his intentions are disregarded if they are in conflict with the gods’ desires. 

The theme of determinism is most explicitly developed by Hector in conversation with his wife before going out to battle: 

No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. 

And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,  

neither brave man nor coward, I tell you— 

it’s born with us the day that we are born (6.581-4).  

parting-of-hector-and-andromache-4b52fe-640Homer thus assigns to the gods a complete control over the lives of every individual. It is not a simple determinism, either: Hector describes an extreme form of fatalism since the beginning—birth—is intrinsically and causally related to the end—“Death.” It would be one thing to say that he is fated to die, but Hector says that his death must occur in accordance with, rather than “against,” his “fate,” which is contrived by the gods—and he is indeed slain by Achilles, as foreordained. Furthermore, fate and destiny are not abstract plans but rather gods themselves, showing that at the root of all temporal happenings, the scheming of the gods can be found. Therefore, it is actually redundant when Hector notes that “No one alive has ever escaped [fate],” as if escape were even an option in the first place since, in reality, fate is by definition inescapable. 

Throughout the battle, the gods regularly intervene, disrupting the flow of battle: Athena prevents Achilles from killing Agamemnon (1.227-60), Aphrodite swoops in at the last minute to save Paris from Menelaus (2.430-40), “godsent Panic” (9.2) disorients the Achæans, and Apollo facilitates the killing of Achilles_Displaying_the_Body_of_Hector_at_the_Feet_of_Patroclus,_by_Jean_Joseph_Taillason,_1769,_oil_on_canvas_-_Krannert_Art_Museum,_UIUC_-_DSC06264Patroclus (16.993), among others. It may be pointed out, though, that there is one moment where human agency prevails, contradicting this view: Achilles pleads with the goddess Thetis to get Zeus to turn against his army, and succeeds (1.484-90). While it is true that Achilles initiates this change of circumstance, one must acknowledge, first, that it stems from his anger, which is often attributed to the conniving of the gods, and second, that the actual interaction is conducted by and between the gods; for without Thetis’ pleading, and without Zeus’ compliance, Achilles’ would not have had his way. If the gods are taken out of the picture, then Achilles is merely left sulking and wallowing in his self-righteousness, impotent and useless; whereas it is only with the aid of the gods that his desire can be fulfilled. Consequently, in The Iliad, the gods predominate the action, depriving humans of their will.

In contrast, Æschylus, while retaining the centrality of the gods in Agamemnon, restores to humans a say in their lives, which can be seen foremost in The Furies. Like his predecessor Homer, Æschylus has the gods pull many strings to influence human events. The murder of Agamamenon at his wife Clytemnestra’s hands, for example, is not a matter of human whim or volition; instead, it is the culmination of a series of events, the root of which is to be identified with the gods. Working backwards, download-1one learns that Clytemnestra kills her husband because she was enraged at his having sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia (140-51), to obtain good weather because Artemis created a storm in response to an omen—Zeus’, most likely. Thus, at every step of the way, a trace of the gods surfaces. Agamemnon’s death, like that of every other Greek, is foreseeable. In a sense, neither he nor his wife is morally culpable because their actions are divinely inspired. To blame Clytemnestra would be to overlook Artemis’ influence, while to blame Agamemnon would be to overlook the pride and fickleness of Zeus. The two mortals are pawns in a game, and their agency is negligible. Later on, Cassandra embodies this helplessness with her ignored prophecies. She foresees Agamemnon’s and her own death, yet not only is she unable to forestall or somehow avoid it through action, but nobody takes her seriously (1214-6, 1276-8). Her unintelligibility to those around her and her absence of will perfectly represent the tragedy of the human condition as Æschylus sees it in a world ruled by the gods.

But it is against the backdrop of this tragedy that Æschylus is able to create dignity in mankind, give it a will, and preserve hope. The Furies, dealing with the aftermath of Agamemnon, narrates how the rule of law and justice—and the potential salvation of mortals—was brought to Athens. When Orestes, under the auspices of Apollo, seeks pardon from Athena to save himself from the vengeance of the Furies, Athena download-2declares, “This matter is too great to be decided by a mortal” (470), but she immediately follows up with a curious statement: “It is not even appropriate that I preside over / a murder trial that inflames such furious rage” (471-2, emphasis mine). It is striking that Athena, a goddess, the daughter of Zeus, thinks herself incapable of judging, either out of capacity or warrant, particularly since she has, in the meantime, granted him protection from the Furies—if she can do the latter, then why not the former? Remarkably, her solution is to place Orestes’ fate not in her, the Furies’, or Zeus’ hands, but in the hands of his fellow Athenians; she radically inverts the power dynamic and makes man, not god, the arbiter, the decider of life and death and justice. The solution seems counterintuitive and even nonsensical, for she asks that the Athenians “return an honest verdict… and deliberate with judicial minds” (488-9) even though mortals, compared to their counterparts, are flawed, finite, and probably biased toward one of their own. In fact, there is no bias among the Athenians because the vote is tied 5-5.

download-3Here, it may be objected that man’s role is diminished rather than augmented because Æschylus seems to be implying pessimistically that it is only with divine intervention that a court can be established, and it is Athena’s vote, after all, rather than the Athenians’, which ultimately acquits Orestes; however, one ought to remember that the Areopagus is deemed necessary and is composed of fallible men, not gods. Additionally, Athena’s deciding vote suggests that, were it not needed, she, and therefore Apollo and the Furies, too, would have complied—not with Zeus, but with the mortals. As such, Athena calling the Areopagus “this sacred court” (484) turns something mortal into something immortal; in a sense, Æschylus is saying that man has been elevated to the level of divinity since he now has moral responsibility; the Athenian court is not dictated by gods but equals, and it rivals the unilateral decrees of the gods, thereby granting agency to man. As a result, Æschylus is more optimistic than Homer because for him, the gods do not entirely act on humans: they interact with them.     

