Beauty and Truth in a Time of Plague

Photo: J R Korpa, Unsplash

”I recover my tenderness by long looking.” — Theodore Roethke1

Sometimes it feels like we are in our plague years. Not a plague such as millions suffered in the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, or the thousands with Ebola, but a plague of despair and hopelessness. Having said that, I know that for many people this is a time of ascendancy—not plague—when beliefs they fervently hold are coming true and people in power are making that happen. It is a time of vindication.

Still, if we see through the rising and falling of hopes to the generalized need for hope as such, there is a commonality of restlessness and anger that infects us all. We are creatures who have adapted to the uneven surfaces upon which we walk to such an extent that even when we come upon a level plain, we walk as though we were at sea.

We demand our place, we want our words to strike home—the metaphor, taken literally, is violent in its imagery—we confront, we stand with, we never retreat nor give an inch. In short, we are at war with others and the Other.

It should be evident that things we care deeply about are worth defending. In fact, one sign of a society whose members no longer regard it as defensible is the callous reply, “Whatever,” to matters of importance. But we are crippled by a lack of moral imagination for making a defense that itself does not complicate the problem. In Yeat’s phrase, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

***

Poet Seamus Heaney tells a story from 1972 in Belfast: he and a musician friend were on their way to a recording studio when a series of bombs ripped through the city. Within minutes of them arriving at the studio the air was full of sirens as ambulances rushed to the wounded and the dead. Heaney recalls that they looked at one another in unspoken anguish, his friend packed up his guitar and they left. It seemed indulgent to be doing something so enjoyable. What he called Art and Life—or again—Song and Suffering, had seemingly clashed. And what he and his friend, David Hammond, were feeling at that moment was that “song constituted a betrayal of suffering.” 2

Poets and writers, said Kurt Vonnegut, are our early warning system, the canaries in the coal mine—they are the first to be affected by the deadly fumes of a culture in extremis, and their warnings must not be overlooked. Examples abound throughout the ages, but one that still echoes for me on the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, is Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a howl of feedback with a melody line that staggers, backtracks, and spirals, at once raging and raw and yet somehow wistful in the way the notes hang, looking for a safe place to land. In the midst of a tragic war, in a society tearing apart from the disparities between its promise and its peril, Hendrix’s interpretation was a cross-section of a felled tree, revealing the rot at the core.

From the opposite angle comes the sigh of the oppressed, the longing of the exile for familiar hills, and the mockery of captors who demand a tune from back home for their entertainment.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there

we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth,

saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?3

Can suffering be healed by beauty? Does it dishonor the gravity of the situation to try?

***

Online discourse in these times falls along predictable lines. Someone posts a provocative article or viewpoint on, let’s say, an anguished response to the mass shooting(s) of the week. Common sense cries out for a ban on assault weapons: the various attack ships uncloak themselves and swarm into view overhead as their troops beam down. “It can’t be done,” “It’s video games,” “Guns don’t kill people . . .”, “Don’t take away my guns,” “It’s a mental health problem,” “Godless people are to blame,” “It’s the Democrats’/Republicans’ fault.”

Solutions are proposed and derided, facts are claimed and scuttled, sweeping generalizations jolt aside private duels over verb tenses. In time, with the battlefield littered with bodies, the survivors limp away to their rendezvous points. Truth, bound and bloodied, is led away captive. Almost no one notices.

After all that, to claim, as Keats does, that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” almost sounds quaint and anachronistic. And yet, there is something in us that wants, above all, to believe that Beauty and Truth are within reach and can be brought into our lives, even in such toxic and arid times.

***

I return to Seamus Heaney who, as a native of Northern Ireland, grew up within the centuries-old sorrows of its history, and who lived through the sectarian “Troubles” that claimed so many innocent lives. The questions he raises about truth and beauty, about being a poet in a time of war, open a way to understand our times—and may also cast a light upon the path of faith through this world.

“In one sense,” he says, “the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” But recalling how he and Hammond clammed up around the sirens, he wonders again, “Why should the joyful affirmation of music and poetry ever constitute an affront to life?”4

I am reminded of the experience of Sting, who had scheduled a concert near his home in Tuscany for the evening of September 11, 2001. When the news of 9/11 stunned the world, he almost cancelled, feeling that such a celebration would border on sacrilege in the aftermath of a tragedy of those proportions. But friends persuaded him to go ahead, assuring him that light and beauty in a dark time would be a kind of prayer for hope. One of his songs, “Fragile,” is forever linked to that time.

