The founder of Ploughshares, DeWitt Henry recently published Sweet Marjoram, a book of essays following a series of nonfiction books and memoirs, as well as essays. This newest work consists of twenty-two meditations with two-word titles, each prefixed by “on.” One thing we are struck by is the author’s extensive range of knowledge, evidenced at a glance by notably diverse topics: “On Weather,” “On Time,” “On Empathy,” “On Conscience,” “On Falling,” “On Handshakes,” “On Silence,” “On Dignity,” “On Privilege,” On Dreams,” “On Cursing,” “On Voice.” And ten more. An encyclopedic work. This thought-provoking book is nearly exhaustive of human experience, human behavior, psychology—the fundamental nature of humans and their being in the world. With each meditation, Henry presents an abundance of related details, both literal and figurative, both private and public, with an allusiveness yielding numerous spin-offs at several different levels: religious, social, cultural, physical, biological, psychological. Henry’s style is a marvelous montage of enumeration, juxtaposition, and thoughtful reflection. All in all, we cannot help but appreciate this collection of incisive meditations—each one a serious rumination that sparks our own.
“On Conscience” is a penetrating analysis of a human faculty crucial to morality and ethics. This faculty assumes the existence of an autonomous self, which is capable of free will, a conception running counter to a deterministic one, whether behaviorist or materialistic, as in neuroscience. As with other meditative pieces in this book, Henry provides context from history’s great minds. Referring to the human conscience as “Internal wisdom,” he draws on Tolstoy, who “saw most people seeking to silence it with habit, if not with tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.” Tolstoy’s assessment is borne out in our contemporary world, Henry notes, from evidence of a pervasive dependency on all of these. But what about the now-and-then prick of individual conscience—that stinging internal gadfly? We should consider Richard III, says Henry, a Shakespearean. But what if outside social forces pressure us to engage in actions we consider highly immoral? Henry turns to Tim O’Brien’s famous conscientious objection to war: “I felt guilty for my conscience.” What does one do when his conscience comes into conflict with the state? “How to resolve divided duties?” inquires Henry. “Drafted, we believe our country’s policies unjust. Social conscience is conflicted by moral conscience.” The concept of social conscience reminds me of Twain’s “deformed” societal conscience versus the “sound heart,” the former in competition with the latter in the heart of Huck Finn. For Henry, conscience is exclusively a human attribute; animals, he says, are not supposed to have a conscience. With this in mind, I again think of Twain, his posthumously published The Mysterious Stranger, where he soberly, acerbically, reveals the nature of the moral sense. Humans have it; animals do not; nonetheless, humans invariably choose to do wrong. Humans are the product of socialization or “training,” as we see in his dark “What is Man?” But if we accept the traditional Judeo-Christian viewpoint, there is surely room for a conscience, one that pricks one to perform the right action or discourages one from performing the wrong one. Psychologically, notes Henry, “Freud called it the superego. Inherent? Learned? Think psychopaths and sociopaths.” On the whole, this meditation prompts us to consider the complex nature of the conscience. What is it? How do we deal with it? What are the individual and social dynamics governing it? We can’t help but leave the meditation doing our own meditation, our own philosophical as well as personal reflection.
“On Courage” deals with an emotional state as well as a description of behavior. Henry typically covers both common, conventional expressions and academic viewpoints. Here, he asks us to consider from our ordinary daily experience such expressions as “Take heart” and someone’s “got heart,” or putting your “heart into it.” And others: “Show some backbone. Tenacity. Pluck. Boldness. Guts. True grit.” Linguistically, the word “courage” also appears as a root word in “encourage,” and Henry provides several examples, including the encouragement of athletes, dancers, writers, and students. Other permutations: “Critics discourage and dishearten.” Yet courage has another meaning: bravery. Here, too, Henry ponders the word and its possible applications: “Brave heart, we say. Or home of the brave.” Then an exercise in metaethics—what is the nature of this thing called courage? He gets at the very substance of it writing, “Courage takes belief. We face danger and pain for more than bravado or showing off. Unless we’re drunk or stoned and feel invincible, in which case we don’t think.” Which takes us to Aristotle, if we think of his golden mean, how bravado is excess, cowardice deficiency, and courage—it’s the mean, and it’s virtuous.
Henry poses a provocative question: “Is suicide an act of bravery, as the Stoics argued (and as protesting monks and suicide bombers believe); or is it cowardice, an escape from pain (the fardels, slings, and arrows that Hamlet fears)?” One might turn once again to Aristotle, who holds that suicide is an injustice to the State. But perhaps it is better to turn to Kant, who argues that suicide violates the second form of the categorical imperative—that is, not to use any person (in this case oneself) as merely a means to an end. It is not an act that can be universalized for all to follow. For Henry, “One size can’t fit all, but surely a desperate act can’t be brave, since it fails belief; except perhaps for the nihilist who believes everything pointless.” We take away from this meditation a nuanced understanding of a word we might tend to take for granted. A word jingoists slobber over. I think of Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, how the author, at the end of this naturalistic work, exposes Henry Fleming’s sense of “bravery” as delusion, with his motives unmasked as egoistic, self-serving. The Hollywood version, with Audie Murphy was quite different, if I recall correctly.
One of the most impressive pieces in this collection is “On Dignity.” Henry first sets forth the historical background of the concept of personal dignity, going back to the Greeks—to the tragic hero. “Nobility is brought to nemesis, usually by excessive pride, or hubris.” With the same broad range we find in his other mediations, he moves on to several other cultures for contrastive beliefs. In biblical times, the focus was on sin and punishment. In contrast to the Greeks, he notes, “Heroes give way to saints, virtus to virtue, greatness to goodness.” In the Renaissance, “If we choose and shape our destinies, then we portray our bodies as heroic, as in Michelangelo’s outsized statue of David; if, on the contrary, we submit to powers greater than ourselves, then we sculpt our bodies as small, grotesque, cramped, and crushed by burdens, as in Medieval sculpture.” As Henry notes, there is a fundamental difference between the view of man in the Renaissance and the Middle Ages—the difference between humanism and de contempt mundi. For Pico della Mirandola, in “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” humans are “wondrous” since they are made in the image of God, and on the Great Chain of Being, placed in the middle between God and the Angels. One might add to Henry’s comparison Pope Innocent III’s “On the Misery of Man” versus Giannozzo Manetti’s “On the Dignity of Man”—worlds apart.
But as with other meditations, this meditation is not strictly an academic study. Henry moves on to several colloquial expressions of dignity: “That’s beneath your dignity. That’s undignified behavior.” Dignity has to do with a sense of self-worth, as he points out, not only regarding one’s own actions but how one is treated by others: “Don’t dignify that with a response.” It has to do with “saving face”: “My last shred of dignity.” He raises a provocative question: “Is dignity a right?” I am reminded of George Kateb’s Human Dignity, where he connects universal human rights to a bottom-line right of every human—to be treated with dignity.
Overall, this new book by Henry is a profound study in words, language, and ideas. It has the quality of free association that, when it’s extensive enough, life fills the page like bright sunlight. Or, switching metaphors, with its many intricacies, its many interstices, we find meaning welling up as though from deep springs. In each meditation, with its depth as well as breadth, Henry prompts us to look and to look closely.
by DeWitt Henry
MadHat Press, 2018
$21.95 paperback; ISBN-13: 978-1-941196-72-4