The Arty Semite

Truth and Beauty vs. the Dominating 'I'

By Eve Grubin

  • Print
  • Share Share

This piece is crossposted from The Best American Poetry, where poet Eve Grubin is guest blogging this week. Read Grubin’s previous posts here and here, and her poetry on The Arty Semite here.

Wiki Commons

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:

The Rain

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,
insisted upon
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
final uneasiness.

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.
Be wet
with a decent happiness.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Best American Poetry, Robert Creeley, Rambam, Poetry, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Moshe Ben Maimon, Maimonides, Eve Grubin, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, The Rain

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.