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one

Drying in the color of the evening sun

Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away

But something in our minds will always stay

Perhaps this final act was meant

To clinch a lifetime’s argument

That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could

For all those born beneath an angry star

Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall

Like tears from a star

Like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are

How fragile we are5

Heaney’s essay brings forward the experience and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, an English poet and soldier who wrote from the trenches of World War I, and who was killed shortly before the end of the war. Owen was a leader and a soldier, but he was vehemently against the carnage of a war that took the flower of European civilization. His poems are bitter at times, usually melancholy, always directed at deflating the false glory of dying for one’s country. He sought to awaken conscience. “True poets must be truthful,” he wrote. “All a poet can do today is warn.” Art seeking to change Life.

Heaney also points to Mandelstam, a Russian poet of renown, who would not write propagandistic drivel for Stalin’s regime. Mandelstam saw poetry as rising up within the poet like a flood or growing from within like a crystal. He could no more stop writing than he could stop breathing and still live. He went to his death with the view that the creative impulse is its own reason for existing. “For him,” writes Heaney, “obedience to the poetic impulse was obedience to conscience; lyric action constituted radical witness.”6

So, Owen writes poetry which rebukes beauty in favor of truth; Mandelstam seems to hold Keats’ dictum that beauty is truth, and truth beauty. “He is a burning reminder,” says Heaney, “of the way in which not only the words ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ may be salvaged from the catastrophe of history, but the word ‘beauty’ also: a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’”7 We need both: the hard edge of Truth and the softer light of Beauty. There are moments in our lives when we can only take in one or the other; in time, as it may be, we will be sustained by both.

Poetry gives the attentive reader a moment to take a breath and to give attention, fully and freely, to what is there on the page or in the ear. In a time of war and in a time of social tension, it reminds us that beauty and justice and truth are not at odds.

What is efficient may not always be what is effective. And if poetry, art, and music touch us it is in part because we have entrusted ourselves to their power to lift us and transform us, another kind of faith.

Like calls to like: when we respond to beauty seen and heard, it is a revelation that Beauty is still within us.

  1. Quoted in Mayne, Michael. The Sunrise of Wonder. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, American Edition, 2008, p. 214.
  2. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. xii.
  3. Ps 137: 1-4
  4. Heaney, xii.
  5. Sumner, Gordon. Fragile. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management.
  6. Heaney, p. xix.
  7. Heaney, xx.

Seeing Things

ChildEyes:ilya-yakover-267697

In this Advent season we await the coming of the Christ-child. Our sources for this are Matthew and Luke. Mark begins his gospel breathlessly with Jesus as a man, coming up out of the waters of baptism, the skies splitting open above him. John’s gospel begins even farther back, among star-trails of light in the cosmos, the Word materializing out of the blackness of the space between the stars, to arrive uncloaked as the very being and presence of God across the universe. It’s Matthew who gives us the credentials first, the genealogy of the Saviour, beginning with Abraham and running neatly through three sets of fourteen generations each until we arrive at “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

And it’s Matthew who calls up astrologers from Babylon who, in their glad and awe-struck homage, ply the family with precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then, after being warned of Herod’s baleful intentions in a dream, take another road back home. No sooner had they gone and the family settled down for fitful sleep, when Joseph yields to a dream (a language he was learning still) to take his wife and newborn child and slip through Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. So, with the gold he buys his neighbor’s horse in whispered haste at three a.m., shuts up the house, and off they go, under the stars, across the rock-strewn miles of desert to seek asylum in Egypt.

With Luke we get the bells and whistles—no wise men this time—but more dreams and angels and shepherds and cousins and songs of humility and unalloyed triumph; an older woman with child who thought herself barren, and a mere girl-child, trembling before the sudden, glittering form of a being who stoops to enter her room, and toward whom she bows her head and shields her eyes because, against the evidence, she is certain she is seeing things.

