May 17, 2013

"A Self is interesting to oneself and others, it acts as a sort of rudder in all the vicissitudes of life..."

"... and it thereby defines what used to be known as a career," wrote Jacques Barzun to his grandson, the lawprof, Charles Barzun, quoted by my son Jaltcoh here. The grandson had asked for help with what he called "a genuine crisis of identity... "brought on by the events of 9/11 and partly by my own discovery that I could not have cared less about my job." The grandfather assured him that he would find his way, which would look "like a path marked on a map" and "you will have made a Self, which is indeed a desirable possession."

The elder Barzun likens identity to a path and then to a rudder. Life is a journey. That's a very widely used metaphor. All these people who think of life as a journey: What are they picturing? Do they see a wilderness where you can find — or break — a path? Or do they see a map where you can mark a path? Or is it a journey over the ocean, in which your body is a ship, and what you want is a rudder?



The seafaring image implicit in Barzun's "rudder" made me think of that popular old poem that ends "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul." I haven't heard that poem — "Invictus" — quoted in a long time, perhaps because it was overquoted to the point of triteness and nowadays people don't read poetry — other than in children's books. They'll listen to poetry, including the endless doggerel of rap (which is, perhaps, inspired by many childhood readings of Dr. Seuss books). But there was a time when lots of ordinary people knew the last verse of "Invictus" by heart.

I'm reading the Wikipedia page for "Invictus," scanning the long list of items under the heading "Influence." It begins with "Casablanca" (where "I am the master of my fate" is used ironically). The next item features Ronald Reagan:
In the 1945 film Kings Row, Parris Mitchell, a psychiatrist played by Robert Cummings, recites the first two stanzas of "Invictus" to his friend Drake McHugh, played by Ronald Reagan, before revealing to Drake that his legs were unnecessarily amputated by a cruel doctor.
Next, another President, FDR, at least the FDR of the 1958 play Sunrise at Campobello. Further down we encounter Nelson Mandela, who recited the poem to hearten his fellow prisoners. There's also Aung San Suu Kyi. And then... it's chilling to encounter this after beginning this post with the crisis of identity brought on by 9/11:
The Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh quoted the poem in its entirety as his final (written) statement.
The terrorists are out and about on their own ships in the seafaring journey of life, and they've got their rudders. Emergency inspiration available here.

55 comments:

Mitchell the Bat said...

Rudder or keel?

Either way you want to manage your bilge water.

edutcher said...

For some, the journey is the Yellow Brick Road; for others, Omaha Beach.

Æthelflæd said...

I always thought it was a rather silly poem. "I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul." What a prissy little fool. He lost hos foot as a teenager. He could have been dead. He was not the master of either circumstance.

virgil xenophon said...

You've left unsaid, Ann, that the "path thru life"/"passage upon the seas of life" is a one-way trip. Or, to quote the Rubaiyat:

"The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on, nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

Balfegor said...

But there was a time when lots of ordinary people knew the last verse of "Invictus" by heart.

Lots of people still do -- I do, for example. On the other hand, after it became McVeigh's final words, it doesn't quite have the same appeal it once had.

Ann Althouse said...

"On the other hand, after it became McVeigh's final words, it doesn't quite have the same appeal it once had."

Apparently, by the time of "Casablanca," it was already something that had lost its original deadly seriousness and was good for a laugh.

St. George said...

Balfegor--

If it makes you feel better, consider this story about Adm. James Stockdale...

"Finally, after more than four years of torture, isolation and leg irons, Stockdale tried to kill himself by breaking a pane of glass and slashing his wrists with a broken shard. The North Vietnamese found him in a pool of blood and saved him. By chance, his wife was in Paris demanding humane treatment. The last thing Hanoi wanted was for Stockdale to die. From that day, the torture ended.

He never talked about Stoicism in prison, but one sharp fellow-prisoner twigged. In rat-droppings, he wrote on a scrap of paper the last stanza of Henley's poem Invictus, and left it where Stockdale would see it:

I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

virgil xenophon said...

