The following is the text of Mr. Lytle’s speech at the 1986 Ingersoll Prizes Awards Banquet:
Born the day after Christmas, 1902, like a wet firecracker, as my mother remarked, I entered a world that lived with and by other creatures. My grandchildren and their ilk are unaware that they are creatures. I am closer to the 12th century than to their world, for that world has money, not salvation, as its ultimate desire. College graduates study jobs to get, not occupations to risk.
As I grew up in Murfreesboro, the town easily joined the country. There were horses to hitch up, cows to milk (and that twice a day), often gardens to make. In town and country both, communities had the same kind of family life, with kin and connections, the connections by marriage, not blood. Because of this, people of the same station had the same social life and, frequently, the same marriages. Farming had not lost then its prestige as a way of life, and you could live well by it.
My mother was a town girl. My father lived 10 miles in the country, but he kept fast horses. He would dance all night and drive the 10 miles, throw a blanket over Lunette’s back (she was a Hambletonian), and go straight to the fields. I spent my childhood mostly in town. Coming home at the end of the day, tired from play, I could smell roasting coffee beans down the long street to my grandmother Nelson’s house, where we lived for a time. The odor sharpened a boy’s appetite, but chiefly was reassuring. I breathed it as comfort without knowing why. I felt the invisible link between all the houses on the street, filled as they were by families I knew or knew about, who had children I played with, or special associations.
Mr. Dee Smith striding to the Square and Miss Luly, his wife, trotting behind like an appendage trying to catch up. He was a cousin of my grandmother’s, whose dwelling meant love and discipline, food and sleep, where grown people always looked the same and never had to be measured for growth. Across the street lived Miss Katie Fowler, who sang in the Presbyterian choir. A suitor, Mr. Peter Binford, Sunday after Sunday sat enthralled, watching her bosom rise and fall in song. One memorable Sunday he saw the sack of love break about her heart, and the heart leapt two feet towards him. Her mother threatened to put him in the asylum, and he threatened to pick every pinfeather out of her old hide. He had a good cousin lawyer whose defense was: A man in love is naturally insane. The case was dismissed. Not long afterwards, Mr. Binford asked my father to go in partnership with him in selling frog legs. He said they were bringing a good price on the Chicago market. “How will we get them there?” my father asked. “Hop them,” he replied.
Further down the street lived my other grandmother. They had thought it best to sell her farm, where she lived alone, and bring her to town. One night a storm had come up and she went into the garden to look after some small chickens. There was a loose paling in the garden fence through which she by habit went. The wind blew her lantern out, and all night long as the rain fell she wandered trying to find the loose board. As I went to school, I passed her house on the other side of the street. Bending under a load of books, I hurried along, but she would call across the street, a thing my other grandmother would never do, “Hold up your shoulders, grandson,” and I would straighten up. This was in front of Mr. Rufus Hayne’s house, who conjured some warts from my hand. He just took out his pocket knife and ran it over the warts, mumbling words I didn’t catch. In a few days they were gone.
Half a block towards town lived Miss Carmine Collier. She was a miser, and she dressed well, in a mustard-colored coat suit, a big hat with a bird of paradise roosting on her head. I looked hard to see what a miser was. Any difference from other women was in the eyes. Round-like glass eyes, they were steady as a hawk’s. She never married. One lover said, “Carmine, I’ll put down two dollars where you put one, if you’ll marry me.” He said later a glassy film closed down her eyes, just like a chicken’s. With that he gave up. I was playing on the hearth when Miss Carmine came to thank Mammy for the posey her mother held in the coffin. Mammy said, “Now Carmine, you can’t live in that big house all by yourself Buy you some hats, go to Florida in the winter and the springs, in the summer, and get you a man.” “Miss Kate,” she replied, “I’ve thought about it. But suppose I was lying in bed with that man, and he would want the window up and I would want it down. They will have their way, and I’d freeze to death.” “Get cold in bed with a man?” Mammy said. “I had to take a fan to bed with Robert.”
