I Am Lazarus, Come Back from the Dead

Flemish School, Dives and Lazarus

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading is the story of the rich man and Lazarus receiving their afterlife rewards in, respectively, Hell and Heaven. I am reposting an essay, slightly amended, that I wrote six years ago about T.S. Eliot’s use of the parable in Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. As I note in the piece, for years I had the wrong Lazarus in mind when I read the poem. The allusion made more sense once I got it right.

Reposted from Sept. 24, 2016

I’ve have only just realized that the “Lazarus” mentioned in T. S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is not Mary and Martha’s brother, the man whom Jesus brings back from the dead. Rather, he is the Lazarus mentioned in today’s Gospel reading about the rich man in hell.

This is not news to Eliot scholars, but it certainly has me looking at Prufrock in a slightly different light. I now regard the speaker as even more hopeless than I did before. Here’s the passage from Luke (16: 19-31):

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

In Eliot’s poem, Prufrock is frustrated that his upper-class society cannot see its emptiness. As someone who experiences this emptiness only too keenly, he imagines himself returning—as the rich man wants Lazarus to return—to wake these rich people up. Here’s the relevant stanza:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worthwhile,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
               That is not it, at all.”

Note that Prufrock is already talking himself out of causing a scene. The Biblical passage gives him an excuse for his inactivity. After all, Abraham tells the rich man that a Lazarus visit wouldn’t do any good anyway. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The idea of squeezing “the universe into a ball/To roll it towards some overwhelming question,” incidentally, is an allusion to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” In that poem, written in the vein of such carpé diem poems as Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make the Most of Time,” the speaker is assuring his mistress that, “if there were world enough and time,” then of course he would be content to court her slowly. But because time is flying by—because “always at my back I hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”—they need to get down to immediate business. Or as the speaker puts it,

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Prufrock, however, is not the type to tear his pleasures with rough strife or, as he says elsewhere, force a moment to its crisis. In fact, he will go on to compare himself, not to Prince Hamlet (who after initial hesitation swings into action) but to the “easy tool” Polonius. So he’s certainly not going to put himself up there with Moses and the prophets.

Prufrock’s very decision to quote this Biblical passage means that he has already decided that his words won’t do any good. That’s why he can so easily imagine the woman putting him down. He has given up before he’s even started.

In his later Christian poetry, Eliot will focus on leaving the society of the rich man and attaining the faith of Lazarus. It’s as though, through poems like Prufrock, “The Hollow Men,” “Gerontion,” and The Waste Land, he is coming face to face with the sterility of a world without faith. Once he realizes that there is nothing to be gained from such a world, he turns his eyes towards Lazarus with the angels.

Further note: Having just taught Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” passage (from The Brothers Karamazov) in my “Existential Fantasies of Haruki Murakami” seminar, I can’t help but hear the Inquisitor responding to Jesus with the critique, “You can’t ask people to follow Your hard road without providing them with miracles to help them. Lazarus coming back from the dead would be a miracle and would aid those who are not as strong as You. Instead, you demand that they rely only on faith, just as you will later say to Doubting Thomas, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ You may appear to be kind and caring, Jesus, but your program is too harsh for humanity.”

As someone who is optimistic about human potential, I want to counter that Jesus was right to have faith in us and that we are indeed capable of rising to the occasion. After all, hasn’t Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit as an advocate with the Father to help us.  Ivan Karamazov, however, forces me to question whether this is just an article of faith. Can I back it up with empirical evidence?

Correction: Reader William McKeachie sent in a slight correction. Jesus told his disciples that he would be their advocate with the Father in heaven and would communicate with them through the Holy Spirit. In other words, they are not as dependent on their own resources as Ivan claims. Ivan is operating through a secular humanist model and discounting the power of divine love. When we open ourselves to God’s love, much that seemed hard becomes suddenly easy.

The brilliance of Brothers Karamazov lies partly in the Ivan-Alyosha debate. By telling the story at one point about the suffering undergone by various children, Ivan serves as a corrective to facile faith. The novel ends, however, with the beauty and strength of Alyosha’s vision. Ivan, meanwhile, goes mad.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Light You Seek Hides in Your Belly

Illustration of a New Moon

Friday – Preparing for Rosh Hashanah

Judaism’s celebration of the Jewish new year—which is to say, the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve—begins on Sunday. The Ten Days of Repentance, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Yom Kippur, are a time for reflecting on our lives, mending our ways, and seeking the forgiveness of those we have wronged.

Jewish poet Marge Piercy has written one of the best Rosh Hashanah poems that I know. On this particular Rosh Hashanah, Piercy notes, the moon is dark, which gives her a powerful image to work with. This moon is a “black zero of beginning,” a chance to “void yourself of injuries, insults, incursions,” and in our hollowness we “hunger,” like the moon, to be full.

The days of repentance provide Jews with a chance to begin anew, to set out with a clean slate and a firm foundation. “Go with empty hands,” the poet tells us, “to those you have hurt and make amends.” The old moon may have died, but that only means that it is early, not late. Now is the time of growth, “a time to/ turn inward to face yourself, the hidden twin of/ all you must grow to be.”

And if we forgive—forgive the dead year that has come up short and forgive ourselves for the same—then what we truly desire will “push through our fingers.” As with the dark moon, our inner light awaits, and if we open ourselves to it, it will come streaming from our eyes. Like the moon, we “will wax in new goodness.”

Head of the Year
by Marge Piercy

The moon is dark tonight, a new
moon for a new year. It is
hollow and hungers to be full.
It is the black zero of beginning.

