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Read Orrin's interview of Frederick Glaysher.


    The Enlightenment writ large spelt the end
    of all that was truly human and noble.
        -Frederick Glaysher, The Bower of Nil

This is a narrative poem that can, and should be, read in one sitting. It depicts one long, troubled night in the life of philosopher Peter Marsh, whose wife has recently been murdered.  Early in the night, Marsh discusses his wife, Mary, with a friend, David Emerson.  With Emerson and then continuing to think about Mary and their children even after Emerson leaves, Marsh reveals the distance he feels from his family.  They are products of the Enlightenment, of the Age of Reason, of the Sexual Revolution, of the drug scene, of Modernity in all its terrible guises and have fallen prey to its various pathologies.

This leads Mr. Glaysher, in the second and I think strongest section of the poem, into a learned and devastating critique of modern culture.  Here Marsh resembles a Biblical prophet or at least a T.S. Eliot or Geoffrey Hill, raging against the ruination of Western Civilization.  Marsh begins, in a refutation of his wife's irreligion, with twin declarations that: "Whether one believes or not...the soul exists." And, "Reason and faith go hand in hand."  He embarks on a sustained attack, reminiscent of Michael Oakeshott's Rationalism in Politics, on modern Man's fealty to Reason at the expense of religious belief and philosophical inquiry:

    O Dame Philosophy, he mused, where is
    your consolation?  Where belief in wisdom,
    let alone love of it?  Providence is dead.
    The perplexed no longer seek a guide.
    Descartes finished off fifteen-hundred years
    of philosophy and substituted himself,
    retreated into the stove of consciousness,
    into the crucible of doubt,
    which has brought us where we are:
    When the foundation is undermined
    the superstructure will collapse of itself.
    The disease has only worsened since then.

    [...] Descartes was a dead fish,
    he thought.  Pascal saw it right off.
    He never fell for all that sophistry.
    He knew the cause of man's unhappiness
    is that he doesn't know how to sit
    still in his own room.  Yes, that's it.
    Sit quietly and wager, enwrapped
    in fire, neither excluding reason nor
    admitting only reason. [...]

    Montaigne may have thought we have lost
    the hierarchy of being and reason,
    but what could he offer other than
    his scathing skepticism? Pascal
    knew the fallacy of Montaigne's dilemma.
    The immortality of the soul is
    an eternal, divine command.
    Sitting on the fence is itself negation,
    refusing to wager is to wager.
    Both the heart and reason perceive God.
    And reason's last step recognizes there is
    an infinite number of stairs beyond it.
    God of Abraham, God of Isaac,
    God of Jacob, not of philosophers
    and scholars....Certitude, certitude.
    Here, in the existential realm, we live
    and move and have our being.  The stakes are
    infinite. Negation molders in the grave.

By the end of this section Peter Marsh is near total despair, as his survey of philosophy has led him to point where we are today, a moment of utter nihilism, complete lack of faith, and surrender to the view that life has no purpose.  He picks up a pair of scissors and lays down on the ground.

The third section opens and as he lies there, the new day begins to dawn, the first bird begins to sing, and hope begins to return to Peter Marsh.  The first hope is that God will reveal his will to Man again.  The second is that democracy will give rise to a better world:

    For all its decadence democracy
    has permitted freedom of worship,
    freedom of individual conscience.
    Groping, faltering, it moves toward
    a wider definition of loyalty.
    At the least it has formed a bridge between
    the old world and the one still forming.
    Uncouth, but not barbaric, democracy
    stands for a universal vision
    of mankind wrestling with destiny
    laying the foundations of world peace,
    blending the nations into harmony,
    a discredited yet immortal System.
    Out of each cataclysm, democracy
    strains to raise the millions toward
    greater affiliation, freedom, peace.

At this point, even a religious believer and a democratic optimist can't help feeling that Mr. Glaysher is getting ahead of himself--not to mention well ahead of most of the competing civilizations in the modern world--and by the time he gets to this--"Sooner or later the time will come, regalvanizing the United Nations..."--he begins to lose us a little.  And this:

    Slowly, gradually, a marvelous
    world civilization will develop,
    with a world Executive, supported by
    an international force, guided by
    the adjudications of a Supreme Tribunal,
    serving the interests of all nations,
    implementing the decisions
    of a global Legislature, freely
    elected by all the inhabitants
    of the diverse but unified planet,
    mirroring, however faintly, His Kingdom.

...is just too much.  Surely God's purpose for us here on Earth can not be so mundane as to create a World Government?  In fact, we have little reason to believe that God favors one kind of government over another.  As Robert Kraynak has written in his excellent recent book,Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World:

    The difficulty is that modern democracy's need for a religious basis is no guarantee that one is readily available.  As disturbing
    as it might be for modern believers to admit, the critics of religion have a legitimate point: Christian faith is derived from a
    revealed book, the Bible, and from church traditions that are not necessarily liberal or democratic in their teachings.  The
    Christian notion of human dignity, for example, is derived from the biblical idea that human beings are made in the image
    and likeness of God.  But it is not clear if the Bible's idea of the divine image in man--the Imago Dei--entails political notions
    like democracy and human rights, in fact, many great theologians of the past understood it to be compatible with kingship,
    hierarchy, or authoritarian institutions.  The Christian view of human dignity is also qualified by a severe view of human
    sinfulness and by other difficult doctrines--such as, divine election, the hierarchical authority of the church, and the priority
    of duties to God and neighbor over individual rights.  These doctrines are not always easy to square with democratic norms
    of freedom and equality, nor are they easily discarded  without removing the core of Christian faith.

    Thus, we must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic
    as we would like Him to be.  [Italics in original]

But from what I've read Mr. Glaysher is devoted to the cause of the United Nations--this seems a personal dream of his.  And, since we can't know God's purposes, it's possible this could be one.  At any rate, the poem closes well with an especially nice Baha'i prayer of self-abnegation:

    "I bear witness, O my God, Thou hast
    created me to know Thee and to worship Thee
    I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness
    and to Thy might, to my poverty and to
    Thy wealth.  There is none other God but Thee,
    the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting."

and with Peter Marsh's faith in God and in Man's future fully restored. He is once again reconciled to the "torment and struggle" of his life.

Mr. Glaysher writes with a genuine passion, with an obvious thrill at the play of ideas, and with an often compelling sense of purpose. Though I personally found the world government stuff to be dubious, the excesses seem excusable because I also happen to agree with nearly all of his analysis of how we got to where we are and to share his hope for a better tomorrow, one that remains within our grasp because of a combination of the universality of our God and of our political system.  On balance the poem is very worthwhile reading and the middle section is just outstanding.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Poetry
Book-related and General Links:
    -Frederick Glaysher
    -The Bahai Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience
    -ETEXT:   The Bower of Nil (Section I of III)
    -REVIEW: of Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories (Frederick Glaysher)
    -REVIEW: of Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude (Frederick Glaysher, CrossCurrents)
    -REVIEW: of  Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society by Gerald Graff (Frederick Glaysher, World Order)
    -REVIEW: of Into the Ruins by Frederick Glaysher (Arthur Mortensen, Expansive Poetry)
    -REVIEW: of Into the Ruins (Adam Swinford-Wasem, Chicago Poet)

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