Country boys were usually tougher than town boys, not in meanness, necessarily, but just better-natured. A cousin once told me about his little brother Micajah. He said he was hard as a pine knot and tough as a horse mule colt. He didn’t waste no time. He came into the world a-bouncing, hollowed once, and then made for the teatty nighest him. Looked like Ma never could wean him. She complained, “I can’t git my washen and ironing done. Ever whar I go it’s teatty this, and teatty that. A body can git too much teatty. A woman needs to dry up like any creature. He pulls so hard, and now he’s got teeth, I declare . . . ” Aunt Marthy said to her, “I’ll tell you what to do. Sister. Look at Othel. I weaned him in the dark of the moon, and look what a man he made.” “Dark or light, it don’t make no difference to Micajah.” “Do this then. Go to the storehouse and git you some quinine. You’ve got cayenne pepper and lard. Mix them ingredients good, grease yourself good, and when he comes in, offer it to him.” She done it. She and pappy were settin’ on either side of the farplace when in he bounced. Right off, “Mammy lemme have it.” “Well, here tiz, son, come git it.” He squared himself, grabbed it like a snapping turtle, and jumped back like a snake had bit him. “Pappy,” he called, “Gimme a chaw of tobacco. Mammy’s been eating bitter weed.”
As a child, I don’t remember any fears or real distress. I’m sure there were the usual threats to innocence, but there were plenty of warnings from that back room where all authority was. There were Gypsies of course. They were given to stealing away boys from their families. It was a dreadful thought. Once a year they came from all over the country to bury their dead in Nashville, at which time a shiver would run through the galloping herd of boys. Any dark-featured stranger would get covert glances. L.W. Coleman, my playmate, and I were on the Square as a contingent of Gypsies passed in their wagons. L.W. had stolen a quarter out of his mother’s sewing-machine drawer, and we were loaded with all-day suckers and chewing Long John Wax dusted with powdered sugar, molasses popcorn, and holding each a sack of goober peas. Fearing to take it home—and we were instinctively headed that way, for Gypsies had mysterious ways of conjuring children to them—he gave me what was left. I knew I had to hide it, or there would be questions. I went to Daisy, our cook, and she obliged. She and I already had a criminal record. I took one of my grandfather’s cigars, and she and I smoked it. I learned quickly that crime doesn’t pay, while Daisy went off with the cigar.
In my childhood, most human creatures, as they set forth to work or play, dance or love, touched hallowed ground, a pond, an everlasting spring, an old elm, a farm that generations had known and lived on and by. Children know these special sympathies for places, where they can hide and pretend. There can be no greater delight in privacy than the tunnel made in bales of hay, leading to a fragrant hollowed-out and usually itching place in a barn loft, which most little girls instinctively suspected. This pretending is child’s best play, that ineluctable moment, just east of Eden, when eyes are still shining from the afterglow of the Garden, just before sight dims in the light of the world, and pretending trembles upon quickening knowledge. And there was the common knowledge of the long history all creatures shared. The rat, the skunk, the fox that set out on the chilly night had most of the instincts, needs, and faculties humans shared. At Cornsilk I once set two Domineka hens. They hatched about the same time. One was a poor mother and began losing her hatch. The other hen scratched, chuck chucked, and the little chicks ran to her. I put the Lib hen in the stockpot (she wasn’t fit to eat) and gave her chicks to the good mother. She now had about 25 to feed and raise and tell what that shadow from the sky meant and what to do. One morning as I went to let her out of the pen, I saw the oddest-looking creature. She did not have a feather down her front, but she had all her chicks under and around her. During the night she had fought off a mink. That was over 50 years ago. I’ve got close kin I rarely think of, but when I think of all those batteries of Leghorns dropping their eggs into a slot like squatting robots, mules and horses disappearing as work stock, and cows milked by metal hands, I wonder what we have done.
We have been told that we were made in the image of God. That no doubt is true, but so are all creatures, a hummingbird, a jackass. We are all artifacts together. We were made, not begotten. It is true, Adam was given the power to rule over those he had named. He named Eve, too, but perhaps he chose not to exercise the power in this instance. At any rate, it was a delegated power.
We might do well in our present plight to look again at Eden, that myth in a garden. In the beginning of things, the creation of the cosmos, why did the Creator make that little garden, some say of Innocence? First, the invisible power we refer to as God, for his ineffable reason, assumed a limitation. He became a creator, that is, the First Artist. The next thing, he looked about him and saw that what he had made was good. This is the surprise all artists know, for in the heat and stress of the work, the maker cannot know for sure just how the artifact will come out. In Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews, he states that “God made several worlds before ours, but he destroyed them all, because he was pleased with none until he created ours.”
