Plenty of gloom and doom but also gratitude, reasons to believe, and occasions to ponder the strange and wondrous vagaries of human nature
In the Review section of this past Sunday’s New York Times, there was a goodly helping of admonition and dire prediction, chiefly prompted by the destruction recently visited on the New York metropolitan area by Hurricane Sandy.
First, James Atlas warns of the coming submersion of New York City in Is This the End? An appropriately scary title, especially for those of us who know and love the place. (Venerating the city’s cultural riches, my mother could never understand why a person would want to live anywhere else.)
In Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines, Benjamin Strauss and Robert Kopp paint a disturbing picture of the effect that rising sea levels will have on this country’s coastal regions. To begin with, the authors offer up this astonishing statistic: “More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide.” Even granted that Strauss and Kopp are describing eventualities that may be several centuries down the road, their projections are extremely disturbing. Click on What Could Disappear for maps. I did, and it just about broke my heart. Among the places slated to become a latter day Atlantis is Miami Beach, Florida, where I attended junior high and high school. Alas, farewell to the land of bougainvillea, hibiscus, cocoanut palms, and rampant overdevelopment…. (For additional searchable maps, go to Surgingeas.org.)
Finally, Erwann Michel-Kerjan and and Howard Kunreuther tackle the subject of Paying for Future Catastrophes. They begin with this statement: “Hurricane Sandy could cost the nation a staggering $50 billion, about a third of the cost of Hurricane Katrina — to date the most costly disaster in United States history.”
In the November 26/ December 3 issue of Newsweek, David Cay Johnston tallies the dangers inherent in our aging and inadequate infrastructure. Johnston goes on to suggest “12 ways to Stop the Next Sandy;” however, his ambitious manifesto will require a colossal act of will on the part of the citizens of this country, not to mention an equally colossal outlay of funds. Can it be done? Will it be done? (As Newsweek prepares to go digital, I’d like to express a personal sense of loss. I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s.)
All of this would seem to portray a nation in a heap of trouble. In his book Too Much Magic, published in June of this year, James Howard Kunstler writes the following:
The British Petroleum company’s 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico tempered the public’s zest for risky deepwater drilling projects. Oil is back in the $100 range. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in the following year sobered up many nations about the prospects for the only well-developed alternative energy method capable of powering whole cities. Whether you believe in climate change or not, or contest that it’s man-made or is not, the weather is looking a little strange. In 2011 tornados of colossal scale tore through the American South, hurricane-induced five-hundred-year floods shredded Vermont, and Texas was so drought-stricken that Texans wondered if ranching there would even be possible in the years ahead. People have begun to notice a number of signals that reality is beaming out.
All this is enough to send a person running for the nearest bunker. But wait – there is hope, and it has been proffered by people with vigorous minds and open hearts. I’ve already written about the solace and encouragement to be derived from the works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rev. Timothy Keller. And now I’m cheered by the prospect of reading Anne Lamott’s new book: In a recent interview in the Washington Post, she explains its rather piquant title:
I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re doing is a form of prayer. “Help” is the main prayer. “Help” is the prayer of surrender and having a real shot at things beginning to change because you’ve finally run out of good ideas. “Help” is the hardest prayer, and it’s the most poignant. It’s a person being humbled. People say “Thanks” all the time in so many ways. Even people who don’t believe in God or in any kind of higher power notice when their family catches a break: The diagnosis was much better than it could have been; it really isn’t a transmission, it’s a timing belt; it’s something manageable instead of huge and awful. “Wow” is the praise prayer. I think every time you see a night sky full of stars, you say, “Wow.” It was so cold here today, I had to get up really early, and I stepped outside, and I was like, “Whooooa!” which is a cousin of “Wow.” It was so crisp, so beautiful. It’s like getting spritzed with a plant mister. It kind of wakes you back up.
I love The Once Born and the Twice Born, an essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb that appeared in the September 28 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reading her cogent and graceful explication of William James The Will To Believe, I felt as though I’d been given a very special gift. (This sense was amplified by the fact of my recent immersion in the life William’s brother Henry, courtesy of Michael Gorra’s magisterial work of criticism and biography, Portrait of a Novel.)
His 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe” was prompted, James said, by the “freethinking and indifference” he encountered at Harvard. He warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion, ritual or dogma. His “justification of faith” derived instead entirely from the “will” or the “right” to believe, to “adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James knew this would not go down well with the students and philosophers in the eminent universities. To the obvious objection that the denial of the “logical intellect” is to give up any claim to truth, he replied that it is in defense of truth that faith is justified—the truth provided not by logic or science but by experience and reflection. Moral questions, he pointed out, cannot be resolved with the certitude that comes from objective logic or science. And so with religious faith….
Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, an intellectual among intellectuals, turned ninety in August.
I never ceased to be moved by the trouble to which people will go to render aid to animals in distress. A particularly impressive instance of this compassionate response is recounted in a recent Washington Post article entitled Injured Owl Is Rescued in Mount Vernon.
I deeply appreciate the sentiments voiced with wit and warmth on the occasion of Thanksgiving by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. In Family, Friends, Health and Freedom, she asked a number of friends and family members what they were thankful for. At one point, she pressed a friend to be more specific; she received this response:
“Buddy the cat. He literally came out of nowhere one night, and has never left since. He sleeps in the window most of the time, and looks in as if to say: ‘I’m home.’ He always lets the others in the pack eat first. ‘Slow down,’ I say to myself. The world on my screen may be spinning and sizzling, but Buddy’s ends up being the preferred reality.”
Speaking of matters of a feline nature, there was recent post-election news in the Metro section of the Post concerning an illustrious member of that community:
Finally, from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker, the recent travails of General David Petraus and others elicited this wry observation from Adam Gopnik:
Petraeus, and his defenders and attackers alike, referred to his “poor judgment,” but if the affair had had anything to do with judgment it never would have happened. Desire is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As [Philip] Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.
Roberta goes to the library to pick up a few items and, finding herself surrounded by riches (in several formats), avails herself of them liberally, then runs out of steam…
One sunny Saturday morning, Roberta decided to visit the library. Her intent was to pick up two books she had reserved, perhaps one or two additional mysteries, and a volume on art history.
Miller is Roberta’s local branch, a repository of more fabulous stuff than you can shake a stick at. (Please pardon the recourse to clichés – one is not up to much else, at present!) Roberta headed straight upstairs, where the new books for adults awaited her. I mean, why pass up a chance for some serendipity thereabouts? And lo: serendipity there was – in spades (those pesky clichés again). Her resistance held firm on the fiction side but broke down around the corner in nonfiction. Why here was Every Good Endeavor, a new work by Dr. Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, whose wisdom, compassion, and eloquence had so impressed her in The Reason for God.
Okay – I am now officially switching to the first person. Writing about yourself in the third person is just too weird! (Who is that woman, anyway?)
I am also currently reading The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. For 21 years, Rabbi Sacks has been Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. In this book, he attempts to reconcile the claims of faith and science; indeed, he believes that the perception of a schism between the two is erroneous in the first place. Rabbi Sacks writes with wit and elegance. Me, I am happy to receive good counsel from wise men and women, whatever their affiliation!
Moving from the 200s (religion and spirituality) to the 500s (science), I found several items of interest. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of writers who are able to explain exciting new developments in physics and astronomy in ways that are accessible to what one might term the lay reader. For example:
Here I must confess to a tendency to take such books home with the best intentions, only to return them to the library unread. I did, however, finish – and greatly enjoy – those last two titles. (Before the Fallout is as much a history book as a science book and made for really riveting reading. Preston begins by describing what happened to one woman when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. I reads Before the Fallout when it came out in 2005 and that scene has remained vivid in mind, in Preston’s measured retelling, a true horror story. “Silver treasure” indeed….) Mirror Earth currently resides on my night table – or one of my several night tables. Wish me luck.
It’s the kind of book I love: you can just dip into it from time to time and get your fill of wonder. Isabel Kuhl begins her survey with the great pyramids of Egypt – that chapter is subtitled “The First Houses Built for Eternity” – and ends with some spectacular structures by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebeskind, and others:
And in between these two astonishing extremes of time and place, one jaw dropper after another:
[Click here for panoramic views of Chambord.]
Whew! I’m just about done in. And I so wanted to explain about the mysteries and the DVD’s – almost exclusively British mysteries….Ah well, it will have to wait. But I do want to mention a CD that I picked up: This was true serendipity, aided by prominent placement on a display of audiovisual materials on Miller’s richly endowed first floor.
Among the musical selection on this disc is one I especially love, Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest.” I plugged the title into the YouTube search box and got some marvelous results. Here are two of my favorites.