The Transcendence of the Artist in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist

Through his semi-fictional alter ego Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce proposes that it is only by transcending the world that artists can then transcend themselves and attain to the ideal of their art. 

downloadFor Joyce, a necessary precondition for becoming an artist is a strong individuality that derives from radical self-assertion. Already, from the earliest moments of his childhood, Stephen possesses a heightened consciousness of himself. One day, looking at his geography textbook where he wrote a hierarchy of being, starting with himself and finishing with “The Universe,” “he read[s] the flyleaf from the bottom to the top till he came to his own name. That was he” (Joyce 10-11). Although seemingly unimportant, this incident, probably inspired by boredom and characterized by a childish ignorance, nonetheless prefigures a subconscious belief of his that will eventually become manifest in his more mature years: Stephen stumbles upon his egocentrism and, by reversing the scale of perspective, concludes that he is the center of the universe, the source of all things, rivaled only by God. Instead of being the smallest thing, and therefore reduced to insignificance, he makes the world depend upon him, and not the other way around; the world begins, then ends with, that is, in—culminates in—him: it is this note in his book the writing of which establishes him as a writer, a creator—the creator. In affirming himself thus, he becomes the limit of his world. 

This sense of the centrality selfhood is expanded upon as an older Stephen is with his father, recollecting about the past: 

By his monstrous way of life he seemed to have put himself beyond the limits of reality. Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it an echo of the infuriated cries within him… He could scarcely recognise as his his own thoughts, and repeated slowly to himself: 

—I am Stephen Dedalus. (91)

Stephen’s egocentrism develops at this point into a subjective idealism, such that the distinction between him and the world amounts to the inner versus the outer, and in which the latter is subordinated to the former. This split is emphasized in the fact that within the second sentence, “the real world” is imagesliterally subordinated to the “echo” that he may or may not hear “within him,” in his private subjectivity. Hence, the external world is stripped of its power; it is no longer the cause but the effect in relation to Stephen. Having transcended the world, Stephen even struggles to distinguish himself from the product of his imagination, “his own thoughts” “scarcely [un]recognis[able],” ostensibly because he can no longer tell where he ends and the world begins, the two being melded together indissolubly. It is not accidental that the only way for him to progress is to once again affirm his own self powerfully, as if, like Descartes, he were seeking certainty in the face of doubt: “I am Stephen Dedalus.” The simple assertion indicates that Stephen is the master of his world, the axis around which it revolves, and this is the manner in which he can finally and authentically pursue his art—on his own terms.    

Accordingly, Stephen, as the quintessential artist, comes to accept his calling to create in an essentially rebellious way, by which he is able to distinguish himself. The most consequential realization of this occurs when he reflects on and appropriates his namesake: “[A]t the name of the artificer [i.e., Dedalus], … a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, [he saw] a symbol of the artist forging anew in his downloadworkshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being” (172). Like the two previous quotes that come, respectively, from his childhood and preadolescence, this one, at the height of his adolescence, has more deliberateness behind it. At this stage in his development, believing himself to be central, he not only acknowledges his name but interprets it and, in so doing, celebrates it. He is the successor of a mythology. He is the archetypal “artist” who “forg[es]” and “soar[s],” that is, who goes where nobody has gone before, where nobody has dared go before, because the transcendence required herefor radically demands that he cut off all his ties once and for all so that he may not be held back by conventional “nets” (208) or “wordly voice[s]” (82).

The mythological is that which stands outside of time, and it is thither that Stephen aspires with himself and with his art in reclaiming the legacy of Dedalus: “imperishable being.” In short, Stephen wants to become a “symbol” himself, and hence timeless. This mirrors a vague sense in which he also identifies with Lucifer, the bearer of light, that he may “become as… God Himself” (118) through an act of revolt. Whereas Stephen previously only had a cognizance of his destiny, here he embraces it actively as his own; he will go “sunward,” toward creativity, leaving behind him his earthly shackles, enabling him to “transmut[e] the daily bread of existence into the radiant body of everlasting life” (227). Therefore, as a result of this epiphany, Stephen Dedalus successfully asserts himself as an artist who will transform his world. 

However, it is at this point that the artist’s transcendence is reversed: in Joyce’s final analysis, it is really art and its process—and not the artist—which is truly transcendent. On one occasion, accompanying his father to Cork, he is overcome by a reverie, invoked by “the word Foetus,” observing that it 

had sprung up before him, suddenly and furiously, out of mere words. He had soon given into them and allowed them to sweep across and abase his intellect, wondering always where they came from, from what den of monstrous images, … sickened of himself when they had swept over him. (89) 

Stephen is an artist—more exactly, he is an aspiring writer, a poet whose domain is that of language. Conventionally, one says that the poet is one who “does things with words,” that is, the poet works with and on words, manipulating and contriving them to his or her purposes; however, might one not also say, with reference to the quoted passage, that the opposite is equally the case—that it is words which “do download-1things with the writer” and that in dealing in words, it is the artist who is “dealt with”? Joyce illustrates that the artist’s autonomy, once achieved, is only partial, and is but one half of the arrangement; the other half consisting in a receptivity and passivity, i.e., a deliverance unto the world from which they—the artist—initially sprang. In this instance, Stephen, whom we are used to seeing in the active role, becomes passive, the one who is acted on instead of the one who acts on. The creative vision assaults him “furiously”; it “sweeps across and abase[s] his intellect”; and Stephen is powerless: all he can do is “give into” and “allow” it  to run its course—and all of this “out of mere words” (emphasis mine)! The point is not so much that the artist drops out of the picture and is forgotten, nor that they play no role whatsoever in the creative process, but that the artist cannot be the solitary term in the relationship. The artist must assume his or her self-importance in order that he or she may then reckon with the world. 