Now you must void yourself
of injuries, insults, incursions.
Go with empty hands to those
you have hurt and make amends.

It is not too late. It is early
and about to grow. Now
is the time to do what you
know you must and have feared
to begin. Your face is dark
too as you turn inward to face
yourself, the hidden twin of
all you must grow to be.

Forgive the dead year. Forgive
yourself. What will be wants
to push through your fingers.
The light you seek hides
in your belly. The light you
crave longs to stream from
your eyes. You are the moon
that will wax in new goodness.

Further thought: The moon imagery reminds me of the opening interchange between Theseus and Hippolyta in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The two are to be married on a night with a new moon, and Theseus complains that waiting an extra four days for the old moon to die is like a young man waiting for someone to pass so that he can step into his inheritance. “How slow this old moon wanes,” he laments.

In a beautiful image, however, Hippolyta tells Theseus to anticipate the new moon:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

That new bow will propel them into married life. And as Piercy sees it, into “all you must grow to be.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fiona as Coleridge’s Mad Lutanist

Hurricane Fiona devastates Puerto Rico with 130 mph winds

Thursday

Because of how Hurricane Fiona has hammered Puerto Rico, I’m reposting a slightly altered version of the 2017 essay I wrote about Hurricane Maria, the previous hurricane to devastate the island.

Reposted from Oct. 8, 2017

 If you get a chance, check out “It’s Almost Like Praying,” the powerful Lin-Manuel Miranda song performed by Puerto Rican artists (and others) designed to uplift the spirits of the storm-ravaged island and to raise money for the relief effort. It brought tears to my eyes and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” to my mind.

That’s because the poem, which describes a storm, turns hopeful at the end, asking, “May this storm be but a mountain-birth.” Though the poem is about a lady loved by the unhappily married Coleridge, it speaks to all who have been through a hellish night but sense the prospect of a new dawn before them.

Miranda too starts his song with a love affair–that of Tony and Maria in West Side Story–and builds it from there. He is in love with the island where he spent summers with his grandparents, and, by end, Maria has transformed from destructive storm to the Santa Maria, the blessed virgin.

Miranda has discussed how the hurricane burdened the name with conflicting associations: why did something so destructive carry Mary’s name? He quickly got permission to use the Leonard Bernstein song “Maria” (“it’s almost like praying, Maria”) and wrote lyrics that listed all the different sections of Puerto Rico to let them know they hadn’t been forgotten. Then he gathered together noteworthy Puerto Rican and other Latino/a singers in a display of unity and support.

For his part, Coleridge opens “Dejection” by quoting the tragic ballad of Sir Patrick Spence. Spence knows that the king has all but ordered his death by sending him out into a deadly storm—he recognizes the signs—but his loyalty is such that he ventures out anyway. He is like those Puerto Ricans who could have left the island but chose to stay:

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon, 
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear, my Master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm. 

To be sure, Coleridge’s storm is far weaker. Nevertheless, when the raving wind hits the poet’s wind harp (his “lute”), the result is something that Puerto Rico’s inhabitants will recognize: “a scream of agony by torture lengthened out.” The storm is a “mad lutanist,” a fitting image for for the “viper thoughts” that batter Coleridge’s mind:

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, 
                Reality’s dark dream! 
I turn from you, and listen to the wind, 
         Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream 
Of agony by torture lengthened out 
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without, 
         Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree, 
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb, 
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home, 
         Methinks were fitter instruments for thee, 
Mad Lutanist! 

Coleridge, however, goes on to make a point that might comfort the island inhabitants. Nature doesn’t get the last word, he says; our souls do. In his vision, our inner luminescence shines forth to envelope the world: “We receive but what we give,/ And in our life alone does Nature live.” While the world itself is inanimate and cold, when our souls send forth “a light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud enveloping the earth,” then is this earth transfigured. It is up to us to determine whether Nature is to be seen as a wedding garment or a shroud.

O Lady! we receive but what we give, 
And in our life alone does Nature live: 
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud! 
         And would we aught behold, of higher worth, 
Than that inanimate cold world allowed 
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd, 
         Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth 
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud 
                Enveloping the Earth— 
And from the soul itself must there be sent 
         A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth, 
Of all sweet sounds the life and element! 

From his earlier dejection, Coleridge has talked himself into a more peaceful state, and he wishes this peace upon his lady friend. Let’s say that he is all of us worrying about Puerto Rico and wishing her this same peace. “Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,” he says, and “May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,/ Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!”

If we do indeed shift into this more positive mindset, then the storm will not be an ending but “a mountain-birth.” May the morrow be far different than today, the poet prays:

               With light heart may she rise, 
                Gay fancy, cheerful eyes,
          Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice; 
To her may all things live, from pole to pole, 
Their life the eddying of her living soul!
          O simple spirit, guided from above, 
Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice, 
Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice.

And may Puerto Rico rises with a light heart. May joy lift her spirit and joy attune her voice.

It’s almost like praying.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Ukraine Must Unite Athena with Poseidon

René-Antoine Houasse, Poseidon and Athena Fighting over Athens

Wednesday

Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian whose book On Tyranny is essential reading for anyone interested in the rise of authoritarianism, has a great article in the latest Foreign Policy on the necessity of Ukraine resisting Russia. Had Czechoslovakia in 1937 responded to Hitler as Ukraine has responded to Putin—and had it received the kind of military aid that Ukraine is now receiving—Hitler would have been thwarted and World War II averted, Snyder believes. I report on the article here because of Snyder’s literary references.