First, the 2004 wedding of Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik and Mary Elizabeth Donaldson of Australia (by way of Scotland, as can be seen by her father’s attire);
I was thrilled by this one. It’s an Anglophile’s dream – this Anglophile’s, at any rate:
I owe a debt of gratitude to the good people of the Miller Branch, a place that, in my retirement years, has become a home away from home!
Post the Fifth; in which we travel to Shrewsbury in search of Brother Cadfael and have coffee with Edward Marston
Ellis Peters, real name Edith Mary Pargeter, was born in 1913 in Shropshire. An autodidact, she never attended university but manged to produce an impressive body of historical fiction. She’s probably best known for the Brother Cadfael mysteries. These are set in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. Peters envisioned Shrewsbury Abbey as the monastic dwelling of her protagonist, a monk, a healer, and a skillful problem solver, the problem being as often as not whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom.
Here is Cadfael, memorably played by Sir Derek Jacobi:
The journey from Ross to Shewsbury was a fairly long one, so Pam, our Blue Badge Guide, had plenty of time to fill us in on the history and legend of the region. My notes on her fascinating disquisition are alas, extremely scatter shot. The bus ride was somewhat rough, and one was continually distracted by the incredible beauty of the countryside. (Well, darn it anyway!) One notation informs that the Welsh flag is Europe’s oldest: . Now let’s see what else… “Celtic Welsh were great guerrilla fighters. They wore only ONE SHOE! I was actually able to verify this bizarre fact, courtesy of a site called Castles of Wales. In a section called Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare, Jeffrey L. Thomas informs us that “Several manuscripts depict Welsh warriors as having only one shoe and their other foot bare – this probably allowed them to keep a balance on hilly or rough terrain.”
When reading the Brother Cadfael novels, one hears a great deal about King Stephen and Empress Maude (unhelpfully also known as Matilda). Pam gave us a quick rundown of the history of the British monarchy, starting with the Conqueror. It is a tale of fiendish complexity; I won’t even attempt to recount it here. (This site explains the cause of the conflict between Stephen and Maude, and its eventual outcome.)
We learned much about place names: the suffix “-caster” or -chester” denotes a Roman settlement. “Stretton” – as in Church Stretton – indicates a Roman road. There’s more, but it is of a fragmentary nature in my notes. So, let’s proceed to the main attraction on this segment of our journey:
The Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury was established in 1087 by Roger de Montgomery, newly named as Earl of Shrewsbury. The Abbey flourished up until the Dissolution, after which time it was allowed to fall into disrepair. A full restoration was begun in 1885; the work continues to the present day. Click here for more on the history of the Abbey.
Our guide informed us that the Abbey chooses not to emphasize its association with Brother Cadfael. No specific reason was given for this rather odd seeming policy. There is a Brother Cadfael window – or rather, a section of a window – with the initials E.P. barely discernible therein:
The Shrewsbury Visitor Information Centre does provide a booklet entitled “In the Steps of Brother Cadfael.” These steps can quite literally be found embedded in the cobbled streets of the town:
Here are more photos we took of the church’s interior:
In 1137, the remains of Saint Winefride were conveyed from her burial place in Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey. There, they were interred in the west end of the Abbey Church. The Guild of St. Winefride was established in 1487. In 1540, in the time of the Dissolution, the shrine was destroyed and the guild disbanded. In 1987, after a lapse of nearly five centuries, the Guild was restored. Among its other tasks, members are pledged to prayer and to assist in the maintenance and beautification of the Abbey.
Here is the St. Winefride Window:
Ellis Peters took the known facts about the Saint’s removal from Wales by the monks of Shrewsbury and fashioned a cunning mystery entitled A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first entry in the Cadfael series.
During our visit to the Abbey, greatly to our delight, the organ was being played:
Marston is the prolific author of several historical crime fiction series. Most relevant to our tour was the Domesday series, set in eleventh century Britain and featuring Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret. The title especially germane to our tour was The Dragons of Archenfield. Although the novel is short, I found the plot convoluted and somewhat hard to follow. Marston is a mesmerizing speaker; he put the conflicts of the era in an understandable context. I would now like to revisit the novels in this series.
Edward Marston spoke eloquently of Ellis Peters, with whom he had been acquainted. Her research, he averred, was flawless, to the extent that her books are now used in academic settings where medieval monastic life in England is being studied. Marston alluded with respect and affection to Peters’s “slightly Victorian prose style,” an attribute of her novels that many of us consider a major attraction.
