Ask anyone passingly acquainted with American poetry to tell you the title of his favorite Robert Frost poem and you might expect to hear, “Two roads diverged in a wood”. There’s only one problem with that answer: there’s no such poem! “Two roads diverged in a wood” is actually part of a line in Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken.
For decades, this poem has been a favorite, especially among young readers, because it has been understood as an anthem of non-conformity and adventure. Think Jack Kerouac in verse. But is this really what the poem is about? A more careful reading leads to a very different, and much more interesting, interpretation. Let’s look at the poem in its entirety:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence.
Two roads diverged in a wood and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Recently, a new friend invited me to tell him my “life’s story” and, of course, I was more than eager to oblige. As I told my tale, I felt as if I were a character in My Dinner with Andre, but when I later left the restaurant, I realized that the man I had described to my friend was actually a cross between Augustine of Hippo and D’Artagnan.
Not that anything I told my friend was untrue. It was just that every story had been edited to emphasize the creative and the courageous at the expense of the bumbling and the befuddled. Apparently, the lives we live actually consist of many lives. These many lives happily coexist and even cross pollinate until we are forced to reduce them to narrative. To narrate is to select.
There is a parallel here to Quantum Mechanics (QM). According to most interpretations of QM, the state of a physical system is uncertain until it is observed or measured. In some way, Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead until we open the box to see. Prior to measurement, there is a defined probability that a system will be found in any one of a number of specified states. Surprisingly, when we add these probabilities together, their sum can be as much as 140%; but when we measure the system, we find that the system is always in one and only one state and the probability of it being in that state is now exactly 100%. In QM, the whole can be a lot less than the sum of its parts.
Until I am asked to tell my life story, I am many different people and, taken together, I am actually more than one person. But when I narrate, I select the events I wish to include and I select the colors I want those events to display. The ‘narrated me’ can only be one person and, because narrative is always selective, the narrated me is always actually less than one person. I must always overflow my own narrative.
While we narrate effortlessly and almost unconsciously almost every minute of every day, the task is actually multifaceted and incredibly difficult. One must break the undifferentiated stream of consciousness into discrete events, clothe each event with an appropriate ‘subjective form’ and then link these events and their subjective forms together so that what emerges has the degree of unity we recognize as a ‘person’.
Let me take a moment here to define my terms. I am indebted to Alfred North Whitehead for the notions of ‘subjective form’ and ‘person’. Subjective form is what would today be called ‘spin’ (without the pejorative connotation, of course); and person is what would today be called, well, ‘person’. But Whitehead’s concept of person is specifically related to the thread of continuity that runs through a series of distinct events.
The task of narration is highly non-linear. One does not first select events, then spin them by endowing them with certain qualities and then string these spun events together to form a person. Try this at home and you’ll end up with a hot mess!
No, the narrator must perform all these tasks simultaneously and continuously throughout the process. In a sense, the narrative is not a succession of events with a variety of forms but one single event with one single subjective form. The climax is already present at “once upon a time”.
The person is the whole, period; not the sum of her parts. And from that whole we distill contributory events, each with its own particular spin, in such a way that those events and spins are compatible for integration into a single overarching person. In a sense, we begin at the end and work backwards. Narrative is teleological.
We might wish to think of the person as a 3-D hologram with the narrative functioning as the 2-D film that contains the information to create that hologram. All of the information in the 3-D projection is present at every point on the 2-D film.
When my friend asked for the story of my life, there were many different versions I might have shared. There’s the terrified and socially awkward little boy version. There’s the calculating and manipulative sociopath version. But without thinking, I chose the creative intellectual and courageous revolutionary version. After all, it was the one most likely to entertain him. So what if it happened to paint me in my most preferred colors!
The image I have of myself (my subjective form) is not the result of my actual experiences. My experiences can and do support many, many different images. Rather, the image I choose to share is the one most consistent with the values I’ve adopted over the years. When I tell my story, I naturally invest that story with those values. Had I different values, I would tell a different tale.
Returning now to Mr. Frost, it is clear from the text of his poem that he had adopted the values of non-conformity and adventure. What makes The Road not Taken such a triumph, however, is that in this poem Frost admits that these values are adopted and that it is just such adopted values that provide the subjective form of his life, that constitute the person that he is.
Frost images himself a taker of roads less travelled; but the text itself tells a very different story. There is in reality no road less travelled. “…The passing there had worn them both about the same, and both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” Frost recognizes that, objectively speaking, there was no difference between these roads; and perhaps he is also suggesting that all of his life’s potential pathways “equally lay” before him. Then by inference, all potential pathways lie equally ahead of all of us.
And why not? Each of us can only take one sequence of ways and none of us will ever have travelled any of those ways before. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted I should ever come back.” Therefore, in a certain sense the paths before us must always lie equally; they are all just pure potentia until we actuate one of them.
The psychology movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries presented us with a very different and perhaps more comforting model. According to this view, our decisions are conditioned by our prior experiences. In some sense then, we are not really responsible for those decisions; they are in a way determined for us.
This same notion resurfaced in the latter half of the 20th century as Postmodernism: we do not act, history/society/universe acts through us.
The philosophical movement known as Existentialism constitutes a radical challenge to this view. No decisions are determined or even conditioned. If they were they wouldn’t be decisions at all, would they? Decision, by definition, must be a totally free act and must belong entirely to one who decides.
If we choose and then tell ourselves that there were reasons, or even causes, for our choices, we avoid responsibility for those choices; that’s what an existentialist would call ‘bad faith’.
But if decisions are never determined or conditioned, are they then random? If so, if each choice is randomly made, unrelated to any other choices, have we not drifted into nihilism?
Robert Frost avoids bad faith by admitting that the paths “equally lay”. But he also avoids nihilism by linking his decisions, retrospectively, into a narrative that is framed by the values he has freely chosen to adopt over the course of his lifetime. What ultimately give meaning to Frost’s life are not the choices he makes (which are value neutral) but the narrative that connects those choices (which is value dependent).
Returning again to the language of Whitehead, Frost’s ‘superject’, the footprint he leaves upon the world, is the ‘subjective form’ of his life’s narrative, turned inside out. And that ‘subjective form’, of course, comes entirely from the values Frost adopted. Perhaps Frost is an icon of non-conformity and adventure after all, not because of anything he did per se, but because of the values he projected onto his actions via his narrative.
The actual events of Frost’s life are akin to a painter’s canvass; the values Frost assigns to that life are akin to the paint itself.
Does this have relevance beyond the world of literary criticism? According to the ontology of Alfred North Whitehead, God’s primordial contribution to the world is a set of proposed values. All subsequent (logically subsequent, not temporally subsequent) ‘actual entities’ arise in response to those values. Therefore, all actual entity embody these values but in different ways and with different subjective forms.
As we have said above, these adopted values become the subjective form of the actual entity’s narrative and that narrative in turn becomes its superject, its footprint on the world. Therefore, God’s primordial values are incessantly broadcast throughout universe by each and every actual entity that arises. Indeed, it is the function of the actual entity to instantiate God’s values but to do so freely and creatively.
God’s ultimate (or ‘consequent’) contribution to the world is the harmonization of each and every unique narrative into a single narrative for Universe. That narrative has God’s primordial values as its subjective form. This is where the theological notion of judgment comes into play. Just as I must pare down my many selves to one self, so God must pare down many universes to one Universe. Certain parts of certain narratives will not make it into the ‘final edition’. This is the solution to the problem of evil: they will be left on the cutting room floor.