Speaking of poems, I wonder if Obama ever read Ozmandias?

Pettifogger said...

I like the metaphor of a rudder. I recall less eloquently trying to get the same concept across to my younger daughter. I told her that we are the accumulation of the decisions we make each day on what the right thing to do is. But I was just Dad, blathering as Dad was wont to do.

St. George said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Æthelflæd said...

virgil xenophon said...
"Speaking of poems, I wonder if Obama ever read Ozmandias?"

Heh.

gerry said...

I had a plan. It has been reliable, for the most part, although as I've aged and am now over 60, planning seems futile, even depressing.

I now feel as if I am on Obama Beach.

Balfegor said...

Re: Althouse:

Apparently, by the time of "Casablanca," it was already something that had lost its original deadly seriousness and was good for a laugh.

Looking down that list of references on wikipedia, I'd read that differently -- it was just sufficiently well embedded in popular culture that it had become a source of phrases speakers could turn to their own purposes, like lots of famous quotes, latin tags, etc.

Maybe that's the same as "lost its original deadly seriousness," but it's certainly still capable of being meaningful for people, or still was in the middle of the 20th century, at least. I don't think Invictus has ever quite become marked as automatically humorous/ironic the way, say, "My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure" or (to a lesser extent) "ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die" have become.

Balfegor said...

Re: gerry

Boswell wrote:

Walked to Craighouse and breakfasted with Lord Covington, whom I had not seen for many months. He was grown very dull of hearing, and gave me a discouraging view of life and old age and human existence. He said his memory was failed, and that the mind and body failed together; and he seemed to acquiesce in that dreary notion, without hope of restoration. And he said when one looked back on life, it was just a chaos of nothing.

The diary entry continues (though not quoted in the link above):

He however was not cast down

creeley23 said...

It's easy to be jaded about "Invictus," but ultimately one must take a stance in life as either an agent or a victim.

I know which I prefer.

We are now discovering the many benefits of a society which eschews "Invictus."

edutcher said...

virgil xenophon said...

Speaking of poems, I wonder if Obama ever read Ozmandias?

Probably thought it was referring to Jack Ryan.

gerry said...

I had a plan. It has been reliable, for the most part, although as I've aged and am now over 60, planning seems futile, even depressing.

I now feel as if I am on Obama Beach.


BG Norman Cota: What outfit is this?

Soldier: 5th Rangers, sir!

BG Norman Cota: Rangers, lead the way!

Æthelflæd said...

creeley23 said...
It's easy to be jaded about "Invictus," but ultimately one must take a stance in life as either an agent or a victim."

Those are not the only two choices.

creeley23 said...

Those are not the only two choices.

Perhaps you could say more. I say it *ultimately* boils down to those choices -- agent or victim.

Hermann Kahn was once asked whether there was free will. He said he didn't know, but noted that you get better quality people when they believe in free will.

Larry J said...

Life is a collection of decisions, many seemingly inconsequential at the time, in response to changing conditions. We make countless decisions every day. Each decision chooses a path for us only to be altered by subsequent decisions. As a consequence, we also make many errors. Most errors are also inconsequential but some are unrecoverable. If you're driving on an icy road and try to make a turn too fast, you'll lose control and may not be able to regain it. At that moment, you're no longer a driver but just a passenger. Your car will eventually stop but it may be in a ditch or against a tree.

"Man plans, God laughs."

Æthelflæd said...

There is a difference between saying one is responsible for the choices one makes, and saying that one is the master of one's destiny.

creeley23 said...

There is a difference between saying one is responsible for the choices one makes, and saying that one is the master of one's destiny.

You'll note I said "agent," not "master of one's destiny."

Likewise, "Invictus" is a poem, not a philosophical claim. "Invictus" expresses a sentiment that can and has inspired people to be responsible.

Æthelflæd said...