(In 2006, we had the pleasure of meeting Edward Marston in London, at the conclusion of our Smithsonian tour. )
Ellis Peters also wrote detective fiction set in the Shropshire of her own time, featuring Inspector Felse and his enormously appealing son Dominic. I particularly recommend The Piper on the Mountain.
(In 1997, Marston published Murder in Perspective under his real name, Keith Miles. The protagonist is a Welsh architect, Merlin Richards, newly arrived in the U.S. in the 1920’s. The plot centers on Frank Lloyd Wright and a controversy concerning the building of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The novel was based on actual events; I found it illuminating and enjoyable.)
All thanks are due to my friend Emma, through whose kindly offices I experienced an Easter Sunday filled with prayer and gorgeous music.
For two years now Emma and I have regularly attended the concerts presented by Bach in Baltimore at Christ Lutheran Church. I have come to love this church. It was built in 1955, but the interior resembles a church built in 1555. If Martin Luther himself were to come striding down the center aisle, it would seem entirely right and proper.
In his welcome message, the pastor wrote: “Whether you are a committed Christian or someone searching for deeper spiritual roots and a closer connection with God, we are delighted that you chose to worship with us today.” The part after the “or” – that’s me. So I was very grateful for this.
And then: what a splendid celebration! Not just heartfelt prayers – but glorious music – Drums! Trumpets! Timpani! And of course, the mighty Andover 114, the organ that at its most fulsome seems to be “playing” the entire sanctuary.
Afterward, Emma and I had a delicious brunch. We then sat for a time in a small, lovely park at the Inner Harbor. The sun shone brightly; the air was delicious. Folk frolicked, rejoicing in the ability to get outside and have fun after the punishment of this past winter.
(The ship is the USS Constellation.)
And then, back to Christ Lutheran for yet more music, this time courtesy of Bach in Baltimore…
First on this afternoon’s program was an aria from Bach’s Easter Oratorio, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Blades. Here is the same excerpt performed by Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale. The soloist is German countertenor Andreas Scholl:
The Bach Cantata for Easter Sunday was BWV 67: Halt inGedachtnis Jesum Christ (“Hold in Remembrance Jesus Christ”). Here is the opening chorus, with Helmuth Rilling conducting:
Then it was time for organist Jonathan Parker to astonish us once again with the might and power of the Andover114. He played a piece that fascinated me. It’s got rather a long name: Choral-Improvisation sur le Victimae paschali, written by Charles T0urnamire (1870-1939) and transcribed by Maurice Duruflé. I have found a video of a young organist named Jean-Baptiste Robin playing this piece on the organ of L’Eglise Saint Eustache in Paris.
Maestro Dimmock pronounced himself delighted at the treat in store for us at the concert’s conclusion: a performance of four Hebrew songs by HaZamir. This was in recognition of the recent celebration of Passover. This lovely bit of ecumenism proved a terrific bonus – these young singers were simply great!
This is a profoundly frustrating novel. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is often graceful and elegant; she has a gift for the felicitous turn of phrase. But the plot of Home is so slow moving as to be virtually static. And I confess – I am genuinely puzzled by these characters.
It is the middle of the twentieth century; the country is in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle. But the town of Gilead, Iowa, seems insulated from the cares and crises of the outside world. Instead, the novel focuses on the tribulations of the Boughton family. The Reverend Robert Boughton is old and ailing; his daughter Glory, in her late thirties and fleeing a recently aborted engagement, has returned to her childhood home in order to care for him. The two are soon joined by Glory’s older brother Jack.
At that point I stopped, having decided that I would complete this post after we had discussed the book. I am now glad I made that decision. The discussion was illuminating on many levels. Most importantly, I learned that my baffled response to Robinson’s characters was due to my ignorance of what life was like for many who grew up in small town America in the mid-twentieth century. I was bewildered by the intense, almost claustrophobic religiosity with which Robinson endows the Boughton household – the frequent, fervent recourse to prayer, the parsing of the finer points of scripture. I was reminded of the seventeenth century Puritans that I encountered in Salem Witch Judge, Eve La Plante’s biography of her ancestor Samuel Sewell. But for Nancy, our discussion leader, and several other group members, the author’s depiction of a mid-twentieth century minister’s family resonated powerfully. They had experienced such a life themselves as children, either within their own families or in the families of friends or relations. This was particularly true if the family in question was headed by a minister.