Snyder straightforwardly sets forth in the first paragraph what is at stake in the Russo-Ukrainian War:

Russia, an aging tyranny, seeks to destroy Ukraine, a defiant democracy. A Ukrainian victory would confirm the principle of self-rule, allow the integration of Europe to proceed, and empower people of goodwill to return reinvigorated to other global challenges. A Russian victory, by contrast, would extend genocidal policies in Ukraine, subordinate Europeans, and render any vision of a geopolitical European Union obsolete. Should Russia continue its illegal blockade of the Black Sea, it could starve Africans and Asians, who depend on Ukrainian grain, precipitating a durable international crisis that will make it all but impossible to deal with common threats such as climate change. A Russian victory would strengthen fascists and other tyrants, as well as nihilists who see politics as nothing more than a spectacle designed by oligarchs to distract ordinary citizens from the destruction of the world. This war, in other words, is about establishing principles for the twenty-first century. It is about policies of mass death and about the meaning of life in politics. It is about the possibility of a democratic future.

To undergird his point, Snyder then turns to the Greek myth where Athena and Poseidon contend to be the patron god of Athens. Snyder turns to the ancient Greeks because (1) the idea of democracy originated in 5th century Athens and (2) Athens once had sea ports in what is modern day Ukraine. For Snyder, the contention between Athena and Poseidon is that between a vision of democracy as “tranquility, a life of thoughtful deliberation and consumption” and a vision of democracy as armed struggle. Although the first is more essential, Snyder says, both are necessary, a point that the story makes clear. First, Athena:

According to the Athenian legend of [democracy’s] origin, the deities Poseidon and Athena offered gifts to the citizens to win the status of patron. Poseidon, the god of the sea, struck the ground with his trident, causing the earth to tremble and saltwater to spring forth. He was offering Athenians the power of the sea and strength in war, but they blanched at the taste of brine. Then Athena planted an olive seed, which sprouted into an olive tree. It offered shade for contemplation, olives for eating, and oil for cooking. Athena’s gift was deemed superior, and the city took her name and patronage.

Athena is not enough, however, as Ukraine knows only too well. The city therefore finds a place for Poseidon as well:

Yet Athens had to win wars to survive. The most famous defense of democracy, the funeral oration of Pericles, is about the harmony of risk and freedom. Po­­seidon had a point about war: sometimes the trident must be brought down. He was also making a case for interdependence. Prosperity, and sometimes survival, depends on sea trade. How, after all, could a small city-state such as Athens afford to devote its limited soil to olives? Ancient Athenians were nourished by grain brought from the north coast of the Black Sea, grown in the black earth of what is now southern Ukraine.

Snyder proceeds to analyze Putin’s fascism—how it resembles Hitler’s and Mussolini’s—and then draws an interesting analogy (interesting to literature enthusiasts, anyway) between literary criticism and literature. I especially like what he says about literature providing us with a solid foundation from which to act:

The defense of Putin’s regime has been offered by people operating as literary critics, ever disassembling and dissembling. Ukrainian resistance, embodied by President Volodymyr Zelensky, has been more like literature: careful attention to art, no doubt, but for the purpose of articulating values. If all one has is literary criticism, one accepts that everything melts into air and concedes the values that make democratic politics possible. But when one has literature, one experiences a certain solidity, a sense that embodying values is more interesting and more courageous than dismissing or mocking them.

Creation comes before critique and outlasts it; action is better than ridicule. As Pericles put it, “We rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands.”

Yes, literature is all about hearts and real life. While I think Snyder may be overly negative about literary criticism—the best lit crit comes from the heart and is grounded in the same values as literature—I get his point. He’s drawing a distinction between the cynical Putin and the grounded Zelensky.

Snyder finds an author who is so grounded in Euripides. The name comes up in a discussion of what it takes to preserve democracy. How Zelensky has stood up to Putin, Snyder says, has been critical:

[D]emocracy demands “earnest struggle,” as the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass said. Ukrainian resistance to what appeared to be overwhelming force reminded the world that democracy is not about accepting the apparent verdict of history. It is about making history; striving toward human values despite the weight of empire, oligarchy, and propaganda; and, in so doing, revealing previously unseen possibilities.

Then comes the mention of Euripides:

On the surface, Zelensky’s simple truth that “the president is here” was meant to undo Russian propaganda, which was claiming that he had fled the city. But the video, shot in the open air as Kyiv was under attack, was also a recovery of the meaning of freedom of speech, which has been forgotten. The Greek playwright Euripides understood that the purpose of freedom of speech was to speak truth to power. The free speaker clarifies a dangerous world not only with what he says but by the risk he takes when he speaks. By saying “the president is here” as the bombs fell and the assassins approached, Zelensky was “living in truth,” in the words of Vaclav Havel…

Snyder doesn’t mention which Euripides plays he has in mind but I can think of several. There’s young and innocent Neoptolemus in Philoctetes, who turns his back on the cynical Odysseus and instead deals with the exiled Greek archer in good faith. There’s Teiresias in The Bacchae, who calls out the tyrant Pentheus for his crazed rejection of Dionysus.  And Ion in the play by that name, who questions “how the gods can do things which are crimes for humans and how gods can get away with breaking law, which leads to punishment for humans.” (Many of us are asking this same question about our former president.)

Having made the point that democracies rely on such courageous uses of free speech, Snyder expands upon the idea. Asserting one’s values into the world, he says, is “a pre-condition of self-rule:

After 1991, the nihilism of late communism flowed together with the complacent Western idea that democracy was merely the result of impersonal forces. If it turned out that those forces pushed in different directions, for example, toward oligarchy or empire, what was there then to say? But in the tradition of Euripides or Havel or now Zelensky, it is taken for granted that the larger forces are always against the individual, and that citizenship is realized through the responsibility one takes for words and the risks one takes with deeds. Truth is not with power, but a defense against it. That is why freedom of speech is necessary: not to make excuses, not to conform, but to assert values into the world, because so doing is a precondition of self-rule.

