Monday, June 06, 2005

Stephen Crane - In the desert

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter - bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."


This is such an interesting, arresting little poem. Joyce Carol Oates, of course, used a fragment of it for a title of one of her books. It's very dreamlike and enigmatic. Most readers see it as a metaphor for the self-destructiveness or self-centeredness of depression or addiction. In fact, I wonder if this poem is where the expresssion "Eat your heart out" arises from?
When I read it to my partner, who is a psychotherapist (and a very good one!), he saw it as a metaphor for the process of therapy, where you sit with your pain, your bitterness, and try to understand it in a deep way ("eat of it"), as a way to know yourself, to heal.

10 comments:

Pamela said...

It's Homer, in the Iliad and in the Odyssey, with Bellerphon "eating his heart out and loathing the company of men."

I had the best classical literature professor imaginable, Dr. Richard Steiger, who was also the funniest teacher. He'd paraphrase the classical heroes in his Brooklyn accent. I've never forgotten his Paris to Helen, "Hiya, Toots."

Peter said...

Thanks Pamela: It's really ancient! No wonder it seems like such an archetypal.

Ivy said...

I don't know why but for me, that poem always conjures up Goya's 'Saturn Devouring One of His Sons' [also stumbled across a cool essay here].

Visceral, huh?

Peter said...

Ivy: ohh. very intense. And thanks for the link to the essay.

When I read the poem, I get a vision of a calm, tired lion eating his heart. The Saturn painting you mention certainly fits, too.

Emily Lloyd said...

Hmmm, interesting. Teenagers love this poem, too--I know I did as a teen--and it's one of the ones I suggest highschool English teachers haul out if they want kids to dig poetry. But I read it more as someone feasting on his bitterness, enjoying having a bitter heart--calm yes, but not "tired" and not to be sympathized with per se. More like a goth teen almost proud of his pain, wearing it on his face, chewing it over, his tongue in every corner.

Peter said...

EM: yes! It has goth teen written all over it, doesn't it?
Reading Crane's history, with all his interviews with war survivors, I wonder also if it can be seen as the image of a soldier with PTSD?

Peter said...

Oh yes: "Soldier's Heart" was another name for PTSD in the old days.

ReggieH said...

1st Peter: loved 'Saying the World' and love the blog as well.

2nd: Frank Bidart used this in his book Desire --

Love Incarnate
(Dante, Vita Nuova)


To all those driven berserk or humanized by love
this is offered, for I need help
deciphering my dream.
When we love our lord is LOVE.

When I recall that at the fourth hour
of the night, watched by shining stars,
LOVE at last became incarnate,
the memory is horror.

In his hands smiling LOVE held my burning
heart, and in his arms, the body whose greeting
pierces my soul, now wrapped in bloodred, sleeping.

He made him wake. He ordered him to eat
my heart. He ate my burning heart. He ate it
submissively, as if afraid as LOVE wept.

Peter said...

Reggie H:
You have sent me scurrying back to my copy of Desire. Thanks.

Plato said...

I think the insight the poem is giving can be summed up in a question for the reader to ponder.

"What is it about the bitter heart that tastes so sweet?"