Specific expectations governed the comportment of members of such families: in church, the wife and children were seated in the front pew, and all were expected to be presented and accounted for. Traveling clergymen were always welcomed as guests, and offered the hospitality of lodging and home cooking. Thus, Glory was performing the function that her late mother had in her turn performed. But poor, long suffering Glory, constantly producing those heavy, meat-and-potatoes heart-attack-on-a-plate meals that many of us recall fondly from the 1950’s – that is, if we lived to remember them! I couldn’t help but feel impatient at her automatic assumption of the role of handmaiden to the men of the house. If she wasn’t cooking, she was cleaning or mending. She sets about these tasks in the spirit of mute acceptance. Oh, the sheer drudgery of it all! Group members patiently reminded me of the time and place in which the novel’s events were transpiring. But that fact did nothing to stem my annoyance at the situation. Oh, how I wanted Glory to rebel!
Then there is Jack, the prodigal son returned home. His checkered history includes impregnating a young woman and then deserting her (the child subsequently dies), theft, alcoholism, and a stint in prison. We are repeatedly reminded of his transgressions, often by the trangressor himself. Glory is forgiving; her powerful love for her brother overcomes any tendency to judge him. But for their father, forgiveness is more difficult to grant. As a minister, he strove to be a pillar of rectitude in their small community, but Jack’s waywardness had undermined his position and mortified him before his parishioners.
Unlike Glory, Jack did rebel. But in the context of Home, he does not come across as a bad person. On the contrary, he is extraordinarily helpful to Glory in the domestic sphere. Where his father is concerned, his attitude is one of contrition. He frequently beseeches his father to forgive his behavior, both past and present. (Jack seems to need forgiveness for his very existence.) At one point, Reverend Boughton apologizes to his son for not being a sufficiently good parent to him. Jack assures him that to the contrary, he was a wonderful father. Glory too does her share of apologizing, especially to Jack for real or imagined acts of insensitivity. In this household, love apparently means having to say you’re sorry – over and over again. It grated, this constantly repeating cycle of apology and reassurance.
I found myself deeply grateful for the few lighthearted moments this novel afforded. Most of them had to do with the old De Soto that Jack is rehabbing:
“Again the starter and the engine, and after a minute or two the rattle and pop of gravel as the De Soto eased backward out of the barn. It gleamed darkyl and demurely, like a ripe plum. Its chrome was polished, hubcaps and grille, and the side walls of the tires were snowy white. There was a preposterous beauty in all that shine that made [Glory] laugh. Jack put his arm out the window, waving his hat like a visiting dignitary, backed into the street, and floated away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti as it made its ceremonious passage. After a few minutes she heard a horn, and there were Jack and the De Soto going by the house. A few minutes more and they came back from the other direction, swung into the driveway, and idled there. Jack leaned across the front seat to open the passenger door. she walked across the lawn to the car and slid in.
Now that is a lovely scene, beautifully described. And I felt grateful for this small celebration of secular, everyday life!
Marilynne Robinson published Gilead to critical acclaim in 2004. It won both the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2004 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. The events of Gilead and Home take place more or less simulataneously; in fact, in her review of the latter for the Los Angeles Times, Emily Barton suggests calling the two novels “co-quels” (a rather tortured coinage, methinks). Gilead is slightly shorter than Home. Though I struggled, I got through it. I liked Home more, but only marginally so. By the time I was heading for the home stretch, I was feeling positively mutinous: I wanted Glory or Jack – or someone in that dull little burg – to do something truly reprehensible. Run off with the neighbor’s wife – or husband – or both! Or if not that, at least steal from the collection plate one Sunday.
(This perverse thought experiment is putting me in my mind of the lyrics to the song “Fie on Goodness” from the musical Camelot; in particular, the following lines: “Ah, but to spend a tortured evening staring at the floor / Guilty and alive once more.”)
As I wrote prior to our discussion, Home has so little in the way of a plot that it is virtually inert – more of an exercise in stasis than in storytelling. What plot there is concerns Jack’s efforts to win back Della Miles, the woman with whom he is currently in love. His errant behavior has caused her to reject him, now, his letters to her keep coming back unopened and marked “return to sender” (and doens’t that seem quaint in this era of e-mail, text messaging, etc.). Having grievously wronged a woman once, Jack is trying to do the right thing this time around, but once again, he may be too late.
I appreciate the virtues of this novel a good deal more since we had our discussion. Robinson’s writing can be lyrical in its precision. I have to agree with Nancy, who observed that “every word bears weight.” And I want to add one more thing: many of the contemporary novels that I’ve read recently falter at the end. In contrast, I thought the conclusion of Home was fitting, even beautiful. It contained an interesting revelation and the seeds of hope, and it made me want to put my arms around Glory and give her a hearty embrace.
