Monday, April 30, 2007

Faith and the Fall


The following passage was taken from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. While the book did keep my attention, I felt a bit cheated at the end (kind of like watching Season 3 of Lost). Not only did it have a certain deus ex machina quality, but it also seemed to devolve into an overt racist parable. Poe totally lost me, so if any of you can shed some light on his true intent in this story, I’d appreciate it.

In spite of my confusion at his unwieldy resolution, I really appreciated the following passage, which gives a vivid description of the fear of heights. And like many of Poe’s descriptions of human sensation and emotion, this one really illustrated, for me, an ingrained part of human nature, which I discuss below. So, put on your 1837 thinking cap and give it a look:

It was some time before I could summon sufficient resolution to follow him; but I did at length attempt it. Peters had taken off his shirt before descending, and this, with my own, formed the rope necessary for the adventure. After throwing down the musket found in the chasm, I fastened this rope to the bushes, and let myself down rapidly, striving, by the vigor of my movements, to banish the trepidation which I could overcome in no other manner. This answered sufficiently well for the first four or five steps; but presently I found my imagination growing terribly excited by thoughts of the vast depth yet to be descended, and the precarious nature of the pegs and soapstone holes which were my only support. It was in vain I endeavored to banish these reflections, and to keep my eyes steadily bent upon the flat surface of the cliff before me. The more earnestly I struggled not to think, the more intensely vivid my conceptions, and the more horribly distinct. At length arrived that crisis of fancy, so fearful in all similar cases, the crisis in which we begin to anticipate the feelings with which we shall fall – to picture to ourselves the sickness, and dizziness, and the last struggle, and the half swoon, and the final bitterness of the rushing and headlong descent. And now I found these fancies creating their own realities, and all imagined horrors crowding upon me in fact. I felt my knees striking violently together, while my fingers were gradually yet certainly relaxing their grasp. There was a ringing in my ears, and I said, ‘This is my knell of death!’ And now I was consumed with the irrepressible desire of looking below. I could not, I would not, confine my glances to the cliff; and, with a wild, indefinable emotion, half of horror, half of a relieved oppression, I threw my vision far down into the abyss. For one moment my fingers clutched convulsively upon their hold, while, with the movement, the faintest possible idea of ultimate escape wandered, like a shadow, through my mind – in the next my whole soul was pervaded with a longing to fall; a desire, a yearning, a passion utterly uncontrollable. I let go at once my grasp upon the peg, and, turning half round from the precipice, remained tottering for an instant against its naked face. But now there came a spinning of the brain; a shrill-sounding and phantom voice screamed within my ears; a dusky, fiendish, and filmy figure stood immediately beneath me; and, sighing, I sunk down with a bursting heart, and plunged within its arms.

A month or two ago I climbed up the 9-foot half pipe at our local skate park, and was preparing to drop in. All the little groms and gromlets nearby gathered around to watch the old guy in action, and for some reason, with all the attention and the exaggerated altitude of the first person perspective, I couldn’t handle the pressure, and I fell. It’s like I didn’t even try to skate down, I just…fell. I’ve had that feeling before, and it’s not always tied to heights. It’s this kind of irrational panic that I get when faced with something that could cause physical pain, or a challenge that I’ve failed at before or a temptation that, though destructive, I feel incapable of resisting. It’s like I just freeze, and as Poe describes above, give myself over to this hopeless acceptance of what I feel I am meant for. Maybe you don’t have this problem, but it resonates with me: our desire to fail and to descend into the depths. I believe it is part of us, and it is something we must face, because if we want to live good lives, we are going to have to recognize that there’s a part of us that wants nothing to do with what is good in life, but is hell-bent on destroying us.

It’s a tough battle to win, to be sure, because we can’t just kill this little traitor once and for all; we have to keep it around until we die, a kind of real world Gollum who’ll be with us until the end. And for me, that’s become first priority in my goal to make the world a better place. Because, no matter how much I think I succeed in the world, if I have failed here, at this first level, it will ultimately undermine everything I set my hands to.

But I have come to the conclusion that I cannot win this battle alone. This is one of the primary reasons that I have embraced the belief of my youth, and accepted as true the words of the Christ of the Bible. It may seem strange that I find further confirmation in Poe’s passage and in my ramp experience for my decision to embrace the notion of God in the received Christian understanding, but I think it’s because these influences have given flesh and bones to one of the Bible’s most enigmatic abstractions: faith.

Why does the main character let go? Because he can’t help but believe that the bad guys will win, that he’ll fall, that death will consume all. I believe that this is mankind’s struggle in a nutshell. We have God telling us that everything will be okay if we just look at Him, but what we see contradicts that. Since we can’t see Him, how does he expect us to look at Him? So we look at our surroundings, and lose faith. The Bible makes it explicit that faith has its own eyes, and if we are to beat this little traitor, we’re going to need to learn to use them.

1 comment:

Bradley said...

Wow! What great contemplations. Very interesting and insightful.