The Bloody Flesh Our Only Food

Da Vinci, “The Last Supper”

Passover and Good Friday

As today is both Passover and Good Friday, I am sharing two poems. The first, for Good Friday, is from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker.” The other, by my friend Norman Finkelstein, is a Passover poem that I wrote about two years ago.

In “East Coker” (1940), which contains World War II imagery, Eliot imagines Jesus as a wounded surgeon administering to us. Demonstrating tough love (“sharp compassion”), Jesus reminds us of our sinful selves. If we wish to be healed, we must humble ourselves as this “dying nurse” has, but it may be that “our sickness must grow worse” for us to recognize the urgency of our situation.

Doing well, mentioned in the third stanza, will not do the trick, because then we focus on material advancement, not spiritual growth. I’m reading “the ruined millionaire” as God, who has bequeathed the earth to us but is hemorrhaging followers. Eliot tells us that we must undergo further suffering (freeze/And quake in frigid purgatorial fires) to achieve final healing.

In the end, the body and blood of Christ will save us. Even though we cling to substantial but unreliable flesh and blood, we sense that there is something more than this flesh. That’s why we “call this Friday good.”

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

  Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

  The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

  The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

  The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Passover – Reprinted from April 23, 2016

Last week I shared a powerful Passover poem by my friend Norman Finkelstein. Here’s another one, entitled “The Telling,” which also appears in his collection Passing Over (2007).

The title is a reference to the recounting of flight from Egypt at the Passover Seder, known as the Haggadah. The phrase “as it is said” appears regularly, referencing the long tradition of telling. I love Norman’s description of how the Haggadah digresses into explanations of the story’s meaning and then the explanations unfold back into the story. Furthermore, the “politics of exegesis”—the debates over the significance of the Exodus story—are at the heart of Judaism and Israel. As Norman puts it, Jews are “sojourners in the land/sojourning in the word.”

Since then they have seen “death and miracles,” and since then they have multiplied (as God promised Abraham) into “stars without number.” The child that hears the story becomes a nation, although perhaps this child comes away with different impressions of that nation at different points in his or her life:

great, mighty and numerous

quiet studious obedient
hypnotic bold triumphant

“Pithom and Ramses” are the cities that the enslaved Israelites were to build for the pharaoh. The lash probably belongs to the Egyptians, the staff to Moses (“signs and wonders”). The “sons who die” were to have included the infant Moses. There was much crying out then and there has been much crying out since.

Given that Passover is an occasion to focus on the oppressed everywhere, the poem notes that Jews can be victimizers as well as victims. The Egyptians deserve life no less than the Israelites, the Palestinians no less than the Israelis:

go and learn
what they did to us

go and learn
what we did to them

In one of the most disturbing passages in the Haggadah, referenced in Norman’s poem, God says that he himself will be slaughtering the children of the Egyptians:

“And God pulled us out of Egypt.” The Holy One Himself brought us out of Egypt, not by an angel, not by an angel of fire, not even by the hands of a messenger. He himself, He the glorious One, He the blessed One, brought us out of Egypt. As the Bible says: “And I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I will strike down all the firstborn men and beasts in the land of Egypt; and I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord.”

“And I will pass through the land of Egypt,” I, and not an angel. “And I will strike down the firstborn in the land of Egypt,” I, and not an angel of fire. “And I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt,” I, and not a messenger. “I the Lord, I, and not another.”

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has problems with this part of the Haggadah. His status as a concentration camp survivor gives him special credibility when he asks,

Why does God boast of killing innocent children, be they Egyptian? Why does He mention it so often? Is He proud of it? One may study Midrashic and Talmudic sources in search of an explanation. In vain.

It is problematic when we invoke God to justify enemy deaths. In the end Wiesel speculates that maybe God is teaching us that He alone may kill and that no one has the right to imitate Him. Norman, on the other hand, doesn’t try to explain. He just tells:

I and not an angel
I and not a seraph
I and not an emissary

refers to blood

as it is said

Committed as they must be to truth, poets sometimes they tell us things we don’t want to hear.

The Telling

By Norman Finkelstein

goes forward
circling back on itself

narration digressing
into explanation

explanation unfolding
into narration

and there
he became a nation–

great, mighty and numerous

quiet studious obedient
hypnotic bold triumphant

death and miracles
and stars without number

the land filled with them

Pithom and Ramses
lash and staff
signs and wonders

as it is said

a politics of exegesis
crossing the years

sojourners in the land
sojourning in the word

the sons who die
the daughters who live

until we cried out
until we cry out

go and learn
what they did to us

go and learn
what we did to them

I and not an angel
I and not a seraph
I and not an emissary

refers to blood

as it is said

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  • 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.

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