A further riff on Larry J's post -

Man proposes, God disposes.

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
James 4:13-16

"And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows."

Luke 12:4-7

wildswan said...

I think life is like a path across a swamp which is marked by half-submerged white stones. You can see the next step from where you stand; you can't see where you are going or whether the path really continues. So it comes down to faith - or optimism - or pessimism.

And that is why you should do what you love or get as close to doing what you love as circumstances allow. Otherwise it's hard to keep going.

Æthelflæd said...

"I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul" and "I am the master of my fate" are Henley's words. You can say they aren't philosophical, but they are.

"Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul."

It is a rather popular philosophy, but it is silly.

Balfegor said...

Re: Æthelflæd:

If we were to approach Invictus as a philosophical statement, I don't think you can read "I am the master of my fate" in isolation. When he writes; "Beneath the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed," it is obvious he is not denying that chance and outside factors can affect one. By "unconquerable soul" and "master of my fate," I think he is saying that ultimately the choice of whether to fight on or give up is his choice -- that he has, as it were, the "courage never to submit or yield," or perhaps even to "rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Balfegor said...

And perhaps that's silly to a Stoic, but as a philosophy to live by, it seems decent enough, if a bit self-exalting.

Mitchell the Bat said...

The first rule of popular entertainment is to flatter your audience.

Æthelflæd said...

Balfegor said...

"If we were to approach Invictus as a philosophical statement, I don't think you can read "I am the master of my fate" in isolation. When he writes; "Beneath the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed," it is obvious he is not denying that chance and outside factors can affect one. By "unconquerable soul" and "master of my fate," I think he is saying that ultimately the choice of whether to fight on or give up is his choice -- that he has, as it were, the "courage never to submit or yield," or perhaps even to "rage, rage against the dying of the light.""

Well, I am not approaching this poem as a philosophical statement. Sorry if I gave that impression. I just meant to say that the poet has a philosophy, which shows up in the poem. And yes, I realize he is saying he won't give up the fight when faced with adversity, but he goes beyond that into extreme hubris. Like most poems,it elicits different reactions from different readers. It has always struck me as being rather juvenile.

rhhardin said...

I'm guided with ailerons.

Rudder is just to correct for adverse yaw.

Ann Althouse said...

"It's easy to be jaded about "Invictus," but ultimately one must take a stance in life as either an agent or a victim.""

1. Whether a poem is good or bad isn't too connected with whether the sentiment expressed is a good one or a bad one.

2. It's useful to have a good attitude especially when things are terrible, which is to say, it's helps to have the stance that you are the agent, especially when you are the victim.

3. The poem is most moving when spoken by someone who is not controlling what is happening.

4. Saying I'm in control of all this when you're in prison is delusional, but moving and useful.

5. This delusion is one of a set of the greatest delusions that human beings rely on. Those who lack these delusions are not the ones who hold society together. (As I said the other day: Truth is not our highest value. Think about it!)

Æthelflæd said...

I like the rudder analogy, by the way. You try to steer your course generally by your choices, but there are the waves, storms, currents, winds, sharks, etc. that are beyond your control. In that case, you have to decide whether you shall stare bravely into the abyss, or trust that God is in control, and gain courage from that.

ricpic said...

If he could not care less about his job the question to ask of his SELF is 'What do I care about?" and then pursue that. It's not rocket science, folks. The self reveals itself in just such realizations of indifference or passionate attachment.

Æthelflæd said...

Althouse said..."Those who lack these delusions are not the ones who hold society together."

To the contrary, those who don't hold these delusions are exactly those who hold society together. The farmer knows he's not in control of the weather. The surgeon knows that he is but an imperfect mechanic, and people are going to die under his knife. The elites can afford their delusions because the foundations of society don't have them.

Mitch H. said...

For some, the journey is the Yellow Brick Road; for others, Omaha Beach.