Democracy, Snyder goes on to say, “can be made only by people who want to make it and in the name of values they affirm by taking risks for them.”

The article ends with Snyder circling back to Athena and Poseidon:

Athena and Poseidon can be brought together. Athena, after all, was the goddess not only of justice but of just war. Poseidon had in mind not only violence but commerce. Athenians chose Athena as their patron but then built a fountain for Poseidon in the Acropolis—on the very spot, legend has it, where his trident struck. A victory for Ukraine would vindicate and recombine these values: Athena’s of deliberation and prosperity, Poseidon’s of decisiveness and trade. If Ukraine can win back its south, the sea-lanes that fed the ancient Greeks will be reopened, and the world will be enlightened by the Ukrainian example of risk-taking for self-rule. In the end, the olive tree will need the trident. Peace will only follow victory. The world might get an olive branch, but only if the Ukrainians can fight their way back to the sea

Myths, like stories and plays, retain their power to address reality on multiple levels. One doesn’t have to literally believe in the Olympian gods to see the truths their stories offer us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Byatt’s Babel Tower and Truth Today

Tuesday

I recently finished reading A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower at the same time that I was working with fellow Carleton alumni on a “Truth, Education and Democracy” session for our 50th reunion next year. The novel has me reflecting both on my Carleton experience and the liberal arts ideal in general. Allow me to explain.

Byatt’s 1996 novel has several threads, one of which involves excerpts from a novel that a tormented character named Jude Mason has written. In this novel, a group of aristocratic free thinkers, fleeing from the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, retreat into a solitary castle. Cutting off ties with the rest of the world, they determine to live an existence free of social convention and sexual restraint. The name of this novel within Babel Tower is Babbletower, with the word “babble” having arisen from the Biblical city of Babel.

The ringleader of the group is one Culvert, who sounds like Rousseau and other Enlightenment philosophes. He regularly gives inspirational lectures outlining the guidelines the group is to live by. Here are the first three of the guiding principles he recommends:

1. The community must strive towards complete freedom for each and every member to live and express himself—or herself—to the utmost.

2. To this end all false distinctions of the corrupt world from which they had fled must be abolished. There must be no masters and no servants, no payment and no debt, but a common consent about the workd to be done, the delights to be enjoyed, the just sharing of these, and the proper remuneration of all from the common fund of goods and talents. Professions must be abolished, along with privileges, all must turn their hands to all tht was possible, as their desires led them, for work desired to be done is work well done, and slave labor is always ill done.

3. “It will be found,” Culvert said, “I believe, upon just reflection, that many of the evil distinctions and oppressions in our world come from institutions we have not dared to question. Most of us have already questioned and rejected the religons of our forefathers and compatriots, seeing to what evils they have led, but we have ot sufficiently studied how those unnatural instituions—marriage, the family, the patriarchy, the pedagogic authoritarian relation between teacher and pupil—have also harmed our natural impulses and inclinations

Byatt sets her own Babel Tower in the freewheeling 1960s, when there were intense debates on these issues. Sometimes communes were set up with similar  guidelines. Jude Mason, using his novel Babbletower to explore the world in which he lives, explores the dark side of the Enlightenment. The community, which starts off with embracing free sex and an end to hierarchy, eventually descends into bloodshed and torture. In the 1960s, one can think of Woodstock as the aspirational ideal and mass murderer Charles Manson as freedom gone awry. In the novel-within-the-novel, the tension is between French utopian socialist Charles Fourier and the Marquis de Sade.

Because Jude Mason’s novel describes horrific tortures, including an instrument that is introduced into a woman’s vagina, first to pleasure her and then to cut her to pieces, the novel is taken to court as pornography. One of the witnesses defending the novel draws the Fournier/Sade contrast and argues that, rather than indulging lascivious tastes, the novel is actually examining the complexities of freedom, which many in the 1960s ignored. Here’s the defense attorney questioning philosophy Professor Marie-France Smith, who wants to “produce a dry, scholarly account of what she believes to be the intellectual background of Babbletower.” After outlining Fourier’s ideas, she turns to Sade:

Smith: Fourier really believed that the Terror in the French Revolution might, pushed a little further, have ushered in one desirable further breaking down of rules and conventions—the abolition of marriage, which made almost everyone, in his view, unhappy. “In Harmony,” he wrote, “every mature man and woman must be granted a satisfying minimum of sexual pleasure.”
Attorney: And you see Babbletower as in that tradition?
Smith: The first part, yes. The characters are setting off to found a Nouveau Monde Amoureux, a New World of Love. What happens owes as much to de Sade as to Fourier.
Attorney: Tell us bout de Sade. You take him seriously as a thinker?
Smith: You must. He is important. He represents the line from the Enlightenment philosophers who extol human reason and free will, in its cynical vein. He asks, If we are free to follow our passions, who can prevent us from following our desire to hurt others, to kill, to rape, to torture? Those are, he says, human passions; they are natural. Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, the freethinkers, lead, according to one view, to the guillotine and the Sadeian boudoir. Mr. Mason has understood this. He has shown it.

And further on in the examination:

Smith: The Babbletower community is Fourier’s Nouveau Monde Amoureux. It is also Sade’s Chateau de Silling [the castle in 120 Days of Sodom], where the libertines cut the bridge that connects them to the outer world so as to perform their terrible deeds.

