The Arty Semite

A Word That Contains Its Opposite

By Eve Grubin

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

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The speaker in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “A narrow fellow in the grass,” describes her response each time she meets a snake:

…never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

Are these last lines from Dickinson’s poem absorbing the aftershock of Eve’s encounter with the snake? What essential snake quality tightens our breathing, creating a sense of fright to our very bones? Even when the snake is not fatally threatening, its presence can be daunting on a deep psychological level.

“The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

A snake embodies opposite qualities: a furless simplicity, an “honest” straightforward shape, combined with a tendency to slither unexpectedly without a sound, surprising us with its presence, seemingly deceptive. We perceive the snake as simultaneously candid and sneaky, naked and cunning.

“And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast in the field.” (Genesis 2:25-3:1)

These lines are placed next to each other in the text. Usually, the Hebrew word “arom” is translated into English as “cunning” to describe the snake. Although this is a correct translation, one can’t help but notice that the word “arom” is translated into English as “naked” when describing “the man and his wife.” “Arom” means both cunning and naked. It’s a word that contains its opposite. The second line could be translated: “The serpent was more naked than any beast in the field.”

The snake convinces Eve with both honesty and cunning to step out of the poet’s trance, out of the truth of the imagination and into a world where the “I” drives the inner life. Deception mixed with truth is the most difficult combination to combat.

The rabbis of the Talmud explained that every falsehood contains a small amount of truth.

When Eve listened to the snake, she hung on to the truth inside the falsehood. This is called rationalization. As Adrienne Rich has written, “Denial drugs itself on partial truth.”

Eve used her senses and reasoning to “be in denial,” to rationalize, in the same way that Othello allowed himself to be convinced by Iago that his wife was having an affair. Iago persuaded Othello through reason and finally, through the senses, that Desdemona was involved with Cassio — Iago presented “evidence” of a found handkerchief to convince Othello of a lie. While Blake believed that “Imagination is evidence of the Divine,” Iago used the “evidence” of reason and the senses to perpetuate a falsehood. William Butler Yeats succinctly summarized Blake’s fear of the danger of reason:

“The reason, and by ‘the reason’ he meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing us our clashing interests.”

Eve made deductions based on observations of the senses, which pulled her into the world of subjectivity and ultimately mortality.

Subjectivity leads to the “knowledge of good and evil.” The truth of the imagination leads to knowing that truth is beauty. Virtuous choices were once called true; reprehensible choices would have been labelled false. Eve chose to live in a world where virtue is suddenly called good and immorality, bad. Eve transformed awareness. In the post tree world, clarity is lost.

When living in a poet’s trance, we follow the truth of the poem. When the ego intrudes, the trance is broken. When we identify completely with the “I,” with personal desire, we can no longer follow the poem’s music. Eve once experienced desire outside of the self (she was inside passion; it was not inside her), which allowed her to embrace the clarity of the imagination. But then reason, in the form of a snake, brought the passion inside of her.

“The worst are full of passionate intensity.”

After Eden, Eve gained the “knowledge” of good and bad, and she no longer could remember accurately what was true. Now a chasm gaped between matter and spirit, and longing was introduced, blurring the distinctions between truth and falsehood, which created inner confusion and chaos.

She gave up the truth of the imagination for the world of reason. Yeats went on to write that Blake felt that “the imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts.”

Eve closed these secret doors. The snake was able to make Eve step into the gap, to cross over into a personal desire detached from God’s desire. This crossing over created a haze that obscured the center. Now a sense of dread permeated existence.

“The centre cannot hold.”

The snake who spoke to Eve represents not an independent Satan (an autonomous source of evil that is a counterweight to God) but rather, a kind of heavenly prosecutor who is part of the divine plan, one who rigorously advocates for the application of divine justice. Eve met this prosecutor in the form of an animal.

He said to her, “Did perhaps God say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” (Genesis, 3:3)

The snake is simply asking a question. Where is the harm in a question? Is there anything threatening about this question?

I will address the honesty as well as the cunning and complexity of this question in tomorrow’s post.

Now I’ll end with these lines from the beginning of Yeats’s poem, which seem to imply that a disconnection from the guiding force of the imagination leads to the mixture of truth and falsehood “loosed upon the world”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(William Butler Yeats, from “The Second Coming”)

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