IMG_7650cSeveral recent blogposts notwithstanding, I have never been one to lean on the quotations of others, great or not. I have preferred most of my adult life—but to less effect, I suppose—a more experiential search for wisdom. So I have been surprised at the strength of my appreciation for the series of literary plaques set into the sidewalk near the New York City Public Library.

From the concrete below, a bronze rectangle faces upward to the sky and warns, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” (From The Awakening, an 1899 novel by Kate Chopin, 1851-1904.)

Lest one think only of race or ethnicity (and why might one not, for it is true there as well), the context for this particular remark is womanhood—the quiet constraints on the freedoms of women at the turn of the twentieth century. It would be two decades before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution finally recognized (not “gave”, as some might say, but recognized) the right of women to vote. That was a necessary step, but a hundred years later we know it was not anywhere near sufficient to dissipate the hard and the soft prejudices and the sequential ceilings women still confront today.

“…soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice…” Was this for Chopin an aspirational thought, or one of things unreachable? As the words sound born of experience, was it both personal reflection as well as fair warning for those who would try?

As sobering yet elevating as this one sentence seems to be, it does not stand alone in Chopin’s work. The very next sentence remarks far more darkly, “It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”

While one can see why these sentiments were not cast in bronze along with their predicate, they are even more powerful emotionally.  But “weaklings”?  Women who have spread their wings but failed against enormous odds? Failed against unremitting restriction, forced limitation based not on capacity or capability, brutality hidden behind walls, the absence of opportunity? And the quiet anger borne from it and toward it?

“Weaklings” is a word far too far. It is positively Ayn Rand-ian. Even the powerful, even the mighty tire in the face of unremitting prejudice and the level plain of repressive tradition.

It takes the strength and resolve of an entire society–men and women together, not one bird soaring alone–to eradicate this prejudice.  Too many of us still leave that task to those who are already its subject.

J. S. Anderson

Note:  P.S. To one who took years of piano lessons (to little effect), it seems odd to use name Chopin without referring to the composer.

Note: The plaque described above is part of the Library Walk, “a celebration of the world’s greatest literature,” sculpted by Gregg Lefevre and sponsored by the Grand Central Partnership and the New York Public Library. It was installed in 1998.

Photo by J. S. Anderson. “Bliss Dance” sculpture from 2010 Burning Man art event. Treasure Island, San Francisco, 2011.  Click to enlarge to better see the metal skin and some of the geodesic struts which support this remarkable, 40-foot-tall structure.


–July16, 2014—The Blackbird and Hemingway

–August 12—Some Books are to be Chewed




2 Responses to THE BIRD THAT WOULD SOAR . . .

  • Normally a word like “weaklings” would leap out at me and elicit the same response, Steve, but in this case I think it’s powerful. I read it not as a judgment of inner strength or innate ability, but as (a) a way to suggest that the beings who are struggling were exhausted before they even started, weakened by unrelenting daily circumstances; and (b) a way to suggest that those in positions of power (in this case, men) apply the word “weak” to those whom they subjugate, as an excuse or justification.

    Okay, now for a weird juxtaposition.

    I was watching “The Andy Griffith Show” last night, and although I love Andy’s avuncular wisdom and strong sense of ethics — and even though some episodes actually promote women’s rights — in this episode he repeatedly tells a nurse to stop worrying because her face will freeze that way and it makes me want to hit things.

    It’s condescension masquerading as tenderness, and you can’t feel condescending toward an equal (a good 80% of men still think they’re inherently superior to women, in my experience). I think that’s what the word “weakling” implies in the Chopin passage: you can be made to feel like a weakling when nobody leaves room for you to be strong.

    • I very much appreciate your point of view, and your comments are again insightful and engaging. I suspect that as a man I may be aware of the more obvious forms of repression and prejudice against women, but there are some habits, practices and beliefs embedded so deeply in “the level plain of tradition” that I do not recognize them. I’ll take on what I can see, and hope for greater insight as I go.

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