Consequently, despite the position of the artist, the material with which they work will always remain inherently elusive, although it is this ambiguity that gives rise to the work of art. Stephen learns this in college while in discussion with an English priest. He struggles to get his meaning across—a problem which can easily be applied to his work, too—and so suffers an “unrest of spirit” because the priest’s “language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words… My soul frets in the shadow of his language” (193). Clearly, the idea of the poet’s mastery of language is once more inverted, as it is language itself which masters Stephen. There is an irony, though: despite claiming not to have “accepted its words,” and despite making it seem as if the language could never be his, Stephen nonetheless speaks and thinks by means of it, albeit uneasily. It is, as he correctly concludes, “an acquired speech”; he has appropriated that which resists and precedes him.

download-2Because he recognizes his debt to language, he can see it for what it is. He will never truly master it, and this precariousness, the sense that there is an imbalance of power, is what provides the conditions for his artistry. Joyce is arguing that a vital part of realizing who one is, is realizing who one is not and cannot be. This does not contradict his initial claim of the transcendence of the artist, for it is in relation to the world, and particularly language, that Stephen can even conceive of himself as a successor of Dedalus, an “artificer”—or that he can transcend at all. In other words, it is a circular movement: Stephen must confront and transgress the world through his pride so that, in the words of Nietzsche, he can “become who he is,” which culminates in a return to the world he previously rebuffed. As a man of letters, Stephen will always “fret in the shadow… of language” because words are “so familiar and so foreign.”

In sum, Joyce’s claim is that the artist must go beyond the world in order to go beyond themselves; alternatively, by surpassing oneself, one surpasses one’s self in artistry. The paradoxicality of this movement is clarified by Stephen himself. His discussion of aesthetics and the ideal work of art with Lynch leads up to the following statement:

The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak… The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. (220)

To review, Stephen begins by repudiating the world and its limits, identifying himself with Dedalus as someone who transcends and revolts against constraints, which he takes to be the defining mark of the creative person; and he ends like Icarus, falling back into the world from which he took flight, escaping from only to escape into—a success rather than a failure. In Stephen’s artistic declaration, he calls for his download-1own dissolution into that against which he rebelled. Again, this is not a contradiction but a natural sequence: “like the God of creation,” Stephen must first be, must create himself, before he can create, or else who would do the creating? Stephen, like God, must begin where he ends: in nothing. It is important to point out that the artist does not disappear completely; the artist disappears into the work, and thus “remains within or behind or above” it. Indeed, Stephen talks of refinement twice. When he composes a poem, for example, he must start by expressing himself, putting himself out into the world, which requires that he be an independent, individualized personality, someone who, standing out, stands forth; then, if the work be a good one, according to his theory, he promptly withdraws from, yet is not negated by but rathered preserved in, the poem. This gradual process by which “the personality of the artist… impersonalises itself” (italics mine) is explicitly outlined by Stephen as “refin[ing]… out of existence”; notwithstanding, it is his art. 

Therefore, Joyce’s depiction of Stephen Dedalus and his aesthetic theory reveals the aesthetic theory upon which Joyce himself based his work as a writer: Joyce successfully demonstrates that the artist, revealing their existence, refines themselves out of existence. The transcendence of the artist, then, has two meanings, signifying on the one hand the creator’s passing over a threshold to freedom and, on the other, the transparency and self-sufficiency that subsequently belongs to their creation. 

The Might of the Pen

Throughout his Sonnets, William Shakespeare contends that it is through art that one can overcome time’s passing, but also that it is in time that significance is sustained. 


In the 19th Sonnet, Shakespeare demonstrates that his poetry is strong enough to compete with time. He begins with an apostrophe, addressing time directly, personifying it as the force that he is confronting. The persona acknowledges the power of time by invoking naturalistic images—a “lion’s paws” (1), “the Earth” (2), a “tiger’s jaws” download(3), the “phoenix” (4), and “seasons” (5)—showing how despite the majesty of these various phenomena, like the danger posed by the king of the jungle or the cyclical and unavoidable patterns of the weather, even they must ultimately succumb to the process of decay brought on by existence. Thus, time is established as an unstoppable, infinitely powerful foe, one that triumphs over everything, and whose destructive tendencies go unchecked. The speaker of the poem, however, remains undaunted: saying, “[D]o whatever thou wilt, swift-footed Time” (6), he acknowledges time as a worthy adversary, the epithet “swift-footed” serving not only as a way of highlighting the ruthlessness and efficiency of its ability to wear down but also as a sign of respect and distinction.

