26 December, 2001
The days since September 11 have been days of rhetorical extreme. Political provocateurs are blurring words to grease their self righteous machinations. The public, unsettled by fear, seems to welcome the uncertain security of patriotic hyperbole. In the hundred or so years that language and politics have been infected with commercial values we have become used, indeed inured, to words being turned to meanings strange to their origins and traditional contexts. Words no longer belong to resonant situations but are twisted into fodder for "profitable" schemes of money and power. The commercial ethos (sell not tell) is a cultural solvent that thins language's deeper eros into clever, manipulative "associations". For instance, in modern commercial parlance, a tradition can be anything you do more than once. This a betrayal of its root sense - to give a practice or articulate understanding to the next generation. Our president's rhetoric is grounded and informed in the sell, not tell ethos of modern commercialized culture. It permits him to be libertine in the hollow praise of liberty. In the wasteland of commercially inspired subjective relativism communication is subverted by expression. A word means what the speaker thinks it means. Gone is the natural and more trustworthy intuition that words are the breath inspired articulation of our evolving collective awareness, a consensus shaped and polished in the connective friction of community.
In this context I want to share two words with you, especially their original root senses so you might sense and sift the treacherous contemporary rhetoric through their fundamental gravity. Be warned - these "rootings" are just a rehearsal for the real gift of this letter, which is Jack Gilbert's piercing poem The Abnormal Is Not Courage which haunts my own daily witness like a bright eyed raven.
The two words are courage and brave. Brave comes from the Italian bravo; where it originally meant wild, savage, fierce and came in time to name a daring villain or hired assassin. It arrived in Italian via middle Latin bravis, a young bull. So bravery is wild, fierce and reckless like a young bull who doesn't know what an old bull hopefully learns, that bravery is often destructive unless it is focused into unselfish service. It is interesting to note that selfish bravery, bravado, can become depraved. (Latin pravus crooked, is one possible older ancestor of the bravis-brave family.)
Courage comes from an Indo-European root that gives us heart, cardiac, cordial, core and record among many other "heartful" words. Courage, at root, is cour (heart) plus - age (process or realm). So courage grows out of a sense of the how and where of the heart. Courage is heart-work. Deepening our sense of courage we might ask how does the heart work ... not in a medical sense but an experiential sense? The answer is obvious to all who have listened to or felt their pulse ... the heart works one beat at a time. It is the mortal tempo that frames the mystery of our lives. Imagine it as a stone drop spindle rising and falling to spin our story's thread. Heart work, courage, is a continuum; the thin strong thread twisted between eternity and our mortality. Courageous virtues are not recklessness, bravado or ferocity but steady careful attention to the detail of daily mystery. Courage's deepest intuition and wisdom is to drum eternity into time so it is seen, felt, remembered and given away. All living beings share this rhythmic ringing of the death tempered edge of eternity, the faithful witness of the everyday wonder we conspire to inspire and pass on.
Jack Gilbert's poem is an essential poem. It is condensed, truthful speech; every word works. This poem clearly reveals and witnesses what this letter roughly stumbled up to. The Abnormal Is Not Courage is the best testimony I know for the ancient character of courage.
The Abnormal Is Not Courage
The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
tanks on horses. Rode knowing in sunlight, with sabers.
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
the bravery. Say it's not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn't that, not at its best.
It was impossible and with form. They rode in sunlight.
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore's heart: the bounty of impulse,
and the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the prodigal son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination and the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage
not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
that is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence of long accomplishment.
Jack Gilbert, Monolithos, Poems 1962 and 1982 Graywolf Press, Port Townsend, 1984