Resting in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters
In Homer’s Odyssey, there is a scene in which Odysseus and his men, sailing home after many years of war and peril, come upon the Land of the Lotus-eaters. Some lotuses are given the sailors to taste, and those who eat lose all memory of the journey home, of wife and children too. They linger in the strange land, pining for more lotuses—now the only desire that fills their hearts and minds.
As one reflects on the sailors’ years of striving rendered so suddenly and frivolously void, the immensity of waste turns the effort to reconstruct this scene in the imagination into a painful labor. Both the past memories that shape their identities and the hope for home that stretches out the future horizons evaporate simultaneously. The yet unwitting sailors are left to grope and ponder in the present—a present of temporal, spatial, cognitive and emotional stases. It is a flat world, one that flashes only the revels of the moment, a world fragmented and unsustained.
There is yet another cause for pain that comes from the pity and compassion for the sailors. Imagining their blithely usurped longings, one feels the loss with giddy acuteness. The sympathetic spirit responds to the story by echoing its motions, undergoing an emotional parallel of the sailors’ physical displacement and estrangement, and is likewise forced upon a meaningless meander. Thus despite the span of millenniums, there is between Homer’s lotus-eaters and present-day readers a profound correspondence—one that arises out of an empathy, which is activated as we deduce and extrapolate from our own similar circumstances to imaginatively reconstruct and experience the characters’ states of being.
One crucial yet often unnoticed point is that rapport of such affinity could not be supported merely by a shared humanity. We are able to fully understand and sympathize with the sailors’ situation because seeing their vulnerability, we unconsciously yet fundamentally acknowledge our own susceptibility to the same evil. In other words, we fear and tremble at the hideous effects of the lotuses since, like Odysseus and other onlookers, we too perceive the disguised danger and feel imminently threatened. Similarly, the bewilderment and melancholy clinging heavily to us like a weeping child disclose a subliminal pining to return to a long-lost home. There is an earnestly cherished hope of finally gaining rest, one far different from the vacuous slumber of the Land of the Lotus-eaters; a slumber that may well be our own.
And I do not refer to this potential absence of real rest, or a state of restlessness, in an abstract or metaphorical way. Too often and keenly do I witness in myself and in those around me how the unfulfilled and unfruitful founder the full sense of being. Such is manifest in every aspect—academic stress, interpersonal relations, financial concerns, pursuit for a sense of belonging, persistent failings and frailties that defy desperate hopes for regeneration, the dreary daily effort to prove the long-cherished belief that “I” is special despite seemingly contrary-wise evidence… and the list goes on, unique for each person—yet disturbingly familiar to all.
Like the lotus-opiated sailors, our entrapment is two-fold: the thralldom of deprivation of all true valuables, masked by a false contentment; and at the same time an anxious determination to cling to this haggard state. The latter may be motivated by hope of improvement through continued effort, or fear of stepping outside the only known mode of living, or simply a malicious cynicism that doggedly persists in cankering the self both for a sickening pleasure of willful abandon, and for the scourging pain as a cathartic means.
One approach to this double predicament may find its inspiration in the book On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard. Amongst the properties she ascribes to beauty in the attempt to explore its effects is that of being unprecedented, and thereby carrying with it a fresh and entire world unknown before. Perceiving beauty, the mind wishes to search its inventory for a precedent; yet being “too exclusively filled with the beautiful object that stands in its presence,” it cannot even initiate the search, failing before it begins. Overwhelmed by the immensity of beauty that “fills the mind and breaks all frames,” the mind is temporarily paralyzed, the entire being shocked out of its own existence to wonder at that of the beautiful thing and the new potentials it heralds.
This collapse of the self ’s conscientiousness as a result of encountering beauty is later described by Scarry as a “lift[ing] out of one ontological state into another.” Such a process, in which the being is suddenly arrested out of its own tracks and transported into another world, strikes me as a suitable model for how one might be extricated from the state of restlessness. Just as how Scarry describes beauty as a “greeting” that “lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you—as though the object were designed to ‘fit’ your perception,” the same concept can be broadened and generalized to include perception of all kinds.