But in so doing, he places himself on equal footing with time since the two are in conflict. He is willing to concede much to the ravages of time, yet he is unwilling to allow his beloved to be one such victim; instead, demanding that his loved one’s “course [be] untainted,” and issuing the following challenge to time itself—“Yet do thy worst, old Time; despite thy wrong / My love shall in my verse ever live young” (13-14)—the speaker is confident that his art downloadwill outlast the passage of time. The speaker once more makes himself an equal of time when, on the one hand, he matches the “lines” of time’s “antique pen” (10) to his own “verse,” thus pitting their respective talents against one another, his preservational and time’s aging; and when, on the other hand, he engages in autology, calling time “old” and characterizing its pen as “antique,” both words indicating that time is subject to itself—that is, that even time cannot escape itself. Consequently, the sonnet becomes reflexive in its youth; not only is it “ever… young” in the sense that it had just been penned by Shakespeare, but more fundamentally, it continues to renew itself with every reading. Whoever reads Shakespeare vindicates him in his writing, for he has, in a legitimate sense, vanquished time. It is because of, not in spite of, time’s impressive nature that Shakespeare can champion poetry’s eternal nature. 


download-1Another sonnet, the 25th, also comments on the transience of things while hinting that the artist can preserve themselves in the present. Unlike the 19th sonnet, which focuses on natural examples of decay, this sonnet shifts to the human world, where fickleness abounds just as much, if not more, as evidenced by a shift in one’s favor in court (5-8) or a “warrior… once foiled” who “is from the book of honor razed quite” (9-11). Here, the inconstancy of public perception reveals that one’s status is never permanent; the passage of time destroys the images of illustrious men and women just as easily as it does the seasons or the mighty lion. Crucially, though, Shakespeare writes of “the book of honor,” suggesting that not all acts of writing are inherently preservative or capable of forestalling time. Alternatively, the statement could be figurative, the intention being that no record, whether collective or individual, as in the case of memory—i.e., legends or tales of glorious deeds, the collective conscience—is loyal to what it purports to depict and safeguard. Either way, Shakespeare seems to be undermining the conviction of his earlier sonnet where he maintains the eternity of “verse.”

imagesYet he insists nonetheless in the ending couplet, in response to the preceding quatrains which, up to this point, disempower the creative act, that his happiness “may not remove nor be removed” (14). Thus, the volta of the sonnet reveals that the poet’s love remains inviolate, both internally and externally: He shall neither fall out of love nor let it be extinguished. He contrasts this modest and private happiness, interestingly, with the “fortune” (3) of those who are lucky and esteemed; for his “love and [being] beloved” (13) enable the writing of the sonnet yet earn him no favor with those around him; that is, he, the solitary artist, the creator, the lover—he can content himself against the unreliability of the social world with the reliability of his love, which is the source of his artistry. Love, while being a temporal condition, nonetheless attains for Shakespeare an atemporal aspect: In the moment, in the instant, the poet is full of inspiration, the inspiration from which he draws his strength, the inspiration which raises him above the mercurial, changing minds of those around him. The artist delights in his or her act of loving which, contrary to being a solitary act, does not require actualization in time, as it is in the practice of memory, of writing, or of simply being in love that fulfills them; therefore, the poet, in the end, does in fact stand over time by taking a stand within it, using his art as a means of remembering and sustaining his love. 

Uncanny Bliss: An Existential Reading of Thomas Wolfe (2 of 2)

Read part 1 here first.

Meaning and Finitude 

Although we will never find a home, troubled as we are by our consciousness of existence, Wolfe believes that in accepting the limits of life—chiefly, the shortness of life as delimited by death—we can nonetheless create a home for ourselves, finding meaning therein. 

In the closing chapter of Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene prepares to leave home for college. He walks aimlessly through the town at midnight when he encounters the ghost of his recently deceased brother Ben, who, after stating that “[t]here is no happy land” or “end to hunger” (Wolfe 526), tells him, “You are your world” (527). Hearing this, Eugene becomes inspired: “I shall find no door in any city. But in the city of myself, upon the continent of my soul, I shall find the forgotten language, the lost world, a door where I may enter, and music strange as any ever sounded; I shall haunt you, ghost, along the labyrinthine ways until—until?” (527-8). 

imagesThe novel comes full circle here, as it begins and ends with an invocation of the symbolic “door” and the “ghost” which Eugene himself is. With the death of Ben, to whom he was closest, Eugene grasps the fragility of his existence; he sees that life is but a sojourn, a temporary stay in a foreign place, which solidifies his abnegation of the external door. It is for this reason that upon hearing from Ben, who speaks from beyond life, that there is no actual beyond, no “happy land” to call his true home, Eugene comes to accept his uncanniness. While he does not and cannot belong to Dixieland, his mother’s boarding house; to his father’s house; or to any other place—these being a part of the world—he can and must belong to himself. It is only by turning inward, attuning himself to his interior “city,” and exploring his potential that he can “find the forgotten language” and “a door.” He also runs up against the limits of such a goal when he breaks off at the end: “—until?” To find himself, Eugene must risk completion: His own death. Because he is just awakening to this quest, though, he cannot bring himself to confront his mortality head-on, and must resort to an ellipse. 

This series of events parallels Heidegger’s existential analysis, in which Dasein, coming to terms with anxiety and confronting death, appropriates itself by means of resoluteness. Heidegger argues that it is our essence to be concerned with our existence; the question of Being and its meaning imposes itself on us from the moment we are born. Taking inspiration from Christian thought—which, in turn, is influenced by Plato, thereby establishing a imagesconnection to both Wolfe and Burger—Heidegger thinks that looking within the world, that is, at beings, can tell us nothing about our condition since we are fundamentally different kinds of beings; instead, if we want a sense of direction, if we want to get a grip on our lives, then we must turn away from the world and toward the interior self so that we can focus on and nurture our “potentiality-for-Being” (Heidegger 322). Eugene’s renunciation of external solutions, like that of some distant and paradisal “happy land” where everything will be alright, signals a crisis of conscience: Eugene is called away from the distractions and minutiæ of life by Ben, whose privileged role as a ghost allows him to set Eugene on the right path, which is to see himself as his own entry point into a home. Obviously unsettled by the fact that he shall end up like Ben, dead, Eugene has to confront the limited time he has, and this leads to a resolution to find himself, given that that is the only way of owning his uncanniness, his unhomeliness: Being at home with(in) himself. As consequential as this is, though, it does not mean he is out of the woods: Eugene still has to figure out what he must do in order to become himself. 

