|Kenneth Burke, Towards a Better Life: Being a Series of Epistles, or Declamations, 2nd ed. (1932; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).|
V. In partial recapitulation
A selective, and amplified, review of his life.
THERE are, underlying the Church, many ingenious heresies so thoroughly silenced by the sword that they survive only in the refutations of the faithful. There are subtle schemes deriving the best of human insight from Cain, or centering salvation upon the snake, or lauding the act of Judas Iscariot which procured for uneasy mankind a God as scapegoat. To look back upon them is to consider a wealth of antinomian enterprise expended in ways which seem excessive, troublesome, and unnecessary, their gratuity being surpassed only by the same qualities among the orthodox. But let one not be misled into thinking that the heresies have perished. They rise anew, changing their terms each time, to stand against the new terms of the Faith, squarely. Their doctrines need not be handed down jealously from generation to generation, but may be neglected without risk of loss. Our Bulgars require but the spirit of their cause, a spirit which takes form by the form of
the current dogmas, knowing what not to accept by noting what is accepted. Oh, lepers of mankind; gutter-rats; printers in the sewers; you the pale with prison pallor; the discredited, the unprosperous, you who can make no answer, for your voices are drowned by the roar of the believers (they need not refute you, they need but restate to one another all that they had already said, humiliating you by thinking of their own plans and singing among them selves); you the worthless, the salt-smugglers, the bringers of illicit drugs to comfort the unhappy to whom the moneyed would permit not even chemical relief; you the thieves, who outrageously disturb the security of the privileged; you the insidious promoters of subversive doctrines which would allow the starved to nibble somewhat at the world's plethoric stores; you who are gnawed by misgivings, who would gladly renounce your own bitter birth right, gladly take your place among the exclusive, scorning your old companions, turning from oppressed to oppressors (and thus, precisely in your state of rebellion you uphold their systems, considering your insight wickedness, yourself admitting your degradation, yearning for acceptance by those very persons against whom you are pitted)oh, you in every manner unequipped, you the deprived of logic,
the improvident, the indolent who cannot strive for such crooked kinds of happiness as those in authority would force upon you-all you disheartened, discountenanced, disorganizedI salute you, for if there is to be a remedy, this remedy will come because you have made it imperative.
Some years ago, in this very city, I stepped lightly through a door leading to the street-and as I walked vigorously away, triply elated with liquor, a sense of futurity, and the briskness of the autumn weather, I felt no quarrel with anything this city stands for. Why should I complain at the rules of a contest in which I seemed likely to do well? True, I had doubts about the standards by which achievement would be rated, but I felt that one should first be successful by the criteria of other men before setting up criteria of his own. Let him make money, that is, before railing against wealth; let him get reputation before calling all reputation worthless; whatever he would renounce, let him first acquire it in ample quantities, that he become immune to hecklers. The weather, as I have said, was crisp, and I was young and slightly drunken, and still buoyed up by the good outcome of some financial dealing, and I smiled negligently at a woman, not needing her since a woman even then was awaiting me. I could
regret a plague in India, or sigh that some men went hungry, but I was prepared to take all this with resignation, feeling that our fate is but the tossing of a coin, and relieved that I happened to be on the favourable side of the toss. Entering another building, I rode to a high floor-for one must go up into high places to be tempted-and from here I surveyed the jumble of the city. Ah, Anthony, perhaps I have since been better than I thought. For did I not put every action beneath questioning? Though I may too often have ended in a sanction, I can assure you that the question was what mattered. I devoted my best efforts, not to making myself more effective in some given purpose, but to a weighing of this purpose. If I spoke much of fitness, and seemed at times too shrewd in profiting by the simplicity of Genevieve, I swear that this was but a flare-up before extinction, as men do not study folkways until these folkways are passing. At great inconvenience I maintained the integrity of my character, often choosing to grow sullen where I might have dismissed a dilemma by laughterlaughter, which leaves us untried, which is a stifler in the interests of comfort, surrendering in advance, renouncing prior to excess, enabling a man to avoid the ultimate implications of his wishes. I put Genevieve from me, not because
our relationship was faulty, but because I had to put some dear thing from me. And if I showed great adulation of prosperity, be it prosperity in matters of health, money, or affection, I did so because I felt great prosperity necessary to equip the body for the strain of investigation and possible insight.
I did things. At the time of doing them I told you why I did them. And now, if I assert that I did them for other reasons, by what authority can you say that I was then correct in my analysis and am wrong now? You must hear me out, when I can observe my course through a considerable stretch of time, can verify and correct earlier tentative calculations, can better know what I was making for, by seeing what I have come to. Consider with what difficulty one would go about it to attain something he very much desired. Add to these obstacles the exceptional burdens of my particular character. Add further that I could think of no specific end towards which I would undividedly strive or the attainment of which would give me sound satisfaction. And thus you see how I was buried, three layers deep. If one questions the beliefs of other men without having well-grounded beliefs of his own, he will find himself deficient by any scale of measurements.
