Editorial: Volume 5

The spirit of the Braniff Graduate School is one of hospitality, or to use the Greek word, xenia. Xenia comes from the simpler word xenos. The xenos is “the strange,” or “the stranger,” and hence “the guest” or “host”—whose strangeness to one another calls forth a certain daring, caution, generosity, and vulnerability in each. Xenia, or guest-friendship, then, is a cultivated posture towards reality by which we get at home and get friendly with beings that are strange, strange to us, even perpetually strange in themselves.

Such a welcome to the strange is at the center of the life of the Braniff school. It is not just that our motley society of students and teachers welcomes a fair number of colorful, odd, and elusive creatures, even perhaps—moving incognito among us—a prophet, a hero, or a saint. Rather, our study of philosophy, politics, poetry, theology, psychology, classical philology, and the plastic arts takes place in a house sufficiently spacious, prosperous, and perduring to gather and support generations of guests, visitants, and suppliants—strangers old and new—as well as the architectural additions and renovations, rearrangements and furnishings they may require to have elbow-room within it.

For like the house of Odysseus, the house of the western tradition in which the members of our school are guests—and sometimes hosts—founds itself on tree-roots reaching into deep, dark ground, “hard for mortal men to dig up.” This tradition is a living, growing building, at every moment drawing back on a primary and never-exhausted encounter with what is at the root, at the ground of things, while ramifying fruitfully in the fresh cross-pollinating winds of history, and offering its branches for all kinds of odd birds to alight, launch, and sometimes make their nests.

The limb-like integrity and fine leafy articulation of the various disciplines of the Braniff school require in their students and teachers a cultivation of habits of mind and soul that are distinctive to each. Yet the students and teachers who make these disciplines their own enter—in sometimes unexpected and challenging, but always welcome, xenia—into each other’s rooms and realms and (by their ingrained differences of custom, manners, even language) move each other to a recovery of the vital questions, imperatives, and suggestions that rise from the common ground we share and stream through the whole tree.

Each of the articles and creative works we are proud to present in this fifth issue of Ramify reflects on and enacts an exchange that one might well call a xenia—a daring and generous welcome of the mysterious, often dangerous, and transformative gift that meets us in the appearance of the stranger.

In Plato’s Laws “a mysterious, unnamed, elderly stranger from Athens” converses with a Spartan and their Kretan host about the best order of a city. Eric Salem (our guest scholar from St. John’s College) shows how—in the course of an exchange that extends deep into the night—there emerges, at the salvific center of a regime that could easily seem Draconian, a radically open orientation to reality (very like philosophy itself) represented by a “nocturnal council” of young men eager to question everything and of older men possessed of an “Odyssean appetite to know the cities and minds of men.” Our own Leo Paul de Alavarez shows how Herodotus’s History gives us an imaginary map of the world and its peoples that turns out also to map the human soul in its possible orientations to reality. The sight of such a map, he argues, “removes the fear of the unknown regions”—not only the fear of “peoples and lands,” but “of leaving the familiar realms of the soul for new possibilities” and “unknown gods.” Herodotus’s mappings of human possibility equip and inspire his readers for voyaging and inquiry into the different and strange.

Rhett Forman’s poem, “The Exchange, January 1923,” considers a moment in history when the architectonic artists of a peace attempted to redraw the map of the Mediterranean such that alien peoples—who had in fact become “guest-friends”—might keep a safe distance from each other. The farewell message with which the “townsmen”—or politae—mark their walls with red indicates their outcry at this apparent betrayal of what it means to be Greek. In another reflection on the meetings (and partings) of cultures, Erin Schalk’s paintings of “The Fog of War” immerse us into combat’s shifty terrain of “uncertain variables.” Obscurely threatening but perhaps beneficent presences loom in the engulfing mist, representing—in the artist’s view—the inveterate disjunction between the island culture of Okinawa and the American military who have maintained a presence there since World War II, as well as the hope that they may find a common ground for peace.

Considering the tragic figure of Oedipus, Michael Colebrook reflects on the limits of forgiveness, as understood by Hannah Arendt and Aristotle. Though Oedipus sins “on account of ignorance” and displays profound remorse, the enormity of his actions and suffering set him so far outside of “the self-understanding of the polis and its laws” that the human community can neither punish nor forgive but only pity him. He becomes a kind of ultimate stranger, wandering without welcome on the earth, an ambiguous sign, meaning either that man’s condition is tragic—since “the human soul contains elements which transcend the confines of the polis while simultaneously needing to live within it”—or that there is a “higher trans-political human community … preserved by a higher form of divine forgiveness.” Esther Moon’s drawing of “One of Joseph’s Brothers” presents us with a man whose very being and bearing cry out for a forgiveness he has no cause to expect. At the moment of reversal portrayed, the generous Egyptian host reveals himself as the betrayed brother—and hospitality is shown in what may be its deepest spiritual meaning.