At this point there must be some query into the forbidden mystery of the Creator’s mind. Simply what limits had the All-powerful One put upon Himself when He created Himself Creator? Without pause he split the void with his lightning stroke. After the explosion he must have seen that he had not done away with the dark. He had merely scattered it. And furthermore this startling discovery: He who had only known Eternity found Himself in Time. The moment there are opposites, there is motion; there is Time. Perhaps at this moment we can conjecture that he made the Garden of Innocence, outside Time, into which he could withdraw as landlord and, without being rushed, decide what to do next.
Obviously he had intended to restore a small fragment of Eternity in this place. He entered the garden royally, only to discover he was no longer a free agent. He had become an actor; a creator, but now a prejudiced creator. He found it pleasant to walk there in the cool of the day. He was perfectly satisfied at first with the flora and fauna. All the artifacts in the garden had one thing in common. Each was perfect in its seasonal way. But since there was no Time, there could be no aging or seasonal change. Each plant stood in the perfection of its moment of creation, but did not grow. And so it was with the fauna. Indeed there could be no action. Although they seemed to move, their motions were the motions of angels, visible but without body.
When the Creator-now-turned-landlord saw that his artifacts were good, the more he looked the more he felt the power of possession. Herein lies the drama of the Garden. According to the Haggadah, the legendary part of the Talmud, the landlord saw that Adam, unlike the other creatures, was alone like Himself He had not yet begun to say the Lord thy God is a jealous god, but lest the other creatures should take Adam for a god, too, he told him to pick a wife. Adam by nature was biddable, but he could find no female he could claim kin with. Most were four-legged, or they had tails. Some crawled, some flew out of range. Not for an instant did he consider the fish, but he looked long and hard at the sheep.
Now the plot thickens. It concerns Adam’s first wife, Lilith. It is not said where she came from, but she brought one thing the garden did not have. She was full of flesh. The dictionary of angels counts her as one of the four guardian angels of whorehouses. She ate children. She had other uncomplimentary habits. But she was no threat. She took one look at the creature who seemed painted air and fled. Three angels pursued and caught her, but they could not drag her back to the garden. The landlord was relieved. He wondered why he had not seen the solution before. There was Adam, a hermaphrodite, a whole creature, male and female in one form—as Plato would later say, looking like two people embracing. The solution was simple. He had done it once on a larger scale. He would do it again.
He put Adam to sleep, and we know the rest. Adam called her Eve. She was two-legged and a great hand at giving advice. The landlord was not entirely pleased. She almost looked as if she was made of matter. She had the air of disobedience, and that was a certain threat to power. In His angelic garden, hidden at its very center, stood two trees of a greater density, the same kind of density the female Eve had. They had appeared, unordered, in his emanations. When power is uncertain, it threatens. He called the man and woman to him but addressed Adam as the head of the house. “At the center of the garden is a tree. It grows a fruit only the gods can digest; good and evil. If you eat of it, you will surely die.”
Not yet brought to full life, to die meant nothing to Adam. It was like telling a child, “Don’t go near the fire, you will burn.” All the while Eve was listening with her eyes demurely to the ground. At first she thought it a beautiful tree trunk—maybe the very tree Adam was told not to touch. But nobody told her not to touch it.
Its golden scales shimmered in a round undulation as it grew out of itself, coiling upwards. Her eyes were dazzled, and there leaning towards her was a head with lapis lazuli eyes. They winked. How strange, to wink without a lid. She waited enraptured, bewildered before the tree’s luscious fruit, the mandala swollen into a sphere, dirt come to its miracle. At the very topmost bough, now russet, now golden, hung the most tempting object of all. Saliva moistened her mouth. She reached to touch it but met instead the flickering tongue, gliding towards the shell-like ear, saying softly, “sicut eritis dei” (“you will be as the gods”). She bit: Her five senses throbbed with appetite. Her eyes opened, and there was the world, and she and Adam were in it. She offered him the fruit. He bit and they rushed together. And he bit again.