Though no one would choose failure, we may yet maintain that failure is a choice, since one may persist in attitudes which make his failure inevitable. Yet, I have fondly pictured groups of citizens coming to reward me, entering my room while a band plays in the street below, and announcing, "The time is over," thereupon presenting me with testimonials of their respect and explaining that they have picked me for some minor office. I should work hard, I should justify their confidence fully, I have told myself-yet I have never made the appropriate efforts which would prepare me for distinctions of the sort. Place a man among these streets, instruct him to choose some act which puts a strain upon his temper. What work will he perform here, if it is work in the absolute, and not the accidental matter of flunkeying to an employer? If he does not mean by work the earning of a little money through assisting in a superior's blind purposes, but the straining of his resources, what manner of living must he choose? What indeed but risk, risk of imprisonment, of disease, of ridicule? How be called muscular if you did not prefer the sewers and rat- holes of the metropolis? If you are able in ways that bring you no advantage, would you admit yourself unable? Choose rather the dignity of a savage chieftain,
which coexists with vermin. What did Alter Ego say? "There are many kinds of effort," he said, "which people without spirit and without physical enterprise are best equipped for, just as cockroaches are more likely than tigers to flourish in sinks." While I hesitated, buyers and sellers had faith-and though their faith is such that it ultimately brings the world to hell, it will have brought them privilege and power in the interim. Die as a mangled wasp dies-its body hunched, its wings futile, but its sting groping viciously for its tormentor. Prowling about the wharves, I have ministered to unclean men, for in this there was some ghastly decency, something beyond mere safety.
Oh, there is a revolutionary unction. There are the blasts of the well fed and well entrenched, comfortably summoning the people to rebel, calling for the destruction of a system built for bankers, and all the while they are bolstered up with stipends from the bankers. They are the bankers' conscienceand in proportion as the bankers gain further questionable wealth, so will these consciences of bankers be generously treated. But note that they make their protests more picturesque than malicious, and can be kept about the house like castrated I lion whelps, providing a certain edge of excitement but no serious
danger. Are they fostering defiance, or milking a cow?
Let me, in partial recapitulation, recall that, all my life, I chose unerringly. How, at the farmhouse, I went alone to the stables, that you might walk with the girl by the river; how I procured for you the part as Alcaeus and for Florence the part of Mary, thus enabling you to transfer these flattering rôles into your relations with each other; how I schemed to my detriment in the matter of keys; how, on the island, I industriously made myself repugnant; how, when I had fled and had earned modest distinctions, I refused to please myself with them, but still lamented and imprecated as though I were generally looked down upon; how I was careful to eschew any permanent elation at Florence's return; how I vilified a group that had befriended me; how I saw to it that Genevieve, who could comfort me, was driven from me; and how, though I anticipated the results, I permitted Alter Ego to understand my dependence upon him, until he vanished. Know me, Anthony, as a man whose purpose never wavered. Through living under difficulty, one learns the mode of thinking, feeling, and acting best suited to cope with difficulty. No wonder he prizes a discovery which he has made at so great inconvenience to him
self, and will not relinquish it but calls upon it to maintain precisely those adversities which it was at first designed to remedy.
Let us consider the matter in this wise: Take as a hypothetical case John Neal, a somewhat quarrelsome fellow who was ingenious in the cultivation of an illness not yet completely catalogued. 1, had I met him, could have made proper allowances for him; but others had no cause to do so, especially as he was without authority, and kowtowings on their part would have gone unrewarded. Where they might have felt nothing, he forced them to resent him a little; and when he had made them resent him a little, he lay awake calling for their forgiveness, calling so frankly, so unstintingly, that by morning the cycle of contrition had run its course, and on next seeing them and finding them still resentful despite his unavowed beseechments, he was annoyed, and sought to punish them for their uncharitableness, thereby adding to their resentment. Subsequently, as the result of this process, our John Neal was without cronies. And at this point he prayed, calling upon that Name which heretofore had been for him an oath.
