Letter to the Editor: Reflection on Frost

During the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 12, I was caught up in the rip-tide like force of a collective cri de coeur in the foyer of the Frost Library. As I listened to the passion of individual voices from widely different backgrounds and circumstances, a newly installed sign visible on the second floor voiced a silent longing focused by the moment: “Amherst College Center for Humanistic Inquiry.” Is it possible that three words added to this sign could in one awakening act reveal one source of a profound intellectual, social and pedagogical problem at the college and become the beginning of progress toward a solution? By including “and human awareness” (Amherst College Center for Humanistic Inquiry and Human Awareness), we might discover the devastating impoverishment of exclusive disembodied rationalistic inquiry at the core of arbitrary objective superiority animating the many self-serving “isms” that weigh so heavily on us all. Would, even, that the entire college might be a center for humanistic inquiry and human awareness.

Forty-four years ago, during my first week at Amherst College, I attended a dinner welcoming me and other new faculty to the community. As the evening wore on, a very distinguished elder of the college offered me gently the following avuncular advice: “You appear to be a decent and intelligent young man. Please allow me to give you something to remember while you are here. There are two realities in the world. There’s science and there’s bullshit. What you do is bullshit. Just make it good bullshit.”

As a teacher who has worked over the years to seek out the art of works of art, I have come increasingly to the sad recognition that “Professor Wiseman” was not only correct, but that he had himself voiced the latter of his two realities. The events of last Thursday revealed yet again that in truth there is only one enduring reality. Art and science like all constructions of imagination are nothing other than human, each comprising the full range of intellectual, sensual and emotional potential.

As the tide of anger and frustration on all sides slowly recedes, we might even hear the lingering wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic voice from the early years of the 20th century before the turmoil of world war challenging us all to embody a “more human love.” Writing to a young man who had asked for advice, Rilke wrote:

“… Someday (and for this, particularly in the northern countries, reliable signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer signify merely as opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence: the femi nine human being. This advance will (at first much against the will of the outstripped men) change the love-experience, which is now full of error, will alter it from the ground up, reshape it into a relation that is meant to be one human being to another, no longer of man to woman. And this more human love (that will fulfill itself, infinitely considerate and gentle, and kind and clear in binding and releasing) will resemble that which we are preparing with struggle and toil, the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.”

Is this the love that will heal the pain of exclusivity, arbitrary entitlement, separation and despair, not to say unrelenting fatigue? If so, perhaps then Rilke’s other insight, “killing is a form of our wandering mourning,” including all acts, however seemingly innocuous, that would reject or disparage other by any means, will inexorably give way to the intimated relational wholeness of true art, science and beauties of every kind that will embody Rilke’s “more human love.”