Empty Pocket

In the film We're No Angels, 'Father' Brown is asked to give a speech - unprepared, untrained - before a square crowded with people. He opens his Bible to find a pamphlet that had been stuck in, titled, "Encounter with a Bear." He does not read those words, but those that follow: "Have you ever felt alone, with no one to rely on? Danger on every corner, in a world fraught with danger. When I looked into my pocket, what did I find?" But he can read no further, the brochure is about guns, so he repeats, "What did I find?" He fumbles. "Nothing. There's nothing there. It's all in your head. Look, they can take the money from you. They can take the position from you. People turn your back on you. Everything happens to everybody! And you ain't gonna find nothing in your pocket to stave it off. Nothing can stave it off! Power doesn't do it. Because you never have enough. Money? I don't know. You know anyone who's got enough money?"
I do not know if the empty pocket is a trope. I felt reprimanded again today when I read an except written by a mid-20th century classics scholar, J.A. Willis, who writes that one is to read classics in the original "to absorb every convention, mannerism of through, feeling, and expression" (cited here). Indeed, it seems that most learning comes to us through shadows: always mediated by a great mind, never a direct encounter (the experience of an "encounter" is how Gadamer explains the necessity of the arts, beyond scientific method). Willis quotes (!) Vergil commentator Servius, who wrote - if I understood correctly - that one's questions only arise because of negligence of older texts. Even the 'empty pocket' in a 20th-century film may have a far older precedent.
Far more worrisome than the empty pocket is the head, as 'Father' Brown points out, that is riddled with the wrong problems. Imagine this state spreading over days, then years. It's good to have empty pockets, particularly at the beach, for sea glass or shell collecting. I'd venture to say the same is true of the mind: is it not emptiness that impels one to learn to enrich that empty conch of a life, beginning from wherever we are, whatever miserably tight place that is. When we thrust our hands into our pockets and find not even a rabbit of lint to pull out by the ears.




This is the moment when the encounter is wished for. Someone to point the way, or maybe to share a little bread. This is not the moment of the hawker, niggardly bargaining down language to base shouts, though this is the kind of language students seem to want to learn. Willis wrote of the "prostitution" of undergraduate coursework - the "price of democracy," but surely there is no democracy without sweetness and light (dear Arnold, too, owes the ancients). A good phrase is a touchstone: this is why the Willis extract resonated. If we remain fickle despite our awesome advances, this doesn't mean our fore-be-ers were fools.
But I look to my pockets for a scrap of paper with ancient Greek on it and find nothing, because I am only just learning the language if I will ever learn it at all, and Latin fails me, Syriac even more completely, and then I am astounded at how it is possible since I know so little that some students are content knowing so much less, and, having perhaps been swindled by the education system in the past, do look upon it like some kind of prostitute. Education has empty pockets, too.
And with all this dearth, the death of the earth, I can but remember the motto of my first boarding school, levavi oculos. I did that today, and noticed the low-floating cumuli and remembered how hard it was for me as a child to get it through my head that clouds are not matter that can be touched, rather, they are visibly invisible, droplets and crystals that can't be felt.
So maybe the pocket isn't as empty as it looks. It could be filled with swelling intention. Like the build-up to rain, I think and write these words today in the hope that something will come of me and my wish to find that ever elusive meek truth with its elucidating collection of historical worldviews. I write these things down, kind of like an homage to εχω which means to have, hold or keep, but to my child's mind still sounds like echo: as if by echoing good thoughts, like in the copybooks of yesteryear, we have hope of holding on to what is dear to us. Or, like Rebecca Solnit writes in one of the most beautiful pieces on writing I've read in a long time, "writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them". Have you ever felt alone with no one to rely on? Danger, in a world fraught with danger.



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