While Oedipus as well as Joseph’s brother seem to exemplify the need for supernatural grace, the Macbeth of Shakespeare’s tragedy, James Berquist argues, renounces it. Though he is aware of the promises of Christianity, Macbeth’s character is shaped by a warrior ethic of valor and ambition, noble but incomplete in itself. Goaded by otherworldly influences and his own wife, he all too lightly dismisses the horizon of divine grace and loses himself in a world that increasingly seems, to his darkened intellect, “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” He has murdered his king and guest, and can no longer even imagine, much less adopt, the saving posture of suppliant and guest in a reality that seems to him entirely without host.

The psychoanalytic tradition plays host to the unconscious world that pleads and appeals to us in dreams. Geoffrey Manzi brings the insights of Lacan and Jung, usually understood as opponents in this tradition, to a mutually enlightening and enriching encounter. Both thinkers see the mechanisms and figures of the dream as communicating essential psychic realities linguistically, through “cryptic yet inviting signals that are structured like a language and plead for their interpretation.” While Lacan focuses on an intensely private and unhealable rift in our past and Jung on the creative and communicable possibilities that figure themselves in dreams, both nevertheless hold that the unconscious is structured like a foreign yet profoundly intimate language in which fundamental truths—whether more like outcast suppliants or divine visitants—are trying to find a welcome. Matthew Brumit’s sestina, “Music of the Spheres,” seems to figure the kind of imaginatively laden and integrated experience of life at which psychoanalysis aims. Continuously recurring yet rearranging line endings suggest a fluid wholeness intuited in the many selves—”a little boy,” “an older boy,” “young man,” “man,” “a baby,” “an old man”—and the various moments of play, anticipation, and leave-taking, dread and violence, reflection, rebirth, and return that one might know in a full life. Such a life is blessedly enriched by its experiences of the alien, which fill and make numinous the familiar, so that when the poem’s speaker, now old, returns to the pool table (like a guest in his child-self’s world) “shafts of fear and peace fill the shady room / with the table covered in what is felt.”

Not just individual lives, but the life of a whole culture suffers the dislocations of history, such that the present must often call out across a threatened yet enticing distance to find, in an exchange with the shades of the past, a whole and live voice for its own passion. Father Stephen Gregg argues that Ezra Pound’s versions of Propertius’s love elegies cannot be evaluated on their success as translations of the Latin. In his Homage to Sextus Propertius Pound establishes a governing analogy between the self-venture, fears, frustrations, and precarious joys of love (dramatized in Propertius’s affairs with Cynthia) and his own quest to renew the language of experience through a genuine encounter with the Roman lyric poet. The “translator’s” joys and frustrations are those of the lover—he must venture into the “entangling shadows” between him and his beloved, pray and strive for a blissful welcome, and make good on what favor he receives. Paradoxically, even moments of "failed translation” can successfully reveal the risky and endangered realm where present and past meet and make each other fruitful.

Sharon Cohen draws our attention to Richard Crashaw’s startling invitation to “The Flaming Heart” of Saint Teresa of Avila—an exuberantly reverent poem which challenges conventional portrayals of the saint and demands from its readers a more profound and participatory witness. While depictions of Teresa in ecstasy “as usually expressed” draw attention to the fiery angel who has pierced her heart, Crashaw puts the saint herself in the center. In a series of apostrophes to his readers, the chidden painter, and the demoted seraph, Crashaw hospitably assembles a larger and larger audience around his truer image of the saint—”nobody has been given permission to leave”—and transforms them into a love-struck congregation at prayer. Speaking for everyone he has gathered and held rapt with his blazing images, reversals, and conceits, the poet prays to her: “By all of HIM we have in THEE; / Leave nothing of my SELF in me. / Let me so read thy life, that / I Unto all life of mine may dy.”

Welcome, then, to the fifth issue of Ramify. I trust you will be bewildered, challenged, and enriched by the strange hospitality to be found within. Before the end of their conversation, Spartan and Kretan have begged the Athenian stranger to join them in the city they hope to found, not only in speech, but in deed. As students of the Braniff school, I trust that we have all had some experience like this: the stranger we meet as if by the way, with whom we eat and drink and discuss the meanings written into the riddles and stories we share, may make our eyes open and the hearts within us blaze, such that we beg him to stay with us as a perpetual guest.

Adam Cooper and
The Editorial Board of Ramify
October 15, 2015
Feast of Teresa of Avila

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