Wolfe arrives at an answer in Of Time and the River, as that is where Eugene discovers his potential. As the title of the novel indicates, Eugene must grapple with the mystery that is time, and the fact that he, and time itself, are a river in flux. Having graduated from Harvard, Eugene wants to be a writer, and he supports himself by teaching at NYU. He quits after a year, stays at a friend’s house, and finishes a play, which he then reads to his friend and his family. Met with praise, he decides there and then that he will be an artist, for he is driven by 

the intolerable desire to fix eternally in the patterns of an indestructible form a single moment of man’s living, a single moment of life’s beauty, passion, and unutterable eloquence, that passes, flames and goes, slipping forever through our fingers with time’s sanded drop, flowing forever from our desperate grasp even as a river flows and never can be held. (Wolfe 550) 

Later, for inspiration, he travels to Europe and, while staying in Paris, he writes the following in his journal: “Our lives can live upon only a few things, [and] we must find them, and begin to build our fences. All creation is the building of a fence” (673). In the first quote, the emphasis is on the dialectical struggle of the artist whose job it is to download-4reconcile the permanent with the temporary and to depict life fully. The image of the river, as well as a flame, is invoked in order to mirror not just the passing of life itself, the way sensations, emotions, and thoughts seamlessly become one another, but also the existence of Eugene: He, like the flame, flickers until exhaustion, and runs like a river until he is dry. Although it seems as if this task is just as, if not more, futile than that of finding the “unfound door,” resemblant less of the myth of Sisyphus and his fruitless punishment than that of Tantalus and the receding fruit within his grasp, it turns out that this goal, undertaken in the face of anxiety, recognized under the duress of death, and carried out with resoluteness, is authentic because Eugene has chosen it above all else, and because it depends not on some fortuitous discovery nor on the helping hand of another, but on the person he wants to be, or the potential he wants to actualize. 

download-6This is evidenced in the second quote by the image of the “fence.” Although apparently insignificant, this metaphor is important because it is an architectural one: It recalls the “unfound door” which he seeks throughout his life. While he may not be able to chance upon the one elusive door that will instantly and miraculously “unlock” life, making it intelligible to him, giving him the answers to the questions he has, soothing his insatiate heart, he can “build [a] fence” that is uniquely and creatively his own. He cannot, nor will he, find “consecrated earth,” but he can mark it off, lay claim to it, and create a lasting legacy for himself. Additionally, because Wolfe loves the idea of America, it may be that the fence is related in some way to the American Dream and its famous “house with a picket fence” image. Eugene resolves to memorialize his memory and contribute to the culture of humanity through his art, which is his own way of having meaning in spite of death; he is “building […] a fence” around himself.

download-5The significance of Eugene’s vocation, and therefore of Wolfe’s writing, is examined and articulated by Gérald Préher, who demonstrates in “A Cosmos of His Own: Loss, Ghosts, and Loneliness in Thomas Wolfe’s Fiction” that art is the source of meaning for Wolfe, as it allowed him to make sense of the events in his life. Préher interprets Wolfe’s writings to be a way of coping with the emotional hardships of his life. Suffering the loss of two of his brothers, his college roommate, then his father, and stricken with the intractable inability to reverse the clock, Wolfe found in writing the ability to freeze time in a sense, and to resurrect the dead—Ben’s ghost being the prime example. Hence, the angel and the river in his book titles refer to his two foremost concerns: Death and time. 

By coming to terms with his own mortality, Eugene—and Wolfe—can come to terms with time. This is why Eugene chooses writing: He can “fix eternally […] a single moment of man’s living.” To this end, Préher notes that before calling it Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe considered calling his book The Building of a Wall (Préher 28). Accordingly, since the writing of his first novel, Wolfe had in mind the idea of building a fence. If life and time are captured with the metaphor of the river, then art is like a dam: Wolfe stakes a claim with his writing because it cuts off a portion of the river, turning it into something manageable, understandable, and personal; it gives him a foothold, a means of enduring the otherwise-unendurable change and impermanence of life. Writing, in other words, functions by fencing off the river. 

images-1There is agreement between Heidegger, Préher, and me. At first glance, it would seem that Eugene’s solution to the uncanniness of existence is a kind of flight or fleeing away from life. The act of writing, and of artistic creation in general, is arguably removed from the world and its problems, as it requires that the artist step back from the fray; however, I and the critics would contend that, on the contrary, art is an act of courage to the extent that it involves reckoning with life. It is through creation—resolute, anxious creation—that we make sense of life, confront the difficulties and burdens of our pasts, pave a path forward, cultivate a sense of identity and purpose, and find peace with the most unflagging of questions. 

Both Heidegger and Préher place incomparable value on death because it is the most singular event which belongs to us; and while Heidegger would understand Eugene/Wolfe to be acting out of “anticipatory resoluteness” in order to own his “being-toward-death” (349), and Préher a desire to repeat life in such a way as to bring out its fullness and three-dimensionality, both fundamentally concur that the homelessness to which we are all condemned can be assuaged and reclaimed through purposeful creation. This is why I believe Heidegger would find the following assertion insightful: “In Wolfe’s works, going back home and coming to oneself are two sides of the same coin, for the two make it possible to comprehend what life really is about” (Préher 36). Although the sentiment of “going back home” (italics mine) contradicts the foregoing analysis, I believe that its paradoxicality is essential: One must find within oneself the source of one’s life, from which its direction is decided. In short, the strangeness of the world must be overcome by familiarity with oneself. 