So how does this relate to a class reunion session on “Truth, Education, and Democracy”? Well, the modern college traces many of its ideals and practices to the 18th century Enlightenment. Students retreat from the world—in some schools there are even gates closing them off from the outside world (as in Harvard and Columbia)—so that they can engage in a free and open discussion of ideas. This in turn is held up as a model of how a democracy should function, with people of different perspectives coming together to engage in a collective project. Critical to the enterprise is a willingness to entertain different perspectives.

But colleges and democracies only work if everyone agrees to certain ground rules. If dialogue is not genuine—if one group refuses to listen to another, or even strives to silence another—then the community breaks down. And if there is not an agreed-upon way to arrive at truth and establish facts, whether through logic, reason, or the scientific method, then the institution is put into peril. This is not to say that we will all agree with the conclusions of others, but we must agree about how to conduct the dialogue that leads to conclusions, just as citizens in a democracy must all agree to abide by election rules.

Our group consists of an Emory philosophy professor, an American University law professor, an IUPUI Library Professor, a St. Mary’s College of Maryland English professor (me), and a noted doctor, so all of us are dedicated to the pursuit of truth, each in his own disciplinary way.  One question we are encountering is how much credence to give to those who dismiss truth, facts, and expertise altogether. If educators are censored because they don’t have the proper political views, if facts are determined by whoever shouts the loudest and bullies the best, if Enlightenment reason is attacked when it leads to unpopular and uncomfortable perspectives, then goodbye to truth and all truth-seeking endeavors.

It is always good to be skeptical and self-critical. That’s a vital part of the university project. But skepticism is not the same as anti-intellectualism. There has to be a commitment to the project itself. This commitment must undergird the session we are putting together.

Further thought: When it comes to the question of truth, I myself follow in the tradition of Aristotle, Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Johnson, Percy Shelley and others in seeing great literature as capturing the deepest truths about human beings. Salman Rushdie has written (in response to the torrent of lies we encounter in the public realm),

[A]s far as writers are concerned, we need to rebuild our readers’ belief in argument from factual evidence, and to do what fiction has always been good at doing—to construct, between the writer and the reader, an understanding about what is real. I don’t mean to reconstruct the narrow, exclusive consensus of the nineteenth century. I like the broader, more disputatious view of society to be found in modern literature. But when we read a book we like, or even love, we find ourselves in agreement with its portrait of human life. Yes, we say, this is how we are, this is what we do to one another, this is true. That, perhaps, is where literature can help most. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What You Missed in School Today

Albert Anker, The Village School

Monday

 

A question for fellow college teachers: how often have you heard, from a student who missed a class, “Did I miss anything important.” Thomas Wayman has a wonderfully sarcastic set of answers to that question that I’ve shared in the past.

For a different approach, there’s Brad Aaron Modlin’s “What You Missed that Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade.” Consider it an exercise in expanding the possibilities of what education can accomplish. It’s a fun way to begin a new week:

What You Missed that Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
By Brad Aaron Modlin

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math
equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

Yes, your questions, your longing, and your existence add up to something. Good teachers know this.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Reaching Out to the Poor and Oppressed

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda

Spiritual Sunday

How is it that American white evangelicals, who once reached out to the poor and needy, now cheer as self-proclaimed Christians like Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott victimize vulnerable refugees as pawns in their political games. While we are still learning details, it appears that DeSantis used Florida taxpayer money to lure Venezuelan refugees onto an airplane with false promises of jobs and housing in Boston. They were then flown to Martha’s Vineyard, along with a photographer, and dumped without warning there.

Martha Serpa’s “Poem Found” functions as useful commentary on the spiritual emptiness of such an action. Its subject is the displaced New Orleans residents that were directed into the city’s Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The dome reminds the poet of the “dome in the midst of the waters”—also translated as vault and firmament—in Genesis 1:6-8:

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

While the Superdome served as a refuge, it was made intentionally uninviting. Citing from Time magazine and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Wikipedia reports,

Over the years city officials have stressed that they didn’t want to make it too comfortable at the Superdome since it was always safer to leave the city altogether. “It’s not a hotel,” said the emergency preparedness director for St. Tammany Parish to the Times-Picayune in 1999.

As the Superdome filled up, it became a hellhole:

[T]here was no water purification equipment on site, nor any chemical toilets, antibiotics, or anti-diarrheals stored for a crisis. There were no designated medical staff at work in the evacuation center, no established sick bay within the Superdome, and very few cots available that hadn’t been brought in by evacuees. Mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin had stated that as a “refuge of last resort,” only limited food, water, and supplies would be provided. Residents who evacuated to the Superdome were warned to bring their own supplies with them.[12]

By August 30, with no air conditioning, temperatures inside the dome had reached the 90s, and the punctured dome at once allowed humidity in and trapped it there. Tempers began to flare as hunger and thirst deepened. Food rotted inside the hundreds of unpowered refrigerators and freezers spread throughout the building. Blood and feces covered the walls of the facility. According to many, the smell inside the stadium was revolting due to the breakdown of the plumbing system, which included all toilets and urinals in the building, forcing people to urinate and defecate in other areas such as garbage cans and sinks. Some people even chose to wear medical masks to ease the smell.

The flood waters eventually reached the Dome, although they did not rise above field level. This allows Serpas to riff off the Genesis account, noting that, in this case, “the dry land land did not appear.” It might be an allusion to Noah’s flood as well.

The poet has written about the occasion of her poem,

I was seeing something like the interruption and reversal of creation, the heartless who floundered, and the strength of displaced people who lost and survived. Until then my work had focused on coastal erosion, a factor in what happened to the city, and an ongoing destruction of land and lives by encroaching water.

