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from my “Intellectual Autobiography”

February 13, 2009

This participation in the action of the truth, then, draws us into a deeper life where the deeds of the past enrich and enliven our present. It is not unlike the listening in which Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin first receives his paradoxical inheritance through the stories of Sam Fathers – an inheritance which to accept will ultimately mean repudiating his ancestral birth-right.

And as he talked about those old times and those dead and vanished men of another race from either that the boy knew, gradually to the boy those old times would cease to be old times and would become part of the boy’s present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not quitted. And more: as if some of them had not happened yet but would occur tomorrow, until at last it would seem to the boy that he himself had not come into existence yet, that none of his race nor the other subject race which his people had brought with them into the land had come here yet; that although it had been his grandfather’s and then his father’s and uncle’s and was now his cousin’s and someday would be his own land which he and Sam hunted over, their hold upon it actually was as trivial and without reality as the now faded and archaic script in the chancery book in Jefferson which allocated it to them and that it was he, the boy, who was the guest here and Sam Fathers’ voice the mouthpiece of the host.

In this “best of all listening” Isaac recognizes the smallness of his own person on the old and storied earth; he recognizes the triviality of his race’s claim to that ancient inheritance which, wrapped up with the living and dying of the old people, is bound into the earth itself – an inheritance which like the earth “was no man’s but all men’s, as light and air and weather were.” And it is for this inheritance that he repudiates his birth-right, not as though he could somehow hope to repair the flaws of the society he was born into, but that, by the generosity of his paradoxical gesture of renunciation, he might reveal the deeper, more encompassing inheritance he has received, an inheritance that belongs equally to the defeated and enslaved because it is the common property of all. His heroic gesture is like the gesture performed by the intellectual life: it does not attempt a project of social reform or to undo the sins of our mothers and fathers, but simply to bear witness to that action of the truth in which our common inheritance, the story of our fallen humanity, is still taking shape upon the earth.

One Comment leave one →
  1. jsumner permalink
    February 24, 2009 4:06 pm

    Thought of our conversation while rereading this Auden poem this afternoon:

    “The words of a dead man
    Are modified in the guts of the living.”

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