And for some, Dover Beach. Which the Professor finds to be "not our highest value", and numerous commenters find nobler than the delusion of the tortured unbreakable.

Huh. Now that I think about it, McCain talked about his breaking point in prison, back during the 2008 RNC. It was his Christian rejoinder to the essentially pagan, absolutist free-will stance of "Invictus": the will of man has an end, but time and the world does not. Only those who have broken can truly look outside themselves for that which cannot break.

The "I thank whatever gods may be" line makes me think of "The Garden of Prosperine"'s most famous stanza:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

Equally pagan, but a completely different argument. But then, Swinburne was always fixated by failure, finality and defeat.

creeley23 said...

It's nice to have my comment ably explicated by Althouse, alhtough I'm not given credit.

Æthelflæd: You seem to keep missing the point that people don't use "Invictus" as a statement of reality but as a sentiment to live one's life by.

The farmer and the surgeon don't believe that they have absolute control of life but they do believe it's up to them to make it up happen.

creeley23 said...

... make it happen.

Æthelflæd said...

Creeley23, it seems to me that you and Althouse are making the argument: "It is a valuable poem because it gives me (or other poor saps) the warm fuzzies".

phx said...

I don't care what happens to me, if I am murdered, falsely accused, have an incurable illness, fired for not being the right color, mistreated for my political beliefs...

do not ever call me a victim.

phx said...

I do my best and I accept the responsibility for whatever happens to me.

rhhardin said...

Burke said somewhere of Invictus that it was the poem of a man who had been badly scaring himself...

here, google finds all.

Stanley Cavell remarks on the bad philosophical grammar of the poem

here, finding instead that the soul is a relation to others.

creeley23 said...

Æthelflæd said...

I always thought it was a rather silly poem.
...
Creeley23, it seems to me that you and Althouse are making the argument: "It is a valuable poem because it gives me (or other poor saps) the warm fuzzies".

Well, whatever works for you or doesn't.

People often get through the hard parts of life using things that others find silly.

I know a woman who got through her stepfather's sustained mental and physical attacks by remembering the old Christian TV show for children using puppets, "Davey and Goliath."

Aung San Suu Kyi got through prolonged house arrests, in which she was isolated from friends and family for years at a time and her diet was so restricted that her hair fell out, by remembering Invictus and a similar poem by Rabinadrath Tagore.

Æthelflæd said...

rhhardin said... "Burke said somewhere of Invictus that it was the poem of a man who had been badly scaring himself..."

My first thought was Edmund Burke, and I was all like, "Whuuuttt?"

Unknown said...

1. Whether a poem is good or bad isn't too connected with whether the sentiment expressed is a good one or a bad one.

This seems backwards to me. Imo, a poem gets worse to the extent that a bad sentiment is expressed with more technical skill.

rhhardin said...

My first thought was Edmund Burke

A parents' car stopped me long ago and asked where Burke Hall was.

Forcing an unnecessary turn, I asked, "Edmund or Kenneth?"

They didn't know.

"You probably want Edmund. It's down there.."

I'd imagine it's the guy who gave the gift, actually. The same way the women's dorm, Beaver Hall, probably got its official name. The administration isn't into humor.

creeley23 said...

Aethelfaed's condescending "poor saps" and "warm fuzzies" reminds me of a Jimi Hendrix soundbite, when he was asked if his band used "gimmicks."

Gimmicks, here we go again, gimmicks. Man, I'm tired of people saying we're.... gimmicks.

What is this? The world is nothing but a big gimmick, isn't it? Wars, napalm bombs, all that, people getting burned up on TV and it's nothing but a stunt.

Gimmicks.

Yes we do.

Æthelflæd said...

Mitch H..."Now that I think about it, McCain talked about his breaking point in prison, back during the 2008 RNC. It was his Christian rejoinder to the essentially pagan, absolutist free-will stance of "Invictus": the will of man has an end, but time and the world does not. Only those who have broken can truly look outside themselves for that which cannot break."