Those with money, of course, left the area or found better accommodations. Or as Serpas sarcastically puts it,

 And God allowed those who favored themselves

born in God’s image to take dominion over
the dome and everything that creeped within it

and made them to walk to and fro above it
in their jumbo planes and in their copy rooms

and in their conference halls.

Those who claim dominion, however, are not those that most concerned Jesus, and, like him, Serpas focuses on “the poor, the addicts, the blind, and the oppressed,” “the unsightly sick and the crying young.” If she were writing about DeSantis’s political gamesmanship, she would add Venezuelan refugees to the list. Here’s the poem:

Poem Found
New Orleans, September 2005

By Martha Serpas

…And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst
of the waters” and into the dome God put

the poor, the addicts, the blind, and the oppressed.
God put the unsightly sick and the crying young

into the dome and the dry land did not appear.
And God allowed those who favored themselves

born in God’s image to take dominion over
the dome and everything that creeped within it

and made them to walk to and fro above it
in their jumbo planes and in their copy rooms

and in their conference halls. And then
God brooded over the dome and its multitudes

and God saw God’s own likeness in the shattered
tiles and the sweltering heat and the polluted rain.

God saw everything and chose to make it very good.
God held the dome up to the light

like an open locket and in every manner called
the others to look inside and those who saw

rested on that day and those who didn’t
went to and fro and walked up and down

the marsh until the loosened silt gave way
to a void, and darkness covered the faces with deep sleep.

Serpas uses the locket metaphor to capture God’s love for us. By inviting us to look at it, God gives us a chance to love our unfortunate neighbors. If we do, we will find heaven on earth.

If we don’t, on the other hand, Serpas uses an environmental image to depict our fate. Her reference is to irresponsible tree-cutting and oil development, which have devastated the marshlands that in the past served as a buffer against hurricanes. If we choose greed over responsible stewardship, the loosened silt will give way and (to quote Isaiah’s riff off of Genesis, “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples” (Isaiah 60:2).

Those that fail to open themselves to the goodness of God’s creation will, like restless souls, forever walk to and fro and up and down. Without God to guide them, ultimately they, like Dante’s sinners, will be swallowed by a void of their own devising.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Music That Triggers Deep Longings

Friday

I’m starting a new Friday feature today, which is related to the weekly poetry column I inherited from my mother in the Sewanee Mountain Messenger. “Bard to Verse” comes out every Friday, and henceforward I will devote each Friday’s blog post to discussing the poem I have chosen. Since sometimes I must settle for an except (since the Messenger has limited space), this has the added benefit of allowing Messenger readers to check out the poem in its entirety. If you’d like to see the publication, you can go to here. The weekly poem appears on the last page.

Today is the birthday of Alfred Noyes (b. 1880), whose “Highwayman” is one of the great poems of my childhood. In fact, for me it was the poetic equivalent of Lord of the Rings, capturing the imagination of a dreamy and romantic adolescent and taking him (as Emily Dickinson puts it) “lands away.”

I didn’t know of Noyes’s “The Barrel Organ” until I encountered it in my 11th grade British Literature class. That course was arguably the most important one I ever took (as I told teacher Sparky Edgin multiple times before he passed away) because it took my mind off of the unhappiness of attending a military high school. From that moment on, British Literature became my great passion.

I shake my head in wonder at how much Edgin had us read in that class. Even now, 55 years later, I can remember almost every work we read. (See the end of this post for a complete list.) Very wisely, Edgin started off with the 20th century so we read short stories by Somerset Maugham and Saki (I can remember the plots but not the titles), Dylan Thomas’s “Poem in October,” James Stephens’s “The Shell,” and another story about a bicycle accident that has two endings (which seemed very cool) but whose author and title I also can’t recall. And then there was Noyes’s “Barrel Organ.”

The theme of the poem is that the mechanical music issuing from a barrel-organ has the effect (at least at the moment when “the sun sinks low”) of triggering deep longing in everyone who hears it.

It’s as though people are not actually hearing popular airs from La Traviata and Il Trovatore, performed on a herky-jerky instrument,but their own inarticulate longings. And perhaps that’s what all music does. As Noyes puts it,

                 And there La Traviata sighs
                      Another sadder song;
                  And there Il Trovatore cries
                      A tale of deeper wrong;
                  And bolder knights to battle go
                      With sword and shield and lance
                  Than ever here on earth below…

The situation reminds me of my favorite chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The time of day is different—dawn rather than twilight—but the theme of longing-that-cannot-be-captured is the same. First Rat hears the distant music (he’s the poet after all) and then Mole. Grahame describes Rat’s response as follows:

Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.

“It’s gone!” sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worthwhile but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever. No! There it is again!” he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.

In Grahame’s story, Rat and Mole come face to face with the source of the music—the Great God Pan—and this direct encounter with the divine is ecstatic. But it cannot last, and when it ends they are—a bit like all the lonely people in Noyes’s poem—lost and bereft. To save them, therefore, Pan bestows upon them “the gift of forgetfulness”:

As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the afterlives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.

Noyes too speaks of forgetting, and while he doesn’t describe it as a necessary forgetting, there’s a sense that “business as usual” could not go on if we stayed entranced by the distant music:

                  Yes; as the music changes,
                      Like a prismatic glass,
                  It takes the light and ranges
                      Through all the moods that pass;
                  Dissects the common carnival
                      Of passions and regrets,
                  And gives the world a glimpse of all
                      The colors it forgets.

