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“One must have a mind of winter… And have been cold a long time… not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” the January wind. So says Wallace Stevens in his poem, The Snow Man. Misery and discontent aren’t identical, but a series of small miseries — unrelated to wintry weather — means February snuck up on me this year, almost as if January never happened, so misery must do for my “winter of discontent”. To “the listener, who listens in the snow,” hearing the sound of the wind, the poem promises if he becomes “nothing himself” he’ll “behold / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” People “cold a long time” can go numb, of course, and numbness is a kind of “nothing” obliterating misery. But numbness seems insufficient for a “mind of winter”.
For our own survival, we see winter’s cold as hostile. Our success as biological beings depends on our sensing discomfort, in order to mitigate risk before it’s too late. Concern for our own comfort is a form of self-regard that isn’t optional, if we care to live. Nonetheless, necessary self-regard is still self-regard. A mind of winter leaves self-regard behind. And so, it sees wintry beauty — the snowy, frozen world lit with “the distant glitter / Of the January sun” — simply because it is there to see, irrespective of what it might mean to the self. Winter in itself isn’t hostile, just indifferent: self-regard makes the indifference seem hostile. A mind of winter is “unselfed”.
“Unselfing” is something of a luxury good, a leisure pursuit. It’s inhuman to expect those facing lasting injury from inadequate warmth, food, or shelter to “just get over it” and unself already! Noble contempt for creature comforts turns ignoble when it needlessly ends in people too injured to look after themselves. My life has been blessed with love for wintry beauty, despite some discomfort. In fact, controlled exposure to wintry cold has mitigated my discomfort since childhood — but only because I enjoyed material blessings, like insulating clothing where I needed it, that made controlled exposure possible. Our morality is often contemptuous of luxury and leisure, treating them as inherently bloating to our monstrous self-regard. We see our American fondness for creature comforts, and kind of hate ourselves for it. That we see creature comforts this way testifies to our good fortune: we expect not to be so desperate that a little luxury, a little leisure, will actually lessen our self-regard.
And yet, it can. Sometimes, it must.
The very word “luxury” insinuates excess, so I suppose we needn’t tar the small comforts which help us set our self-regard aside with the label “luxury”. That leaves leisure, which could be used to pamper our bloated self-regard. Or could be used to take us out of ourselves. Iris Murdoch, the philosopher of unselfing, wrote
Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.
Love is warm. Love makes the cold, hard world bearable. Love is also, apparently, the mind of winter. “Cold a long time”.
Last May, a month when those of us in temperate climes expect the cold of winter to be well and truly over, two academics of Murdoch’s school launched an “Ask Iris Murdoch” project. I don’t know what happened to their project, but when they were interviewed, one explained,
In one way, Murdoch’s idea is very straightforward. To unself I simply turn my attention outward, away from myself and on to the world. If I do this successfully I will see things as they really are, and not through the lens of my own selfish concerns.
I say it is straightforward but of course this idea is very difficult – both practically and philosophically. Our view of the world is always clouded by our own desires and concerns –Murdoch often speaks of the “fat relentless ego”.
The other added,
She does think, however, that experience of nature has a special role to play in making manifest to us the quality of consciousness that unselfing involves.
She gives a wonderful example of looking out the window while in an anxious state of mind – “brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige” – when she spots a hovering kestrel. At once everything changes, a bit like a Gestalt shift. The hurt vanity disappears – one is unselfed – and the full presence of the kestrel is revealed.
Perhaps to Murdoch’s own surprise, she found herself regarding the kestrel the way “the snow man” — the man with a mind of winter — “regard[s] the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow… the junipers shagged with ice, / The spruces rough in the distant glitter / Of the January sun”. She simply forgot “to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind” keeping the kestrel aloft. Which, of course, was never the wind’s misery to begin with, but her own, projected out into the world by her self-regard; a self-regard that’s sometimes needed just to squeak by in life, but also a stumbling block to a life well-lived.
We need self-regard to survive. We need to not need it — need to know we don’t need it — in order to thrive.
In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha is the more self-important, though we shouldn’t be too hard on her for that, since she, after all, is doing the grunt work others depend on to get by. I lately commented on another post,
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her,” but it’s harder for a family to do without the Marthas.
American Christian culture has often struck me as frustratingly Martha-oriented, but that does fit its especially family-oriented nature. Even if you’re not a natural Martha, family-formation seems to require willingness to play one, at least part-time. And time spent being Martha (especially if your lack of natural Martha skills means it takes even more time to play her) is time spent not being Mary.
Sometimes I do wonder if American Christianity misreads the passage as “Martha has chosen what is better”. Gratitude for the Marthas, and feeling a debt to them, in that they have given up “what is better” to manage everyday concerns, is important. But the gratitude can get defensive, to the point of denying anything “better” has been given up.
Mary, as the contemplative, is the woman of leisure. Martha is not. Whether it’s really fair on Martha for Mary to indulge in the leisure to have “chosen what is better,” it’s also this indulgence which sets Mary’s self-importance aside. In contemplating the good, Mary doesn’t have to ask, “What about me?” the way Martha does. Mary is unselfed, Martha is not.
We see the beauty of winter when we do not ask, “What about me?” When we do not have to ask, “What about me?” We won’t always have that luxury — or, should I say, leisure. Sometimes the demands made on us mean we must regard ourselves, simply to meet them. Times when we can set self-regard aside are a real blessing, a gratuitous good which cannot be forced, only cultivated. Often, we err by not setting aside our self-regard when we could, if only we tried. But it’s also error to treat extinction of self-regard merely as duty, duty which can be forced no matter what, rather than as the gift it is.
Love with no sense of duty is not love, but love is never only duty, else it’s no gift. Duty struggles to forget the self which must do the duty, since, if it forgot, the duty might go undone, as Martha realized. Mary forgot herself. In forgetting herself, she found “what is better”. Call it unselfing, self-forgetfulness, self-emptying, or even the highfalutin’ kénōsis (theological Greek for “self-emptying”). It is a mind of winter. One which “beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
“Nothing that is not there” is relatively straightforward, compared to “and the nothing that is.” What is “the nothing that is”? I know an intelligent, well-read Stevens aficionado who thinks Stevens, in writing those words, meant them to assert atheism as the philosophy with the superior grasp of reality — which asserts considerably more than one’s little Zen moment of sunyata (“voidness”) for the day (or week, or month…) And here I’ve merrily skipped you down a garden path with Murdoch’s unselfing and Christian self-emptying — both of which stress treating what’s beheld without self-regard as the real real: as something rather than nothing!
What the last five words of The Snow Man mean — much less what they mean to various world religions, or lack thereof — is a whole topic unto itself. For my own part, I remember times when I have beheld the snowy, frozen world lit with “the distant glitter / Of the January sun”, and not thought of any misery — not in the wind’s sound, not in the “bare place” that winter is; no misery at all because I forgot myself. When I was blessed, however briefly, with “a mind of winter”, despite not fully understanding what one is.