Too hard to soundbite. Everybody wants their warm poetic Snuggie to cuddle up with as they sit in the ballroom of the Titanic admiring the chandeliers. "It's all good, this Snuggie is so soft and cuddly."

Æthelflæd said...

The "poor saps" was in reference to:

"5. This delusion is one of a set of the greatest delusions that human beings rely on. Those who lack these delusions are not the ones who hold society together. (As I said the other day: Truth is not our highest value. Think about it!)" - AA

It's not true, but it greases the skids of civilization, it would seem.

Mitch H. said...

AE, the leftist theoretician Georges Sorel, faced with the inarguable truth that the Marxist conception of the crisis of capitalism was not going to arrive, came up with the idea of the "vital myth", which in the Marxian cosmos meant that, although there wasn't actually going to be a true crisis of capitalism or dictatorship of the proletariat, it was socially necessary to proceed as if the exploded economic science of Marxism was true. It was their "organizing myth". He and those he influenced generalized the concept, and insisted that all societies were founded on similar vital myths - poetic falsehoods which were necessarily held so as to provide the intellectual and emotional spines of their organizing culture. You will not be at all surprised to find that Sorel's most enthusiastic adherents became the intellectual core of Fascism throughout Europe. They just supplanted the vital myth of the international revolution of the proletariat for an array of hypernationalist mythologies - Roman nostalgia for the Italians, the ancient German forest-myths for the Nazis, etc.

Æthelflæd said...

If you are going to make up a mythology to base a civilization upon, at least make it interesting,like Vergil did. Victorian schlock is no basis for a free society. Watery tarts with swords would be better, and more fun.

Balfegor said...

Re: Æthelflæd:

Well, could be worse. Could be modern schlock. At least Victorian schlock has proper watery tarts with swords:

"Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems
Should blind my purpose, for I never saw,
Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die,
So great a miracle as yonder hilt.
Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him;
But when I looked again, behold an arm,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
That caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere
."

Æthelflæd said...

True, true, Balfegor. Besides, not everything Victorian is schlock.

creeley23 said...

AE: Invictus is a poem that some people draw inspiration from, not a blueprint for civilization, though I would argue that civilization is better served by those who are inspired by Invictus than those who sit around and moan, "Nobody know the trouble I've seen."

It's a work of art. YMMV on how well it inspires *you* and if it doesn't, bully for you, but so what. You're not a better person because of it.

The poet who wrote it was a teenager who had tuberculosis of the bone. By the time he was 17 they had to amputate his leg below the knee. He wrote that poem as an act of personal affirmation in the face of the loss. He had a difficult life -- he almost lost his other leg in his twenties -- but survived into his fifties.

Henley was a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who based the character "Long John Silver" of "Treasure Isalnd" on Henley, and "Wendy" of "Peter Pan" on Henley's daughter.

The world is a better place for William Henley and his poem. I'd like to think a Christian would have the generosity to grant that.

rcocean said...

Its nothing more than stoical philosophy in a poem. Ultimately, no man can control external circumstance. Whether we live, die, become sick or lame, rich or poor is a matter a chance or fate or God. One can reduce or increase this or that but ultimately chance or fate or God controls.

What we can control is our REACTION to external circumstance. One can face adversity bravely or give up and die. One can lick the hand the tyrant or die fighting. Ultimately, no man is your master, only you are.

rcocean said...

God deals everyone a hand. How you play it, and how you react to victory or defeat is up to you.

creeley23 said...

Its nothing more than stoical philosophy in a poem.

rcocean: True. Henley acknowledges his debt to Stoicism.

Of course, it's very special to embody thought in words so dazzling that they have inspired generations of human beings who may care nothing about that ancient philosophy.

Ten years ago I was reading the New Testament and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius at about the same time. I was struck by a similar tone and similar advice about the conduct of life. It seemed to me that Stoicism was, sort of, Christian ethics without the Good News of Christ's Resurrection.