Ways of knowing

Human beings, by their nature, seek to understand themselves and the world around them. Each of us is placed into a world which we neither created nor comprehend. It is as if we have woken up in a dark room with no knowledge of who we are or how we got here. As our eyes gradually adjust to the dark, we glimpse a variety of unknown objects, clues to our origins, the origins of the room and the task we have been place into the room to complete. Before anything else can be done, we must answer the questions: who am I and what am I doing here? Throughout history, many answers to these questions, of varying validity, have been offered.

Today, and since the Enlightenment, one way of answering these questions, the scientific, has come to predominate to the detriment of other ways of answering. While the means provided by science have provided numerous benefits, they have proven incomplete and unsatisfactory at best. While the scientific method may be able to measure the speed and quantity of the water pouring over a waterfall, its chemical composition and its erosive effects, scientists can say relatively little about its beauty and its evocation of a sense of sublimity in its human observers. This, rather, is the place of the poet and the artist, whose ways of understanding do not contradict those of the scientist but do indeed complete and even surpass them. Knowledge is the imposition of human order onto otherwise apparently disorderly experience of disparate phenomena with the bodily senses and the faculties of the mind. Genius, then, is the ability to form connections between what appear to others to be entirely unrelated experiences. With these definitions in mind, the poet is the genius par excellence; he is a creator of cosmos out of chaos through the use of metaphor.

Richard Wilbur is undoubtedly an outstanding modern example of such a genius. For Wilbur, in his poetry, there is nothing that is not both significant and signifying; each experience is both valuable in itself and valuable in its ability to represent or otherwise point beyond itself to something else, entering thereby into the cohesive network of all created (and, perhaps, uncreated) things. With this dual relevance of each thing as his axiom, Wilbur is able to transform the mundane into the infinitely meaningful and thereby imbue the mundane itself with infinite meaning. In “Transit,” Wilbur begins with a chance sighting of “a woman I have never seen before” exiting her townhouse on a city street. He describes her as “so beautiful that she or time must fade,” thereby entering through an otherwise prosaic event into a poetic meditation on beauty and time. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur again exhibits his ability to begin with the banal and end in the eternal. The poem begins as Wilbur sees laundry drying on the line “outside the open window.” He begins immediately to imagine that the drying laundry is “angels,” some of whom “are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, some are in smocks.” Nearly at the climax of the poem, Wilbur records the cry of his soul: “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” In the poetic genius of Wilbur, the daily drudgery of cleaning clothes and sheets has become a celebration of life, a spotting of angelic beings and an affirmation of the inherent goodness of the created world as it stands.

That all of this may be far from the way most people experience the world, with all of its necessities and drudgeries, is precisely an argument in favor of Wilbur’s genius. He has taken up our shared sense impressions and the ideations they produce and reoriented them in an exuberant and original way. The laundry is indeed still laundry and the laundry must be done, but it is also something else; it is fuel for the often forgotten but most essential aspect of man: his eternal soul. Wilbur himself provides the most succinct, and, of course, poetical, description of his genius in his poem “A Wood”:

Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.

Wilbur has here avoided an error reciprocal to scientism. He has not asserted the tyranny of his position but rather acknowledged that if his understanding is correct, if indeed each thing is both significant and signifying, there must, then, be as many ways of metaphoring, as establishing connections between apparently disparate elements, as many ways of knowing as there are ways of being human, which is to say, they must be as numerous as are human beings themselves.

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3 comments

  1. Sorry for putting this here, Mr. Withun but I didn’t know where else to ask: what’s happened with all your youtube videos that have suddenly disappeared from your youtube channel?

  2. I have taken them down for the time being until I decide the future of what I want to do with my YouTube channel. I have been sorely disappointed with the responses I have received there and I believe at least part of the problem is in the nature of the medium itself.

    1. Thank you very much for your response. However, if I could, I would very much like to convince you to put the videos back up. I understand that the medium is not a great one, but I think it is time to think of the example of Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios – did he say “ok let’s wrap everything up and move to Russia” or “it is what it is, the country now belongs to the Turks, but let’s do the best with what we have” ?

      I for one would be very grateful. When I first stumbled upon your videos I was fascinated: here is an American guy, somewhere over the ocean who speaks and says similar things to what I might hear priests say in Church here in Romania. I think you were doing a great job in

      1) exposing English-speakers to an Orthodox perspective

      2) teaching everyone a bit about history, epistemology, and philosophy (which is sorely needed in today’s context; I understand the reponse is not what we might have hoped and I’ll spare everyone the standard continental European opinions regarding America’s… somewhat anti-intellectualist ethos, but you were making a difference)

      3) exposing mainstream Anglo-Saxon audiences to the old idea that our faith is not unreasonable – I think your interactions with popular “Youtube atheists” rather helped here, even if they were somewhat confrontational. They re-introduced the idea of reasoned faith in the conversation and started to wean the audience off the false equality between Protestantism, especially Neo-Protestant microdenominations, and “Christianity”. Both your confrontations with atheists and your explanations regarding Late Antique history helped a lot.

      4) Further, even for me, having grown up in a culture that reveres history and appreciates historical knowledge, being part of a nation that is, for all intents and purposes, both religiously and culturally Eastern Orthodox, your videos have been an excellent source of information and a very good guide of where I might get even more information – I would have never bought, nor read the “Dao De Jing” or “Christ the eternal Tao” had I not heard about them from you, for instance.

      Overall, though I probably only left one small comment or so on one of your videos, if I remember correctly, your videos had a much wider, positive, influence on me than you might have guessed from the comment section. You don’t know how many other people might have similarly benefitted from your videos without leaving any comments. You were like a mini “Khan Acadmey” in Late Antique history, philosophy and Eastern Orthodoxy.

      I hope I am not sounding too critical, but I think that if you were to put your videos back up, that would be a phenomenally good idea.

      Sincerely, Stefan.

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