We look at our own infants and imagine who they might become, what they might do, even (God forbid) the harm that might come to them and the resolve we feel to protect them from anything like that. We wonder how the world will change in the time that passes as they grow into adulthood.

In time, we realize that they are not clones of ourselves, but persons in their own right, with personalities and temperaments that may reflect our influence, yet with their own perspectives and motivations. They are not us; they have their own path to travel.

The being whom Luke names as Gabriel greets Mary in a way that is deeply troubling to her. “Greetings, most favored one! The Lord is with you.” The angel hastens to add, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus.”

The singular event that transforms human history has begun. It begins, as Luke tells us, with a girl, one among thousands, who is filled with awe and confusion at being singled out, placed at the head of the line, in the spotlight, up on the stage.

Every woman and girl could wonder in quiet moments if she might be the one to bear the Messiah. More than one watched with secret joy at the sweetness of her child, only to have her hopes dashed when he turned out far less messianic than even the most generous grandparent could vouch for.

Luke’s Gabriel is hitting all the keys with full chords now. “He will be great,” the being sings out, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

There is silence. The being looks at Mary expectantly. “How can this be,” she says deadpan, “since I am a virgin?” She may have only been 14 or 15, but she knows how babies are made. The being sighs; this is going to be tougher than he thought.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he says, and glances sidelong at her. “And the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” A simply deductive syllogism, he thinks. Two premises followed by a conclusion—a conclusion which must be true if the premises are true. And, of course, they are. There is silence. Mary’s head is down, but the being can see that her gaze is fixed and unmoving. She does not blink. He looks more closely; yes, she is still breathing.

He tries again: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” He pauses. “For nothing is impossible with God,” he finishes up with a flourish. Mary’s shoulders shudder and she lifts her head. Her cheeks are wet with tears, but now she is smiling as she presses her palms into her eyes. She looks up, this girl who has been lifted and spun, whose heart is ablaze with ancient titles, prophetic proclamations, words spoken that were always like objects of wonder heard but not touched, words so overwhelming that they overshadowed the sky and made tense the present.

“Here am I,” she says in a whisper, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And Luke recounts laconically, “Then the angel departed from her.”

Let us not diminish the utter awesomeness of this scene. The word ‘awesome’ has been debased in our time, liberally applied as easily to ice cream as to lending someone a stapler. I want to reserve it for the numinous, that which raises the hair on the back of your neck, that which is awe-full. “The Lord is in this place,” breathes Jacob, looking around in the velvet desert darkness as his eyes adjust to the explosion of light as ten thousand angels ascend and descend on a stairway to heaven. That’s awesome.

No matter how many times we may read of angels appearing to people in the scriptures, we mustn’t forget that it was at least as strange to them as it would be to us. The difference between them and their time and us is that we’ve built in defenses against this kind of thing, so that the numinous cannot be part of any algorithms we might use to calculate what we agree is reality.

She could have said no, Mary could. That is just one of a thousand decision-points that could have diverted or ended the stream of this story. Without that yes, that heart-stopping yes, none of our own yeses would have been possible.

The threshold at which we can linger and then stumble through into Mary’s room after the being is gone, is in the thought of the perilous journey ahead for this promised child. In a matter of moments, Mary has gone from a girl with a predictable life ahead of her to the promised portal through which the Son of God enters the world undetected. This is a joy so deep it can only be expressed with tears. There is a holy terror that rockets her up above the world, giddy at that height and breathless as she yields to the heat that courses through her body.

It is a glorious madness that she has opened herself to. If we are brave enough, we will not turn our eyes away as the arrow arcs into the sky to pierce her heart with the certainty that darkness impenetrable also lies ahead. Joy and terror; this is how her ‘Yes!’ thrills through her body.

***

In his tripartite poem, Seeing Things, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney tells of crossing open water as a child from County Galway by boat to the island of Inishbofin in the Atlantic.

All the time

As we went sailing evenly across

The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,

It was as if I looked from another boat

Sailing through air, far up, and could see

How riskily we fared into the morning,

And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.

From our distance, looking back, we are both the girl-child that says yes to the being and we are the guardians of the child still to come. Our hearts are full for that child in his early peril. In the Advent season we await his coming into a world both cruelly cold and wondrously beautiful.

Photo: Ilya Yakover, Unsplash.com