3526479580_98244bb013_bExistentialism, as Jean-Paul Sartre once lamented, is too often and unfairly represented as a pessimistic, dark, and depressing approach to life. I think he is correct because, at bottom, we are all existentialists since we are all caught up in the mystery of existence. Both Heidegger and Wolfe devoted their lives to working out the complexities and wonders of existence. Despite what has been said—particularly that humanity is bedeviled by an incessant desire for something which cannot be found, and is thus a foreigner in its own domain—Wolfe rejected pessimism. In one letter, speaking about an upcoming novel, he wrote, “Each of these discoveries, sad and hard as they are to make and accept, are described in this book […] But the conclusion is not sad: this is a hopeful book—the conclusion is that although you can’t go home again, the home of every one of us is in the future: there is no other way” (Nowell 712). Accordingly, even though he never found the door or language for which he had been looking, even though his life was cut short by sickness before he could wade through the river of time to the other side, Wolfe passionately and defiantly sought to live a deep, fulfilling, and meaningful life. 

images-1The facts of Wolfe’s life are important, to be sure, but the real preciousness is to be found in what was not his alone; the value of Wolfe is to be found in what he wanted to say not just for himself, but for all of us—those who read him; who cannot find the words for what we know and feel; who know desperation and loneliness and anxiety, but also love and joy and hope; and who feel with him, at overwhelming moments in our lives, that this cannot be all there is, that there must be an Answer to our questions, that life can be too much for us, and that all we want to do is go home again. We feel safe and happy at home, but where is home? For Wolfe and Heidegger, who tried their best to articulate the human condition, we have no home, for we are thrown into a maze without an end. And yet, because of this truth, there is hope. When we learn to look in the right place, and when we undertake the inner odyssey to find ourselves, accepting the limits and finitude of existence, then we can begin to construct a door, a fence—and a home. After all: To be at home nowhere, is to be at home everywhere.

Works Cited:

Burger, John M., “”A stone, a leaf, an unfound door”: Thomas Wolfe’s Platonic search” (1988). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 123.

Préher, Gérald. “A cosmos of his own: loss, ghosts and loneliness in Thomas Wolfe’s fiction.” The Thomas Wolfe Review 35.1-2 (2011): 22-39.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperOne, 1962.

Nowell, Elizabeth, editor. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Scribners, 1956.

Turnbull, Andrew. Thomas Wolfe. Scribners, 1967.

Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. Scribners, 1997.

Wolfe, Thomas. Of Time and the River. Scribners, 1999.

Uncanny Bliss: An Existential Reading of Thomas Wolfe (1 of 2)


downloadA contemporary of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and other legends of early twentieth-century American literature, Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) is an unfortunately neglected writer despite the reputation he achieved among his peers as a promising and formidable author. A North Carolinian, he was enamored with the idea of America—its geography, people, and myths, and everything for which it stood—even after travelling several times to Europe and imbibing its culture, because America, in his mind, represented the extremes of human life, from the freedom of which it was symbolic to the violence and inequality that it harbored, from the limitless opportunities of its land and growing population to the immense loneliness, alienation, and frustration that festered in its cities and towns. But if he prided himself on being the American par excellence, the voice of a triumphant nation, the solitary visionary who believes himself the possessor and carver of the world, then it is equally accurate to designate him as a human par excellence to the extent that in his writings, he concerned himself not just with the wonder that is America but also with the wonder that is humanity.  

In his first two novels, Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935), about which I will be writing here, he tells the story of Eugene Gant, a fictionalized version of himself, from birth to college and beyond, detailing his experiences growing up in a chaotic household, developing a passion for learning, struggling to connect with others, attending college, dealing with death, and travelling to Europe, all the while awakening to his vocation as a writer. However, I hope to demonstrate that in so doing, despite the particularities of his narratives, he also tells the story of every one of us, for his novels are notable for their universality and depictions of lived experience, explicating the distinctly human concerns of time, memory, love, loneliness, art, and death. 

Heidegger_3_(1960)Accordingly, I will be analyzing Thomas Wolfe’s first two novels under an existential lens, drawing, in particular, from the thought of the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, whose preoccupation with the question of Being parallels that of Wolfe’s with life, showing through the former how Wolfe developed his own “existential analytic,” that is, an account of what it means to be human or, in Heidegger’s terminology, Dasein, “being-there”—existence. Using insights from Heidegger’s 1927 work Being and Time, and engaging with the judgments of several critics, I will examine Wolfe’s views on the human condition, namely, that to be human is to be fundamentally without a home and that life’s meaning can only be discovered by facing up and answering to one’s finitude.  

The Question of Home

In Wolfe’s fiction, the theme of home or, more vitally, the lack thereof, is prevalent in his reflections on life, such that it takes on essentially existential importance. 