Oh – and Nancy, the impromptu hymn singing was delightful!
I have been thinking about death a lot lately. This is partly due to a book I have just finished, and another that I am currrently in the middle of. The two titles, respectively, are The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes.
Set in the south of Germany during the Second World War, The Book Thief is narrated by Death itself. It is an immensely powerful novel. The Barnes book is part memoir, part the author’s rumination on various aspects of death, and especially on how to face the inevitable when religious faith has been abandoned. Compelling as it is, I am having to read it in discreet chunks.
I’ll have more to say about both of these books in later posts. But meanwhile, I’d like to pay tribute to the memory of my father, my father-in-law, and my sister-in-law, all of whom passed away in the month of October between the years 2000 and 2003.
I am constantly kicking at the traces that still bind me to the religion I was born into. But Judaism still exerts a hold on me. I have always liked the custom of lighting the Yahrzeit candle to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a loved one. That person’s soul glows in the taper’s light. Every time you gaze on it, you remember.
And so, this is for the three above named people, each of them beloved, each of them missed.
George F. Will is a columnist I respect but often disagree with. I have to say, though, that in today’s Washington Post, he really nailed it with Are You Better Off? His subject, which he tackless with refreshing directness, is nothing less than the true nature of human happiness!
Ron and I spent Easter Sunday at home, just the two of us. We made beef bourgignon and listened to music. First, the Mozart symphonies, starting with number twenty. We made our way through to the mid-thirties before switching gears and putting on the ‘Prelude and Good Friday Spell’ from the opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner.
The Mozart symphonies were performed by the Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. The recordings were made in the early 1990’s. The clarity and exuberance of the playing – perfectly captured by Telarc, that home of sonic wonders! – fills the house.
The delicious aromas of the mingling stew components are equally pervasive. As dinnertime draws near, we put on the Wagner. I like to listen to this at Easter time. The recording we have features the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by the great Bruno Walter. Here is what the liner notes – uncredited, alas – say about this music:
“Like Tannhauser, the last of Wagner’s music dramas, Parsifal is built around a story of the Knights of the Holy Grail, and concerns itself with the conflict of spirituality and earthly passion. It contains some of the greatest music Wagner ever wrote, particularly the spiritual Prelude and one of the most awe-inspiring religious pieces of music ever penned–the ‘Good Friday Spell’ in Act III.”
If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is cherish days like yesterday for their simplicity and for the peace and love with which they are filled.
“Genesis” is the first essay in E.L. Doctorow’s collection Creationists. In it Doctorow makes a provocative observation on the art of the storyteller: “If not in all stories than certainly in mystery stories, the writer works backward. The ending is known and the story is designed to arrive at the ending.”
Later, there is this passage:
“The cosmology of Genesis is beautiful and for all we know may even turn out to be as metaphorically prescient as some believers think it is. One imagines the ancient storytellers convening to consider what they had to work with: day and night, land and sea, earth and sky, trees that bore fruit, plants that bore seed, wild animals, domesticated animals, birds, fish, and everything that crept. In their brilliant imaginations, inflamed by the fear and love of God, it seemed more than possible that these elements and forms of life, this organization of the animate and inanimate, would have been produced from a chaos of indeterminate dark matter by spiritual intent–here was the story to get to the ending–and that it was done by a process of discretion, the separation of day from night, air from water, earth from sky, one thing from another in a, presumably, six-day sequence culminating in the human race.”
In a section of Classics for Pleasure entitled The English Religious Tradition, Michael Dirda quotes a passage from the Gospel of Luke, as rendered in the King James Bible.I love what he says after the quoted passage:
“The solemn harmonies of such prose are largely ignored in these days of text-messaging and political newspeak. Nonetheless, sometimes only the full organ roll of liturgical English can match the sacredness of weddings, funerals, and religious holy days.”
“Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we be in death…”
This seems bleak to the point of hopelessness. Where is the consolation? But wait…”These magnificently somber phrases eventually build to one of the great climaxes in English literature:
‘Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, and that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye by the last trump. For the trump shall blow, and the dead shall rise incorruptible, and we shall be changed….Death where is thy sting? Hell where is thy victory?'”
Surely in the annals of great oratory there is a straight line from this triumphant declaration of faith to Martin Luther King Jr’s equally triumphant “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”