How does a man come on his difference, and how does he feel about it when he first finds it out? At first it may well frighten him, as his difference with the Church frightened Martin Luther. There is such a thing as being too willing to be different. And what shall we say to people who are not only willing but anxious? What assurance have they that their difference is not insane, eccentric, abortive, unintelligible? Two fears should follow us through life. There is the fear that we shan’t prove worthy in the eyes of someone who knows us at least as well as we know ourselves. That is the fear of God. And there is the fear of Man—the fear that men won’t understand us and we shall be cut off from them. — Robert Frost, Introduction to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s King Jasper
I was reluctant to select this quote even though the last three lines quite elegantly summarize my fears. I hesitated because it’s long, and today’s prompt encouraged us to break with our normal stylistic patterns, so for me that ought to be short. I hesitated because Robinson’s work King Jasper is abstruse and I must admit I haven’t studied it sufficiently. I hesitated because when most American readers think about Robert Frost they think about two roads diverging in a wood, or those same woods on a snowy evening. However, Frost is a complex thinker, sometimes quite dark, even morbid. The works of his on which I’ve spent the most time have death right in the title: “Death of a Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” and “Out, Out –.” Frost has been analyzed for alleged racism, cynicism, atheism, and regionalism. He tackles God and Job and Yankee. If I want this to be today’s post, as opposed to, say, the only thing I write during the entire month of July, I had better limit my focus.
My research suggests that this Introduction is more well-known than King Jasper itself, and that while it has of course been used in discussions of Robinson’s poetics, it is more often cited as an example of Frost’s. The fact that the first of the two named fears is “Fear of God,” which is also the title of one of Frost’s lyrics, has opened up discussions among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. It was quoted by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf when he received the Tikkun Award in March of 2011. That’s the critical apparatus that surrounds this quote, and I suppose I could craft a piece of scholarship that would be equal to the task, but not here and not tonight.
But I can’t let go of the precision with which those two fears mirror my very essence.
I am terrified that I am so very different from the rest of the word that not only will the world judge me, but that I will fail to justify myself. When we are children and we suffer some humiliation, often our parents will provide the protective trope of the conscience-based society: “As long as YOU feel good about yourself and the choices you made, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” (To contrast this with what is known as the shame society, try to imagine Achilles’ mom or Aeneas’s dad giving this advice.) If this protects us from the unfair criticism of our peers, it absolutely does not release us from responsibility to oneself, or as Frost depicts it, one who knows us as well as we know ourselves.
Every day I read or hear something that upsets me. If you’ve been reading these posts this month you probably know why. I am intense, insufferably intellectual, impatient, and in grief. There’s Frost’s “eccentric.” Bad logic and bad grammar and poor analysis and unwarranted opinions infuriate me; there’s his “insane.” I am ridiculously wordy and make obscure references to complicated literary and philosophical texts. There’s Frost’s “unintelligible.” I have a few platforms, notably my classroom and my internet presence, where I could and do assert these insane, unintelligible eccentricities, and there might be a few people who are impressed enough by my evidence and my reasoning who will genuinely respect my opinion, but let’s face it, most people won’t, if it doesn’t agree with their worldview, and since I start eccentric that’s going to be most people. I could take refuge in my few stalwart supporters but that only alleviates (or mitigates) the second fear, the Fear of Man. I still have to face God.
It has been similarly urged on us to give up courage, make cowardice a virtue, and see if that won’t end war, and the need of courage. Desert religion for science, clean out the holes and corners of the residual unknown, and there will be no more need of religion. (Religion is merely consolation for what we don’t know.) But suppose there was some mistake, and the evil stood siege, the war didn’t end, and something remained unknowable. Our having disarmed would make our case worse than it had ever been before. Nothing in the latest advices from Wall Street, the League of Nations, or the Vatican incline me to give up my holdings in patient grief. — ibid.