He prayed under no mean circumstances. For he had left the city, had gone to a little hut on a hill
top, and was living there alone, feared by the children of the nearby village though I can assure you that he would not have harmed them. A stifling August twilight had been converted, by sudden clouds, into a blackness without direction. A storm of vast proportions had let loose against the hut, which shook, for it was a little Ark, and outside was such a chaos as beat upon the Ark. That night a battle was waged. There were two storms that night, one at the roof, the other in a lone man's brain. I believe he knew the fertility of madness, the estimable range of madness. Alone in his Ark he cried out, calling for his former friends as though they could ride upon the storm. Suddenly the door was wrenched open-he leapt forward, "I greet you, damned demons!" he shouted, then closed the door hastily, shutting out the rain-laden wind, and leaving nothingness within. Mountains of thunder were piled up and toppled. The lightning, which made a licking sound, was crowded by new flashes. And all the while he called down violence upon him, demanding greater and greater extravagance of the elements. In the morning, when this intense effort had subsided, and the sun, as seen f rom the hilltop, rolled above a sea of mist, he walked beneath dripping trees, across a field mowed recently, down to a little
lake which lay like glass beneath pink mist. Here he found nine cranes, pure white, their great whiteness making their silence deeper silence. He approached them with caution, with no abruptness of movement, for their timidity was multiplied by their number, all being sensitive to the misgivings of each. Eventually they arose, and with adjustments of the group they disappeared above the trees. Thus, after fury came white gentleness, and he understood that a sign had been vouchsafed him. He knelt, while love poured from him, or poured into him from all outward things and to his vast astonishment, he heard words of prayer issuing like missiles from his lips. For a manner of understanding, unsought for, had blossomed within him.
With each moment the universe is new created, each succeeding tick of time presenting the same alternatives: Will all life vanish in oblivion or will it be divinely prodded to continue into one further modicum of future? The following moment of existence comes; the universe still flourishes, not revealing in its magnificence that it has been spared by a mere choice between God's acquiescence and His refusal- whereat again there is the risk: Will all life be sustained, or will it lapse? God the Creator as God the Eternal Re-creator, with the universe
suspended by a thread of prayer rising from human lips. If that day comes when all humanity is busied with its prosperity in human terms, and the miraculous thread of prayer is broken, then will our in gratitude have snapped the continuity of existence. In ages of dwindling piety, let adept worshippers keep long vigil, lest there arise a fatal moment of lapse when no thread of prayer joins us to our vital sources and the props and underpinnings of the universe are thus removed. Of those few earnest men scattered across the world, when all but one have fallen in exhaustion and are sleeping, upon the shoulders of this one alone is born the full weight of universal life. So it is good that some men are scorned by their fellows and made to feel homeless among them, since these outcasts are, through their sheer worldly disabilities, vowed to graver matters and could not, even if they would, prevent them selves from pouring forth their neglected love upon a formidable Father. By their very inadequacy they are shielded, being led back to God if only through their incompetence at betraying Him. So we may say that a man's sufferings are not unused if they but bring him to extremities-and by lone anguish on a hilltop, while storms tear at the walls of a house and the walls of a human mind, snug homes in valleys are kept secure. Those who were crucified were
but erecting mountains of prayer, masses to carry beyond the subsequent moment and serve perhaps through centuries of silence.
Then John Neal, in choosing difficulty was not acting without purpose! In his lying awake there was a preparation, in his selecting of misfortune an apprenticeship? Only those persons of pale desire are balked, and if they tell you how earnest and continuous are their hopes, talk with them a little further, until you see how soundly they sleep, how without discipline they glut themselves, how they do not compel themselves to walk at night in a bitter wind, how they do not take lighted matches and bum themselves for having made a faulty rejoinder, how they do not grow thin with study and admonitions. Thus they will reveal the falsity of their assertions by the flaccidness of their living. So I will not agree that this John Neal was denied what he desired. Throughout the tight continuum of the universe, what uncomplemented thing is possible? Need and fulfilment are one, as bursting cotyledons and laden stock are one, germination and fruition being aspects of a single happening. That which causes cannot act without that which is caused, whereby the prior is evoked by its consequences. The doing, the need of doing, and the done are indistinguishable. If some fulfilment of importance is to be granted us,
this fulfilment is foreshadowed as a need. A yearning is but the premonition of an end. Seeing the ground thirsty, the leaves parched, dust covered, drooping, the brooks sunk beneath their pebbles, we see the origins of a downpour. There is no cry for rain in a desert; there is a cry for rain where storms are brewing. Our complaints are the adumbration of a coming proficiency; in greatly suffering a need we but sense the earliest evidences of a fulfilment; I would not say that those who call out are answered -I would say, rather, that those destined to be answered must call out.
Thus documented, John Neal loved all mankind and prayed! On the contrary, he went to no hilltop, he shouted against no storm, he invited neither friends nor demons to ride Valkyrie-like. But sitting in his room, in this inexorable city, he said, rather: "Watch the mind, as you would eye a mean dog. Wait. Die as a mangled wasp dies." He constructed for himself a story, picturing himself as gentle, and imagining Genevieve as a woman who had deserted him (which was not difficult to imagine, for he had called her so often in his thoughts, that she seemed cruel in refusing to answer). But the sanction of no vast mythology was permitted him.