Wednesday, November 30, 2005

T.S. Eliot's The Journey of the Magi

T.S. Eliot's vision of the magi approaching Bethelehem, and consequently the new born Christ child is a beautiful picture of the season of Advent. It describes expectation and fear, life and death--the fullness of mystery. Let's approach this Advent season which such wonder in the face of the Christ born in a manger.

The Journey of the Magi
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

-- T. S. Eliot

The Deposition by B.H. Fairchild

And one without a name
Lay clean and naked there, and gave commandments.

—Rilke, “Washing the Corpse” (trans. Jarrell)

Dust storm, we thought, a brown swarm
plugging the lungs, or a locust-cloud,
but this was a collapse, a slow sinking
to deeper brown, and deeper still, like the sky
seen from inside a well as we are lowered down,
and the air twisting and tearing at itself.
But it was done. And the body hung there
like a butchered thing, naked and alone
in a sudden hush among the ravaged air.
The ankles first—slender, blood-caked,
pale in the sullen dark, legs broken
below the knees, blue bruises smoldering
to black. And the spikes. We tugged iron
from human flesh that dangled like limbs
not fully hacked from trees, nudged
the cross beam from side to side until
the sign that mocked him broke loose.
It took all three of us. We shouldered the body
to the ground, yanked nails from wrists
more delicate, it seemed, than a young girl’s
but now swollen, gnarled, black as burnt twigs.
The body, so heavy for such a small man,
was a knot of muscle, a batch of cuts
and scratches from the scourging, and down
the right side a clotted line of blood,
the sour posca clogging his ragged beard,
the eyes exploded to a stare that shot
through all of us and still speaks in my dreams:
I know who you are.

So, we began to wash
the body, wrenching the arms, now stiff
and twisted, to his sides, unbending
the ruined legs and sponging off the dirt
of the city, sweat, urine, shit—all the body
gives—from the body, laying it out straight
on a sheet of linen rank with perfumes
so that we could cradle it, haul it
to the tomb. The wind shouted.
The foul air thickened. I reached over
to close the eyes. I know who you are.

What do you think of the graphic representation here?
Who is it about?
What can be made of the twin lines "I know who you are." (at the end of each stanzas).
Do any lines stick out to you?

What, When, Where, How?

I learned in elementary school that the essential journalistic questions were: what, when, where, how. Each covered it's own category of understanding necessary to grasping any event. If there was an earthquake that happened what would tell us exactly that, an earthquake took place, while when would indicate the exact, or approximate, timing (3:00 PM). Where tells us the location, with an earthquake it would tell us the location (epi-center) it hit hardest. How is a different sort of question. How asks something which is pre-event; while: what, when, and where deal with the event itself how asks something more profound: a reason. That too can, most times, be dealt with rather easily: two tectonic plates collide (more or less) and cause the earthquake. The distant cousin to all these questions is "why". Why is the dangerous one; it's the questions that evokes the most emotion and it's the hardest to truly pin down.

"Why" is a similar question to "how" when talking about things. It is a question of cause, tectonic plates crash together. With humans though it is much different. The question of "why" is nebulous. The question "Why did Don rob the store" can be answered only with an understanding of his personal context. If Don was poor we might answer, "He needed some money." If Don was rich we might say, "He wanted a thrill." But even among those two simple answers there are unending variations and variables leading to even more variations of the simple question, "why." This makes the question of "why" fundamentally different from the question "how".

I feel for that very reason we hold the question: "why" closest to our hearts. We silently ask questions like: "Why am I here?"; "Why is the world the way it is?"; etc. The reasons to our silently asked questions are there, and they are many. The person who believes in God says in response to "Why is the world the way it is?": "Because the earth is a hard place filled with hurt and pain, but there are seeds of love and joy and eventually those seeds will overgrow the desert of pain"--and they list many reasons for their belief. The skeptic says in response to the same question: "I don't know, this world is a soupy murk with no clear answers to "why". And the Nihilist replies, "The world is the way it is because it is doomed, and any seeds of love and joy will be trampled by the march of impending death"--and they too can list many reasons for their beliefs. All three responses acknowledge the hurt of the world while maintaining different answers to "why". What is your answer to the fundamental "Why" questions?

"Why am I here?"
"Why do rich people prosper and the poor remain poor?"
"Why do nations go to war when everyone knows war is a bad thing?"
The list goes on.

Post any thoughts.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Kernel of Wheat

"Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over."

Monday, November 21, 2005

Christianity and Literature

"The religious doesn't not abolish the aesthetic but dethrones it."
--Soren Kierkegaard

"I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the story-teller to observe."
--Flannery O'Connor

These two quotes, it might seem, are alike only in so far as they have to do with religion and art; a closer look though can tie them together in a tight weave. One might say the aesthetic has to be "dethroned"--using S.K.'s language-- to the free the author to "observe"--to use Flannery's. According to Flannery O'Connor it is the Christian belief that is the enabler of good story telling and not a throned aesthetic. A throned aesthetic limits the writer to being creative, at the least, for the sake of being creative, and at the most, for the sake of preaching humanism. A dethroned aesthetic and a throned Lord lead to a broadness of viewpoint, almost as if one were atop a hill charting the distances.

Bryan Halferty

Is this accurate? Do you disagree? Write your thoughts.