In the poem we see all the characters struggling to get this glimpse. It doesn’t matter whether one is a “modish” woman or an “old and haggard demi-rep” (probably an over-the-hill prostitute), a businessman or a thief, a butcher or a clerk, a laborer or an Oxford oarsman. Each, for a moment, is caught up in distant dreams.

And while the barrel-organ’s music can’t restore what has been lost, when it “whirls” from sadness into a dance, it provides them with a consolation. They realize they can “come down to Kew in lilac time.” Unlike the “land where the dead dreams go,” it’s “oh so near to London.”

I remember how much I loved this poem as a teenager. At that age, our longings seem particularly intense—at least that’s how I remember them—so that poems which capture our condition feel like celestial gifts. I think of other mysterious poems from the period that I loved, like Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” (“‘Is there anybody there?” said the traveler/Knocking on the moonlit door”), A. E. Housman’s “Land of Lost Content” (“ Into my heart an air that kills/ From yon far country blows”), and E.A. Robinson’s “Luke Havergal” (“The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,/ Like flying words, will strike you as they fall”).

I would have found disappointing any attempts to pin down the mystery. At that age, my mind ranged freely.

As you read “The Barrel-Organ,” perhaps you will find that it touches upon some of your own longings.

The Barrel-Organ
By Alfred Noyes

There’s a barrel-organ caroling across a golden street
    In the City as the sun sinks low;
And the music’s not immortal; but the world has made it sweet
    And fulfilled it with the sunset glow;
And it pulses through the pleasures of the City and the pain
    That surround the singing organ like a large eternal light;
And they’ve given it a glory and a part to play again
    In the Symphony that rules the day and night.

And now it’s marching onward through the realms of old romance
    And trolling out a fond familiar tune,
And now it’s roaring cannon down to fight the King of France,
    And now it’s prattling softly to the moon,
And all around the organ there’s a sea without a shore
    Of human joys and wonders and regrets;
To remember and to recompense the music evermore
    For what the cold machinery forgets. . . .

                  Yes; as the music changes,
                      Like a prismatic glass,
                  It takes the light and ranges
                      Through all the moods that pass;
                  Dissects the common carnival
                      Of passions and regrets,
                  And gives the world a glimpse of all
                      The colors it forgets.

                  And there La Traviata sighs
                      Another sadder song;
                  And there Il Trovatore cries
                      A tale of deeper wrong;
                  And bolder knights to battle go
                      With sword and shield and lance,
                  Than ever here on earth below
                      Have whirled into—a dance!—

Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
   Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
   Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)

The cherry-trees are seas of bloom and soft perfume and sweet perfume,
    The cherry-trees are seas of bloom (and oh, so near to London!)
And there they say, when dawn is high and all the world’s a blaze of sky      
    The cuckoo, though he’s very shy, will sing a song for London.

The Dorian nightingale is rare and yet they say you’ll hear him there
    At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
The linnet and the throstle, too, and after dark the long halloo
    And golden-eyed tu-whit, tu-whoo, of owls that ogle London.

For Noah hardly knew a bird of any kind that isn’t heard
    At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
And when the rose begins to pout and all the chestnut spires are out
    You’ll hear the rest without a doubt, all chorusing for London:—

Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
    Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
    Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)

And then the troubadour begins to thrill the golden street,   
    In the City as the sun sinks low;
And in all the gaudy buses there are scores of weary feet
Making time, sweet time, with a dull mechanic beat,
And a thousand hearts are plunging to a love they’ll never meet,
Through the meadows of the sunset, through the poppies and the wheat,      
    In the land where the dead dreams go.

Verdi, Verdi, when you wrote Il Trovatore did you dream
    Of the city when the sun sinks low,
Of the organ and the monkey and the many-colored stream
On the Picadilly pavement, of the myriad eyes that seem
To be litten for a moment with a wild Italian gleam
As A che la morte parodies the world’s eternal theme
    And pulses with the sunset-glow.

There’s a thief, perhaps, that listens with a face of frozen stone
    In the City as the sun sinks low;
There’s a portly man of business with a balance of his own,
There’s a clerk and there’s a butcher of a soft reposeful tone.
And they’re all of them returning to the heavens they have known:
They are crammed and jammed in busses and—they’re each of them alone
    In the land where the dead dreams go.

There’s a very modish woman and her smile is very bland
    In the City as the sun sinks low;
And her hansom jingles onward, but her little jeweled hand
Is clenched a little tighter and she cannot understand
What she wants or why she wanders to that undiscovered land,
For the parties there are not at all the sort of thing she planned,
    In the land where the dead dreams go.

There’s a rowing man that listens, and his heart is crying out
    In the City as the sun sinks low;
For the barge, the eight, the Isis, and the coach’s whoop and shout,
For the minute-gun, the counting and the long disheveled rout,
For the howl along the towpath and a fate that’s still in doubt,
For a roughened oar to handle and a race to think about
    In the land where the dead dreams go.

There’s a laborer that listens to the voices of the dead
    In the City as the sun sinks low;
And his hand begins to tremble and his face to smolder red,
As he sees a loafer watching him and—there he turns his head
And stares into the sunset where his April love is fled,
For he hears her softly singing, and his lonely soul is led
    Through the land where the dead dreams go.

There’s an old and haggard demi-rep, it’s ringing in her ears,
    In the City as the sun sinks low;
With the wild and empty sorrow of the love that blights and sears,
Oh, and if she hurries onward, then be sure, be sure she hears,
Hears and bears the bitter burden of the unforgotten years,
And her laugh’s a little harsher and her eyes are brimmed with tears
    For the land where the dead dreams go.

