Truth and Beauty vs. the Dominating 'I'
If “Imagination is evidence of the Divine” then, as John Keats wrote in a letter, “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.”
When something beautiful captured Eve’s imagination, she knew it was “truth.” This link between the imagination, beauty, and truth is surprising, even counterintuitive. We would normally expect an instinctual response to beauty to involve a sense of feeling good, satisfied, a sense of enjoyment in what is pleasing to us. We don’t think of beauty as “true.” Beauty is subjective, not objective. What was Keats suggesting by this link?
The Rambam (Maimonides, or Moshe Ben Maimon, the 12th-century Sephardic rabbi and doctor) explains that before Eve spoke to the snake, she understood the world in terms of truth and falsehood. Good and evil were values that did not occur to her. In Eve’s mind truth (the interconnectedness of the spiritual and physical worlds) was beautiful.
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
(John Keats — from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”)
Here Keats taps into what Eve knew in Eden: that beauty and truth are the same thing. The physical world is beautiful because it represents the spiritual world, and Eve could see “heaven in a wildflower.” Emily Dickinson wrote of beauty and truth “the two are one.”
The Rambam contends that when Eve’s imagination seized on beauty and saw truth there, she ignored judgments such as good and bad because the “I” did not dominate her inner life — when the “I” dominates, subjectivity takes over, and we see things as either good or bad. What would it be like to see everything as either true or false?
When something false presented itself to Eve, a voice could suggest: “you” might like this. But that “you” is relatively easy to ignore. It represents a theoretical desire. Eve might have a detached thought such as: “Something in me thinks I want this.” It was not difficult to dismiss such a thought. But once desire begins to speak in the first person, it’s a different situation. Then it’s unequivocally “me.”
The snake was able to draw Eve into a place where the “I” dominated. Where the “I” took control and steered her rather than her steering it. “To be in a passion you good may do” Blake wrote, “But no good if a passion is in you.” If passion is in you, then it controls you. If you are in a passion then you can steer it.
In my next post I will explore how the snake pulled Eve into the place of “I,” where desire began to guide her rather than the other way around.
But now I want to look at a poem by Robert Creeley which laments the dogged persistence of the dominating “I.” He suggests that the perseverance of the “I” traps one in anxiety. He writes: “What am I to myself / that must be remembered, / insisted upon / so often?” And he asks, “am I to be locked in this / final uneasiness”? Creeley feels that the insistent “I” leads to “tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi- / lust of intentional indifference.”
The snake led Eve out of the poet’s trance where her imagination seized on beauty as truth, and he brought her to a place where the “I” dominates existence. Creeley acknowledges this trap and then finds a way out:
by Robert Creeley
All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.
What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
so often? Is it
that never the ease,
even the hardness,
of rain falling
will have for me
something other than this,
something not so insistent—
am I to be locked in this
Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out
of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
with a decent happiness.