Sunday Soldiers (Poem)

A poem from my new (draft) book of poems, Brown Studies

Sunday Soldiers

In memory of Jake Adam York, poet

(‘Sunday Soldiers’ was Civil War slang for unsuitable soldiers)

1.We drive from Auburn to Columbus

Sunday march to church

He sits in the back seat and studies

My earmarked copy of Descartes’ Meditations

“What a marvelous book!  I want

To clap my hands after every sentence!”

2. Beside me, working for breath

Is his wife, her head pulled

Toward her feet by Parkinson’s 

Cramping her lungs

Her whole body

Making a fist

Against her will

3. She whispers the Preparation for Confession:

Purity of heart is to will one thing

We pass the site of a Sunday morning 

Flea market, a makeshift booth 

Flies a Confederate flag

He sees it, crosses himself, 

Notices me watching

In the rearview mirror

“It’s the flag of my country!”

4. So it is, although he is not so aged

That he can remember that country,

Yet he commemorates it, venerates it,

Notes often that his country died game

Under the heels of well shod Blue Bellies

5. What am I to say?  He is a saint,

An exemplar–in every way 

But this way

May a saint be a Grey Back,

May he venerate the South, that South,

Without damning himself, 

Rendering his soul shoddy?

6. Driving the car,

Meditating on David—and Bathsheba

On Moses—and the rock

On David contrite, forced to leave

Building the Temple to others,

On Moses abashed, on the mountain

Overlooking the Promised Land

7. Driving the car west

Meditating on North and South

Meditating on right and wrong,

Meditating on vision and blindness

And their confederacy in the heart,

–In his heart, in my heart, in your heart:

We venerate hateful flags, 

We are all Sunday Soldiers

Descartes’ Meditations: Seeking Purity of Mind

I have been teaching Descartes’ Meditations in my Intro class.  It is the first time in many years that I have worked past the Second Meditation with any care.

Among the many things that strike me–and I am of course not claiming original insight here–is the way in which Descartes’ epistemological struggle runs parallel to spiritual struggle.  Like the acknowledged sinner, Descartes repents, and, in repenting, seeks for a true change of mind.  To do this he must, again like the sinner, conduct an agonizing examination of conscience, testing himself at every turn.  He makes but fitful progress:  lessons learnt are soon forgotten; old habits die very hard.  But he keeps at it, keeps salting his beliefs with the fire of doubt, and eventually he purifies himself.  He stands naked, vunerable–apparently alone.  The purifications of doubt, have, however, done their work–blessed are the pure in heart, in mind, for they shall see God.  And Descartes does.  He finds that he is not alone:  God is with him.  And, it turns out, God has been with him all along:  though Descartes has been wandering through a valley dark, no evil demon need he fear.  God’s shepherd’s crook comforts him.  And, so, in the end, much like Job, Descartes gets back what he had before (at least, what he really had).  God prepares a table for Descartes before the face of the evil demon, and Descartes’ epistemological cup runs over.

Cartesian Witness Protection–Alphonso Lingis

For the modern philosophical tradition stemming from Descartes, our immediate and basic experience of subjectivity occurs in an internal or reflective experience  whereby I discover, by a sort of turning back of my own mental attention upon itself, that I am able to see, immediately, incontestably, that I exist at least as a stream of conscious states.  Thought discovers that it always has this power to attend to itself; the mind has the ontological structure of existence-for-itself.  For consciousness to exist is for it to be continually aware of itself, to be its own witness.

This reflexive experience is immediate and non-discursive; let us call it immanent reflection.  There is an eclipse of the body functions and their interactions with the world; thought experiences itself directly, without the interposition of the body or the world, and even comes to wonder if it could then exist without the body and without the world.  In turning back reflexively upon itself it seems to form a circuit with itself such that it not only becomes its own witness, but closes itself to outside observation.  Its essential nature, which is to exist reflexively for-itself, is not mediated by anything extended or sensibly observable; the mind seems, then, not only to be its own witness, but to be its sole possible witness.

Descartes’ Broom of the System: An Apple? No, Doubt.

(A little ditty for my Intro students–to push them into the Meditations’ deep sea.)

Descartes has gone wrong.  He knows it.  Between the true and the false there is a double yellow line, and he’s been swerving from lane to lane.  He’s been suckered.  His senses are untrustworthy, his dreams betrayals and his God, well, maybe his God has been a cheat.  His mind, his home, his castle, has been invaded.  The walls are full of rats and the roof leaks and the foundation shakes.  He needs a fresh start, a spring-cleaning, a clean sweep.  He needs repair.

But to repair he needs to test.  What does he have worth keeping?  How can he decide?  He decides to doubt.  Not a pale, will-I-make-it-on-time? had-those-leftovers-gone-bad? daily double doubt.  No, he wants to doubt a real doubter’s doubt, steroidal doubt, fertility be damned.  He will drive out the rats, patch the leaks, and secure the foundations.  He’ll rid himself of falsity.  He will throw open his windows, prop open the door, let some air in.  Breathe deep.

How now to doubt, really doubt?  One needs a plan.  –He doesn’t want to doubt willy-nilly, randomly.  He wants to doubt systematically.  The doubt should be endeavored with a bankerish caution.  A little doubt first, and then more, and then yet more, until all that can be doubted has been doubted.  Then:  what is left is for keeps:  doubters keepers, believers weepers.

Descartes starts.  He starts with eyes and hands, suchlike.  –They’ve fooled him.  Hands have been faster than eyes.  –He can’t believe his eyes.  His hands go numb.  He has heard without hearing.  Things smell funny.  He has failed taste tests.  So much senseless sensing.

Still, some of that sensing seems sensible.  Can he really be wrong about his hand before his eyes?  Can that be doubted?  Maybe not by doubt like the doubt he’s been doubting.  But turn that doubt up.  He had dreamt his hand before his eyes when he was asleep, when he saw nothing.  He could be dreaming even now.  So much for his senses.

But Descartes realizes that not everything in his mind was deposited there by his senses.  He believes, well, like math and stuff.  Does dreaming doubt doubt that?  Maybe not.  To turn doubt all the way up Descartes looks heavenward.  Maybe there exists a creature like God, but rotten, rotten to the core, wormy.  A creature like the Garden-creature, but more seductive.  An apple-giver of the worst sort, coiled around the Tree of Knowledge, choking it, all the while smiling its villain’s smile.  Maybe that creature, that evil demon, has been fooling Descartes.  Not just about hands and eyes, but even about math and stuff.  Maybe everything has to go.  Maybe nothing is left.  Walls, roof, foundation—all to go, and not just rats, leaks and shakes.  Nothing left, no, just bits of stone and rubble.  –Descartes’ mind gone to ruin.  Demonized.

Wait, though; wait just a demon-damned minute!  Descartes’ mind gone to ruin.  Right.  Right.  There is something left.  Descartes.  Someone’s standing in the stone and rubble.  Our doubter!  (Bless his doubting heart!)  The demon can do his worst, has done his worst, but he has to do it to someone.  Someone’s got to be his patsy, his fool.  And Descartes is the man for the job.  Fool him once, shame on you, fool him twice, shame on you, –all you are doing is establishing his foolish existence.  Because he can be fooled, he exists.  Because he can get everything wrong, he exists.  What the demon can’t fool him about is his fitness to be fooled.  To be the jester in the demon’s court Descartes must be.  He submits, as all do, to the dialectic of Hamlet:  to be or not to be.  And while that is the question, Descartes knows the answer.  To be.  He is.  He thinks, maybe foolishly, but he thinks, so he is.

There, in the midst of doubt, stands Descartes.  He’s waiting for the midst to clear.

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