Upward Captivity, Downward Freedom

Robert Bly’s “Warning to the Reader”

Sam Bush / 12.13.22

Christianity has the audacity to assert that everything you believe is actually wrong. It’s a bit disorienting, really. Somehow wisdom is foolishness, folly is invaluable, the esteemed are to be pitied, and the despised are to be revered. We might call this gaslighting, except that it’s also 100% true. The humiliating death of Jesus on a cross reconfigures life and the world as we know it into what appears to be its opposite. Because if life is found through such a death, then everything else is called into question. Down is up and up is down.

For decades, an abandoned brick farmhouse has stood dormant in our neighborhood like a 20th century ruin. People call it The Pigeon House because pigeons are known to roost in its eaves. They routinely circle around the roof like soldiers safeguarding a fortress. Occasionally, one of them will find its way through a hole that leads inside and then cluelessly gaze down on us from the second-story window.

The other day, a hawk somehow found its way inside. Panicked, it would flap against the glass over and over again. There is something pitiful about a bird of prey being trapped so helplessly, a natural born killer subjected to the same public mockery as a dim-witted pigeon. It quickly became clear that this bird was not going to be able to reason its way back outside. My boys and I uselessly tried to come to its rescue, trying to persuade it to go back the way it came, but nothing would lead it away from the window. Hawks can usually last a while without food (plus, there were probably several pigeon carcusses lying around) but shacking up in this abandoned house was clearly not a long-term solution. Time would soon run out.

In his poem, “Warning to the Reader,” Robert Bly warns against misbegotten hopes. It begins with Bly inviting the reader into a farm granary that’s been swept clean of any oats or wheat. He points to the strips of sunlight that shine between the cracks and wall boards. At first, it’s a comforting analogy. “In a poem about imprisonment, one sees a little light,” he says. But then Bly turns the image on its head.

How many birds have died trapped in these granaries. The bird, seeing the bands of light, flutters up the walls and falls back again and again. The way out is where the rats enter and leave; but the rat’s hole is low to the floor. Writers, be careful then by showing the sunlight on the walls not to promise the anxious and panicky blackbirds a way out!

One might think that looking for light amidst the darkness is a no-brainer, especially this time of year. Light, after all, is a beacon of hope, a guide to keep you going. But, in this context, Bly sees chasing the light as dangerously naïve. What often looks like freedom is an illusion. This is why he urges writers to point their readers downward. Pointing people to a light that they can’t actually access is not only misguided but cruel. For Bly, the way to hope is not to reach for the sky. It’s to get low.

Regrettably, very few writers pay heed to Bly’s warning. Our modern attitude is centered around upward mobility. We reach for the stars, we climb the ladder, we pull ourselves up, all in the name of striving to be our better selves. In turn, whenever we happen to hurt a loved one or make a mistake, we often say something along the lines of “I wasn’t my best self.” Whether it’s intentional or not, what is implied is that our ideals are the way forward.

Theologically speaking, this is where a high view of the law leads us. Yes, the law is good, but its chief function is to reveal sin, not defeat it. It may point to the good life, but it won’t pick us up and bring us there. Trying to climb our own way toward righteousness yields the same results as chasing an ever-illusive light. Indeed, the promise of progress is precisely what ensnares the sinner, a mirage that leads the thirsty away from water (Rom 7:10). 

Instead, the actual way forward is not to climb the ladder one step at a time but to descend to what lies beneath. Our escape route from the bondage of sin leads us downward. Rather than striving for our best selves, the first step toward freedom comes from examining ourselves at our worst.

Of course, the big question is this: does this distinction matter or is it just stirring the theological pot? After all, what exactly is wrong with trying to be your best self? Using the rest of Bly’s poem, the stakes couldn’t be higher. He goes on to warn the reader directly:

I say to the reader, beware. Readers who love poems of light may sit hunched in the corner with nothing in their gizzards for four days, light failing, the eyes glazed … They may end as a mound of feathers and a skull on the open boardwood floor …

Chasing after the way things should be, rather than dealing with the way things are, is like being dazzled to death by a chimera. It is precisely our ideals that imprison us. And the case is far more urgent than a matter of theological preference. According to Bly, a person’s very life is on the line. Unless we crawl through the hole where the rats enter and leave, we will waste away in dark confusion, never experiencing what it feels like to bask in warm sunshine.

And yet, none of us have the smarts or the wherewithal to crawl our way out. We are all birdbrained in that sense. Our ultimate hope is not that we will find the trap door at the bottom, but that someone from the outside will come to our rescue. That, despite our vain efforts to escape through a glass window, Hope itself might do what we could never do. From his birth in a manger to his death on a Cross, he chose to enter through the hole where the rats enter in order that we might be set free.

After a few days of the hawk futilely flapping at the window, we were finally able to contact the owner of the house who, later that day, came and opened all the windows. Soon after, the bird flew out on its own. We occasionally see it flying around our neighborhood and throw our hands up to cheer it on. It’s alive today, not because it solved a riddle, but because it was rescued. Its freedom wouldn’t have happened any other way.

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One response to “Upward Captivity, Downward Freedom”

  1. Jason McSpadden says:

    Tremendous Sam. Tremendous. Thank you.

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