There’s a barrel-organ caroling across a golden street
    In the City as the sun sinks low;
Though the music’s only Verdi there’s a world to make it sweet
Just as yonder yellow sunset where the earth and heaven meet
Mellows all the sooty City! Hark, a hundred thousand feet
Are marching on to glory through the poppies and the wheat
    In the land where the dead dreams go.

             So it’s Jeremiah, Jeremiah,
                  What have you to say
             When you meet the garland girls      
                  Tripping on their way?

             All around my gala hat
                  I wear a wreath of roses
             (A long and lonely year it is
                  I’ve waited for the May!)
             If anyone should ask you,
                  The reason why I wear it is—
             My own love, my true love,
                   Is coming home to-day.

   And it’s buy a bunch of violets for the lady
       (It’s lilac-time in London; It’s lilac-time in London!)
   Buy a bunch of violets for the lady
       While the sky burns blue above:

On the other side the street you’ll find it shady
       (It’s lilac-time in London! It’s lilac-time in London!)
   But buy a bunch of violets for the lady,
       And tell her she’s your own true love.

There’s a barrel-organ caroling across a golden street
    In the City as the sun sinks glittering and slow;
And the music’s not immortal; but the world has made it sweet
And enriched it with the harmonies that make a song complete
In the deeper heavens of music where the night and morning meet,
    As it dies into the sunset-glow;
And it pulses through the pleasures of the City and the pain
    That surround the singing organ like a large eternal light,
And they’ve given it a glory and a part to play again
    In the Symphony that rules the day and night.

             And there, as the music changes,
                  The song runs round again.
             Once more it turns and ranges
                  Through all its joy and pain,
             Dissects the common carnival
                  Of passions and regrets;
             And the wheeling world remembers all
                  The wheeling song forgets.

             Once more La Traviata sighs
                  Another sadder song:
             Once more II Trovatore cries
                  A tale of deeper wrong;
             Once more the knights to battle go
                  With sword and shield and lance      
             Till once, once more, the shattered foe
                  Has whirled into—a dance!

Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac time;
    Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand and hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
    Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)

The other works in my high school course: After reading works post-World War II, we went to the beginning, reading Beowulf, Chaucer’s Prologue and “The Miller’s Tale,” I think a Sidney poem, Hamlet, perhaps a Donne poem, definitely a Richard Lovelace poem (“Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make”), I think an excerpt from Pope’s Essay on Man, an excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels, definitely Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (and also The Vicar of Wakefield as a separate text), Thomas Gray’s “Elegy on a Country Churchyard,” Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Tennyson’s “Flower in a Crannied Wall,” Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” and, as a grand finale, Shaw’s Pygmalion. My memory may have failed me on some of these and I’m sure there are ones I’ve left out, but the fact that many of these stick with me shows the impact they had.

One could note that there were no women or writers of color on the list. In 1967, we did not foresee how feminism, African-American studies, and post-colonialist discourse would change the literary landscape.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bulgakov: Ukrainian Grass Will Grow Again

Mikhail Bulgakov, Ukrainian author of The White Guard (1925)

Thursday

For those seeking a better understanding of Ukraine, this past July Atlantic magazine recommended  Bulgakov’s The White Guard. I’ve finally gotten around to reading it and I can understand the shout out.

The novel takes place during the final year of World War I. Russia pulled out of the war following the Bolshevik Revolution, but that didn’t mean all fighting stopped. In White Guard, there’s a struggle over who will control Kyiv: White Russians, Bolsheviks, Germans and Ukranian Nationalists all fight for control of Kiev. We see the action through the eyes of the Turbin family, who are drawn into messy alliances as they try to sort out their way through the chaos.

Reading it with the current Russo-Ukrainian War in mind is sobering. Check out this passage early in the book, which seems to be about the weather but could be about a northern invasion as well:

Their life had been darkened at its very dawning. Cold winds had long been blowing without cease from the north and the longer they persisted the worse they grew. The eldest Turbin had returned to his native city after the first blast had shaken the hills above the Dnieper. Now, they thought, it will stop and we can start living the kind of life they wrote about in those chocolates melling books. But the opposite happened and life only grew more and more terrible. The snowstorm from the north howled and howled, and now they themselves could sense a dull, subterranean rumbling, the groaning of an anguished land in travail. As 1918 drew to an end the threat of danger drew rapidly nearer.

At one point, one of the characters turns to his local priest for consolation. The man let’s the Bible fall open and, unfortunately, it falls upon the following passage from Revelation 16:4:

‘And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.

The Turbin family has allied with the Germans to fend off the Ukrainian nationalist, but that’s a choice that is proving increasingly problematic. One thinks of the cities and towns seized by Russia early in the current war in the following passage:

Only someone who has been defeated knows the real meaning of that word. It is like a party in a house where the electric light has failed; it is like a room in which green mould, alive and malignant, is crawling over the wallpaper; it is like the wasted bodies of rachitic children, it is like rancid cooking oil, like the sound of women’s voices shouting obscene abuse in the dark. It is, in short, like death.

After much death and suffering, the novel ends in an almost mystical haze with a series of dreams. There we encounter this passage:

The snow will simply melt, the green Ukrainian grass will grow again, braid the earth…lush seedlings will come out…the heat will quiver above the fields and no more traces of blood will remain.

Optimistic though this sounds, with its image of new life, it is then somewhat by qualified the subsequent two sentences:

Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.

No one.

If Ukraine prevails in this war, it will be up to the survivors to make good on the promise of freedom that so many have died for.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

  • AVAILABLE NOW!

  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!