Not disobedience, then, but the sorrows of knowledge, of good and evil whose end is death, that is the lesson the myth of the garden has for mankind. The loss of innocence is no fall. You cannot fall from innocence. You quicken. You enter the motion of life. In spite of himself, the landlord and his creatures, now carnal, must reckon with Time. Adam and Eve with their increase will now be wayfarers in the world. The Creator either had to withdraw into his invisible omniscience or follow his creatures into their predicament. This he did, but no longer a landlord. No more walks in the cool of the day. No conversations. A thunderer now from high places. A patriarch bereft of all but power. An archangel whirling a left-handed swastika before the garden gate, humming forbidden, forbidden, a hollow hum, for there was no garden. Once lost, innocence is gone forever. It was hard for the landlord to give up his garden, his artifacts, and there was Cain cultivating the wilderness, insolently using Time and its seasons to imitate His own creations. Sweating but bringing forth fruit from the ground. To be blessed. Not to praise his creator, but his produce.
So it seems, and so it seems that the power of the Creator as artist was displaced in the divine omniscience by the power of possession. One of the faculties of creation puts the essence of the artist into his artifact. It was out of this that Cain, the inheritor, acted, that is imitated. Man cannot create what is already there. He can only imitate what his vision discovers and what by form he can render. All the artists in Time cannot exhaust one created artifact, for in it is the fullness of the divine intention. But the landlord of the garden in his shift in roles mistook imitation for the thing itself Now the god as patriarch was a jealous god. He saw imitation as an attempt to deny power, and so brought death and disease into the world.
The divine problem seems to be the stress between Eternity and Time. To summarize much, that the Creator’s human artifacts become carnal gave Him a great vexation. So much so that he drowned nearly all of them, along with the innocent animals who had done nothing but be animals. When the land dried out, he made a covenant with mankind. As the sweet savor of Noah’s sacrifices rose to the divine nostrils. He understood how frail He made the flesh. He foresaw the inescapable part appetite (and the most dangerous appetite of all, power) would play in his creature’s long history; and his heart, if one can speak of the Creator’s heart without blasphemy, softened. He put a colored bow into the clouds as a covenant between Him and man, promising never to curse the ground again. He came to understand better his role as Creator as He transferred into all creation not his appearance but the world’s forms now made visible by the transaction. In the High Days of Christendom, all men as craftsmen accepted this. What they made they did to make a living, but they did it also to the greater glory of God.
But to quote Coomaraswami, no longer is every man a craftsman. Today the craftsman is a special kind of man. The power we suffer now is not God’s wrath. It is man’s pride. In deleting the “as” from the “be as,” it is we who offer the affront, not Cain. What poor grammarians. Only one word. As. How could its deletion do such damage? Christianity supplanted by Progress, a religion without a god, carnal goods its prayer book, its hope of salvation the perfectability of man, all Puritan desires. There has been a fall of man, but it is the fall into history, man judging man. But man dies.
What we have lost by this is our sense of a common creaturehood with living beings, and that includes ourselves; and we have lost our tools. Nevertheless, there is still man’s deep need to make things, in spite of technology’s grim effort to deny him its practice. Few men now are craftsmen, that is, few men are now Christian. No longer artists, we serve the autonomous machine. For a long time the machine as tool aided the craftsman to make. A divine inheritance withers when the tool becomes the master and the Word is drowned in words. If we can hold in mind that the Word is the creative power of God, we will take to heart that it was made flesh in Christ. Only in this way will we become again good grammarians and restore the “as” to the admonition.
But to want to restore a lost faith in a secular society will not of itself do so. We’ve got to have some luck or by some miracle rescue language from the surfeit of half-truths which confuse its authority. Again it takes only one word to betray. We have witnessed temperance turn into prohibition, that blasphemous theft of God’s own tool, the Word. And debase it. If language in all its proper usages is not restored, the confusion of tongues whose advance is rapid will grow more so. The care of words as it guards meaning can reopen our eyes, allow us to confess that we who have thought of ourselves as rich have only been profligate, and progress the progress of Hogarth’s heir. Then instead of appetite, comfort, and safety as ends, we may know again faith, hope, and charity.
But not without the cardinal, the Roman, virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude—these three defining Justice, as prudence disciplines the will, temperance the sensibility, and fortitude that moral courage which makes it possible. Else Justice will have no more meaning than a case won in court.
If a miracle could happen, every man as craftsman would know again he has only one contemplation, the mystery of Cod, made manifest in the natural order. Remember: Any divinity we have is imparted. It allows us by craft to make things, because we were made, not begotten. Both as artists and actors, human creatures may again try to turn the wilderness of Time into a habitable garden, as did Cain. And, this time, growing the foods of life and building creature shelters may not seem to the divine Essence a threat to a god’s power.