Rather than an active exercise of seeking and receiving information and impressions, “perception” could be seen as more of an experience or encounter in which the outside world comes towards the perceiver and renders itself known by striking, or literally impressing itself upon them. Imagine a pair of friends walking along a path and stopping to gaze at a pine tree. A breeze passes and some needles seem to quiver with electric excitement. One friend notices this and points it out to the other, who, although looking at the same thing at the same moment as the former, saw only that parts of the tree moved slightly in the wind. The first friend is able to see in finer details because the needles’ shivering had struck him as existent, had intruded upon his conscious, puncturing the relatively self-containing and self-centered bubble of existence. Thus like a moving train that is suddenly halted or turned into another track, so the perceiver/ experiencer is jolted out of his/her own more self-regarding existence in order to gaze upon the beautiful.
Now, what if this “moment of perception” is not the fraction of a second needed to notice the pine needles’ quiver or to glance into a friend’s eyes to find mutual understanding, but a few minutes in which a piece of wonderful music totally submerges and deprives self-consciousness, or the two hours of a movie that suspend all thoughts and feelings for the world outside the theatre? What about still longer experiences—the death of a loved one that brings many lives to a screeching halt for months and years, a serene friendship that is a haven from the self and its troubles, or a deep appreciation for something in which one finds unspeakable comfort and self-expression, over a lifetime? By the same logic that operates the momentary, fragmented “rest” of perception, one could argue that in all the examples given above, the self is arrested in its own tracks and diverted into the existence or the ontological state of another. Extending the implications even further, could there be an experience so momentous, forceful and encompassing as to cease the self and its concerns altogether, to thereby infinitely prolong the “moment” into an eternal rest? Such an experience that cannot be subjected to, arrested by, or diverted into any other experiences— this ultimate thing—what might its ontological state be like?
Unfortunately, even presuming the reasoning process to be thus far valid, these last questions are fundamental ones that require individual thinking and probing of all who wish to find an answer. Nonetheless, I will again tender Scarry’s opinion, and afterwards supply that of my own as a Christian. Scarry proposes that after a mind confronted with beauty is first arrested and then transported, its next act that completes the trilogy of movements is to familiarize itself with the new ontological state of the beautiful thing by relationally understanding and situating it: “[b] eauty, according to its critics, causes us to gape and suspend all thought … but simultaneously what is beautiful prompts the mind to move chronologically back in the search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation, to move conceptually over, to bring things into relation, and does all this with a kind of urgency as though one’s life depended on it.” Wonderfully, these motions backward into the past, forward into the future, and eagerly connecting pieces of existence, are the exact opposite of those in the Land of the Lotus-eaters who perform neither geographical nor temporal movements, but dwell upon flowers that fragment rather than cohere the realities of the present.
As the mind keeps going back in search of a precedent for beauty until it reaches something that has none, this something, Scarry suggests, “may very well be the immortal.” As a Christian, I acknowledge this immortality, this genesis of beauty as well as of all else, to be God; and as such, He is the “ultimate,” overpowering event/being mentioned above. By the implications of our resting logic, to “rest” in God means being perpetually jolted out and suspended from the immediate experience, and transported into a wholly different realm of the divine—to radically cease the worldly being, and invited instead to participate in an overarching purpose. However, this state of perfect and eternal communion with God does not occur while we remain human. Thus, to reconcile the two—to be inhabited by a heavenly glory while inhabiting the particularities of specific experiences, to render a worldly life holy through God, and at the same time fulfilling His Will and Grace by means of everyday living—is to both rest in God, and to welcome Him to rest in us. Such is one of the essential goals and hopes that Christians strive daily to attain. Indeed, as St. Augustine said in the opening lines of his Confession: “Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.”
As we are not static but are ever changing, so our understanding of God and of “rest” is never a fixed definition, but is both evolutionary and revolutionary: constantly refashioning the self to better align with the ideal of “rest,” we in fullness and joy not only always aspire and rest in Christ’s companionship here on earth, but also in the hope of the ultimate repose in our home in Heaven.
1 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), 22.
2 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), 23.
3 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), 32.
4 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), 26.
5 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), 29.
6 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), 30.
7 Saint Augustine, Confessions. Translated by E.B. Pusey.
Eleanor is a sophomore who tries to find rest in God, in the lines of Milton and Spenser, in thinking up food recipes, in crying when she fails at these and else (as is very often the case), and in repeating Blake’s “I will not cease from mental fight,/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand” as she fortifies the weakened spirit and renews the efforts with gladder heart.Tags: art, Augustine, beauty, Elaine Scarry, Homer, literature, rest