At the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel, before the events of the novel even begin, the epigraph reads, “Oh waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. night-sky_4BVRB2CW61Where? When?” (Wolfe 19). This passage, spoken by an unidentifiable speaker who nonetheless says “we,” laments the contingency of existence, referring to the Earth as a “weary unbright cinder,” on which humans are “lost” in “hot mazes.” Thus, at the outset, the novel establishes a mood of discontentment, jadedness, and desperation; the tone of impersonality and distance hint at the lack of grandness in life, suggesting that in the Universe, there is no scheme which gives it purpose, making it seem inhospitable: It is a “waste of loss.” And yet, finding itself forced into existence, the anonymous voice exhibits its own sense of purpose. In spite of the unideal conditions into which it has been placed, it takes unto itself the seemingly futile and hopeless task of “remembering […] an unfound door.” This quest is presented as doomed, for if it is to be “remember[ed] speechlessly,” and if the speaker, in desperation, wonders aloud, “Where? When?”, then it becomes apparent that this “unfound door” is not so by accident but by design, in virtue of what it is—in other words, the door turns out to be not merely unfound, but unfindable

download-1According to John Burger’s dissertation “‘A stone, a leaf, an unfound door’: Thomas Wolfe’s Platonic search,” this passage captures the entire spirit of Wolfe’s writings. Knowing that Wolfe studied the Greek philosopher Plato in college and was fascinated by the Romantic poet Wordsworth’s spiritualism, Burger asserts that the Platonic myth of reincarnation, known as anamnesis, motivates Wolfe’s feeling of separation from the world around him, his sense that he was never “at home” (4-5). This finds expression in the detached, wistful voice that announces its restless, unending search before the protagonist of the novel, Eugene Gant, is even born, and before any characters are introduced for that matter. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the speaker is really the soul of Eugene during its descent into a mortal body, after which he will be stranded, left to look for a way back, full of painful longing, a representative of the tragic condition of the human race. Hence, for Burger, the “unfound door” is a passageway and transition into the Next World, the realm of the Forms, from which the soul originally came; until then, Eugene will remain a stranger in a strange land, though the memory of his previous life is invoked from time to time by various things—“a stone, a leaf, an unfound door”—each of which hints at the lost world. 

In Of Time and the River, which picks off where Look Homeward, Angel ended, this meditation is continued, with Eugene graduating from Harvard and seeking his place in the world. Throughout the work, no matter where Eugene travels—be it in his native “Altamont,” North Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; London, England; or Paris, France—he invariably senses an oxymoronic “strangeness and familiarity” (Wolfe 58-9). To his dismay, he finds that he “has no door to enter, no room to dwell in, no single handsbreadth of certain, consecrated earth upon that continent of wild houseless space, to which he can return” (842), leading him to conclude pessimistically that “cruel skies bend over us, and all of us are driven on forever and we have no home” (176). 

download-1The motif of the door appears here, showing that six years later, Wolfe was still preoccupied with this elusive passageway. However, at this point in his maturity, having seen and experienced more of what the world has to offer, Eugene states matter-of-factly that “we have no home” and that the world is a “houseless space,” which is a significant departure from his earlier tone of blind hope. At the same time, it is to be understood that the physical dimension of home has been called into question; Eugene grasps that a home—not even a house, an empty structure for inhabitance—does not exist for him, no matter how far he travels. There is, additionally, the element of singularity that runs through this thinking: He wants a locale that is “consecrated,” and the notion of “dwell[ing] in” a room gestures toward his desire for something uniquely his own, which explains why he cannot simply stop anywhere and settle down. Consequently, Wolfe illustrates that Eugene’s homelessness is much deeper and fundamental than one would think, and exceeds the merely empirical and sociological. 

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger came to a similar conclusion: Mankind, or Dasein as he called it, is intrinsically homeless. In Heidegger’s analysis, Dasein is always being-in-the-world insofar as it has always existed ever since being “thrown” into existence, and it is in the world—surrounded by objects, people, and meanings—that Dasein navigates through life. His originality, though, lies in his investigation into the core of Dasein which, through downloadthe mood of anxiety, is revealed to be pure negativity; that is, Heidegger observes that at on certain occasions, Dasein is overcome with an unsettling, disturbing feeling that places the world into perspective, stripping it of its sense-meaning, leaving Dasein naked and alone in the face of pure Being, i.e., the brute fact of existence, the fact of being-there (da-sein) (189). From this, he deduces that Dasein as such is uncanny, considering it is always haunted by a feeling of being out-of-place and not belonging despite its existence. In German, uncanny is unheimlich, which literally translates into “unhomely.” Based on this interpretation, Eugene’s repeated puzzlement at the world around him, which transcends culture and spatiality, stems from the disorienting finding that, ultimately, he cannot explain why he is where and when he is and that the world around him is fragile, its intelligibility temporarily suspended, disclosed as alien and foreign. 

Although Burger’s interpretation is compelling and valid with regard to the facts of Wolfe’s life, it seems limited in scope because, in spite of Plato’s influence, it is also true that Wolfe found much in the philosopher with which to disagree, causing him to reject any notion of idealism (Turnbull 61). It is worth considering that Burger does take this into account, as he refers to Wolfe’s Platonism as a myth rather than a personal conviction, an explanatory provisional backstory for his dissatisfaction, which seems to capture the contradictory tension that endures in Wolfe’s personal life (Burger 94). For this reason, Burger’s Platonic analysis, evidenced in the title of Look Homeward, Angel—Eugene’s soul yearning for pre-existence—is acceptable but, to my thinking, contingent; that is, it does not go far enough. 

download-2What Burger does not consider is the ground, or deeper reason, upon which this tension rests—or, to put it differently, he fails to investigate why this tension, this hunger for a personal myth, an explanation for his yearning, exists in the first place. Reading Burger, one would naturally assume it came from Wolfe himself, meaning that his feeling of lostness was but a psychological phenomenon unique to him; whereas Heidegger’s existential analysis reveals homelessness to be not a contingent, particular malady but rather a feature of existence itself. Eugene’s “strangeness and familiarity” and “unfound door,” therefore, can be read as either cries for a prior existence or, more originally, epiphanies at the rootlessness and uncanniness of the world itself—and a need for a place to call home.  

Works Cited:

Burger, John M., “”A stone, a leaf, an unfound door”: Thomas Wolfe’s Platonic search” (1988). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 123.

