Monday, May 02, 2011

"The Answer," by Robinson Jeffers

Then what is the answer?—Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know the great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history...for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.


A commenter posted this on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog today in response to a thread about Osama bin Laden. I was here in New York on 9/11; I watched from a terrace at Scholastic as the towers burned. And yet as satisfied as I felt to hear that Osama had died, to know that justice had come round in the world in this one small way, an eye for thousands of eyes, I felt disquieted also about raucously declaring victory when we threw away so much chasing that justice over the past decade . . . American, Iraqi, and Afghan lives; fathers and mothers and children and siblings, even when their bodies returned from the wars; the trillion dollars spent on these missions overseas, when a full quarter of American children sleep in hunger.

So this poem spoke to me in that larger sense: that we cannot know the larger answers, the ends, what is right in the long arc of history. We can know only our own small answers to the questions, and try to see clearly our own smallness, to keep ourselves and those around us whole. I think often about a quote from Rabbi Sheila Peltz, who went to Auschwitz and said, "I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place." As justice is a restoration of balance, of wholeness, again, I am glad today for that. But we should be careful about declaring any more.


  1. ‎"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

  2. I have to disagree with part of the poem.

    I think dreams of universal justice and happiness help us to keep going amidst the ruins. They should not be minimized just because they are dreams. I think they will be fulfilled, just not in this time or in this place. As a Christian I think all will be made well, all will be rectified by God someday.

    Today, Osama bin Laden is dead. We can celebrate the death of this man who caused so much pain and cheated so many people out of happiness. But give up my hopes and dreams and accept this broken world as somehow divine? Why on earth would I do that? Why on earth would anyone think that was a good idea?

  3. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  4. Sigh.
    Anything like celebration coming from the United States seems fuel to fan the militant flame. It is one thing done. Is a necessary evil a good?

    It is truly good to think, to write, and to talk of these things in a public place, trying to come to something better.

    Cheryl, you have courage, to speak and to stand. Yes. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for this, Cheryl.

  6. Great post, Cheryl. I didn't know how to react by the news of his death. I still am not sure how I feel about it. It's kind of an empty feeling...

  7. Hi Cheryl, this was a beautiful, thoughtful post. Thank you.

    I clicked over after finding you on Facebook through other writer friends. I will be back.

    ~ that rebel, Olivia

  8. Thank you for this nuanced, intelligent, and thoughtful commentary. These are the feelings and reactions I've been having, in a scattered way. So helpful to have them reflected here with such eloquence and precision.

    Second Sight, by the way, is an immensely helpful, and entertaining, book.

  9. How funny. I've been obsessively thinking about this same topic & stayed up all night the other night typing up a blog entry applying Cohen's monster theory to Bin Laden. If interested in reading the rambles, look here

    Thanks for the additional insight.