Day By Day

Thursday, June 07, 2007


Recently “She Who Must Not Be Named”and I spent a delightful afternoon with an artist friend of ours. While “She” and our host were in the kitchen preparing lunch, I browsed through some books she had left sitting on her coffee table. The first one I picked up was a slim volume of poems by Jack Gilbert titled “Refusing Heaven.” I opened it at random and read this:


When the hedgehogs here at night

see a car and its fierce lights

coming at them, they do the one

big thing they know.

Wow! It brought a chuckle of delight.

The reference, of course, is to the famous poem fragment by Archilocus that goes “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This bit of ancient verse furnished the basis for a hugely influential essay by Isaiah Berlin, titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” [excerpt here].

Berlin used the contrast as a way of categorizing and analyzing literary figures like Shakespeare [a fox] and Plato [a hedgehog]. In the eighties the essay had a brief notoriety as part of a conservative apology for Ronald Reagan that cast him in the role of hedgehog [he knew one big thing – that the Soviet Union had to be challenged] whereas his ineffectual intellectual critics knew many things, none of them particularly useful in a crisis.

Archilocus had implied that the hedgehog’s one big thing would always beat the fox’s cleverness, but Gilbert is demolishing that belief in a concise and clever statement.

I love it!

Eagerly I paged through the volume and as I did I became entranced by this wonderful writer and his unique vision. The next day I hied me over to Barnes & Noble to purchase a copy of “Refusing Heaven.” Now I carry it with me and when I have some free time, take it out and read a few lines and think about them. It gets me some strange looks in grocery aisles.

Here are a few lines from the first poem in the book, A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

Wow again!

As I read that passage I couldn’t help but remember the dialogue between Gelsomina [the soul] and “the Fool” [the intellect] in Fellini’s “La Strada”[forgive me if I seem pretentious, but I used to teach film studies, and that’s an important work]. In that scene Fellini, breaking with the neo-realists, says that materialism is not enough to sustain the human soul, that there must be wonder and delight and faith to give meaning to existence. “If not,” the Fool asks Gelsomina, “then what are the stars for?” It is one of the most moving and intellectually challenging scenes in what I consider to be Fellini’s best film, and it is one that has stayed with me through the years.

So now there is a new figure in my personal pantheon of artists and poets and musicians who speak directly to my heart.

And he’s a Pittsburgh guy, too.


Read Meaghan O'Rourke's review of "Refusing Heaven" here. She understands.