Préher, Gérald. “A cosmos of his own: loss, ghosts and loneliness in Thomas Wolfe’s fiction.” The Thomas Wolfe Review 35.1-2 (2011): 22-39.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperOne, 1962.

Nowell, Elizabeth, editor. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Scribners, 1956.

Turnbull, Andrew. Thomas Wolfe. Scribners, 1967.

Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. Scribners, 1997.

Wolfe, Thomas. Of Time and the River. Scribners, 1999.

Absurdism in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

At the end of her novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers takes the opportunity to reflect on the inevitable condemnation of man to existential loneliness. Although she ultimately believes that life is Absurd, and existence tragic, she also suggests the possibility of rare moments of genuine connection and glimpses of meaning, which make life bearable.

It is made clear in the novel that the inescapable fate of man is to remain alone, for no one can truly express oneself in a way others can understand. John Singer, a deaf-mute, cut off from the world by his lack of speech and hearing, abandoned to isolation by the death of his one and only friend Antonapoulos, and left with nothing else for which to live, commits suicide, unable to bear his condition. Throughout the novel, in his sleep, he is known to use his hands restlessly, attempting to talk to his friend in his dreams. Thus, Singer is symbolic as a character of the existential state of loneliness; for it is not just the case that he is alone by choice, through his decisions, but rather he himself embodies the very loneliness of man. Unable to convey his thoughts or feelings to anyone—Antonapoulos appears to understand, yet he does not confirm this—unable to get beyond himself, to escape the egocentric sphere of his subjectivity in conversation with others, Singer is literally closed in upon himself.

A self-enclosed monad, Singer is stuck with the polarity of his interior self: On the one hand, his life is significant in that he is able to experience anything at all, form thoughts about his experience, feel things about his experience; though on the other, he is tantalized by the need to share this rich experience of his, this internal world confined to his head and heart. With the death of his friend, Singer succumbs to pure solipsism, as he is the only one who, for him, exists in the world; he is utterly, existentially alone. Accordingly, to begin the ending of the novel with Singer’s suicide, is not just to make a comment on a character, but to make a comment on existence itself: The vain struggle to escape oneself, to connect, is not merely incidental or contingent, but a necessary facet of life within the world.

Yet just as the philosopher Camus recognized that the true question of philosophy regards suicide in the face of an apparently indifferent world, championing in its place the rebellious drudgery of Sisyphus, so the end of the novel, through its final reflection, offers a glimpse of some vague brightness against the backdrop of darkness: Love. In the final chapter, Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café, closes up his place, occupying himself with his duties when he questions why he even continues, why he keeps the bar open so late. All the love in his life has left him. His wife. A radical Communist. A young girl for whom he was sentimental. But he also realizes that love is not necessarily for anyone; rather, it is indiscriminate, absolute. Upon more thought, he suffers an epiphany that reveals the distant possibility of love amidst the confusion and sadness of the world before questioning his own sanity. Brannon recognizes the Absurdity of existence, the meaninglessness of it: After all, a total war has been waged, a man has killed himself, taking with him the solace of all those who sought solace in him.

At the end of it all, there is nothing to show for any of it. No one has ended up farther than where they started. His own loves, he ponders, have left him neither happy nor sad. He sees life as puzzle to be solved, a mystery, yet he cannot say what it is. However, Camus, in a similar position, acknowledged that, this being our lot, existence must be fought against; it is a given fact that life is Absurd, but that is no reason to give oneself over to despar; instead, one must commit to the very Absurdity of life, wading through it, our universal, shared condition the only means of finding some sort of hope. And, indeed, Brannon, in his meditations, falls upon this same truth, that love, and love alone, for anyone, for everyone—total, all-embracing, hopeless love—is like a flickering candle in the impenetrable cloak of loneliness and desperation. People come and go from his bar, and he gets farther with some than with others; yet he gets somewhere, he meets new people, he sees in the late Singer an odd, bewildering hope, a fascination with the chance for connection. All those who flocked to him, irrational as they were, and for as brief a time as it was, had found something worth living for. His departure from this world—did it change the world? It reinforced the Absurdity of the world if anything, and Biff, understanding this, troubled by its implications, thinking on the entirety of his existence, backward to the past—replete with sorrows and failures—and forward to the future—haunted by uncertainty, future failures, and… love, perchance?—believes himself insane.

Yet, in philosophical fashion, just as he himself is philosophical, the fact that he questions his sanity, unlike anyone else, is what makes him the sanest and, in the eyes of Camus, the most heroic; as shortly after, he breaks his enchantment to prepare for a new day. The significance of this closing act—returning to the banal, the everyday, the toilsome—is Sisyphus’ ascent to the top of the hill, his triumphant defiance of the unrelenting desolation of life. Biff, fixing the awning, issues a rejoinder to the gods who condemned him thus. The willingness with which he does it, furthermore, in hopes of more people coming with whom he can talk—and perhaps see into—as well as to persist courageously, unlike Singer, who was unable to cope with his condition, is his resignation to the Absurd, his way of asserting his existence, his self-conceived value—he upholds the dignity of life, knowing that at every moment it is doubtable, that nothing is assured, that no one may come into his life again, and that this in itself may be Absurd. Yet open the awning he does. One must imagine Biff happy. 

Existence is a solitary adventure, and no one is exempt from the pains of loneliness or the attempts to overcome it because this problem is not some external imposition, but the very root of our lives; however, McCullers, in the ending of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, juxtaposing Singer, who fails to properly reply to this Absurdity, with Biff, who succeeds in tolerating, enduring, and “abiding with” this “ambiguity,” contends that at the top of the summit, after much travail, there is the possibility of love. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.”