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.

Life Becomes a Dark Saying

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I don’t know what it means to say that Christ “died for my sins”. . . but I do understand—or intuit, rather—the notion of God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering, but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless. — Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

It is a curious thing to be a human being. There is in us a drive to be more than we are and also a drive to be that which we are not. These are not the same, and it’s worth our time to make the distinction. But what we find most difficult is to be what we are. If we could truly know what we are, both in the aggregate and as individuals, we might not be so anxious to be something else. Even more to the point, we might not be so anxious.

“Be all that you can be,” says the Army’s recruiting slogan, with the implication that whatever you are right now is not enough compared to what you could become with the proper training and motivation. It’s a clever slogan, and it works for a lot of people, because most of us do not really know what we are but we’re pretty sure we’d rather be other than what we are. Whatever that is.

So here is one way we’re given to understand what we are. The basic message is: you’re no good. The thing is that while a lot of advertising uses this technique, so do some iterations of Christianity.

The advertising arm of this approach is relatively benign. It says—sometimes loudly, sometimes softly—but always incessantly: you are deeply lacking in some crucial areas of life. But don’t worry, there are people here who can help you, who want the best for you, and who know what’s best for you. Toothpaste, cars, clothes, men’s shaving razors (Harry’s, I’m looking at you), lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs—anything can be commoditized and sold. It’s a service we’re proud to provide.

The Christian versions also begin with the claim that we are absolutely corrupted and there is nothing good in us. The more sadistic brands then justify beating the hell out of children and making sure the adults know what complete failures they are. The milder, but more acquisitive forms counsel surrender to Christ in order to reap the rewards of victory. Having put our hand to the plow we never look back; the furrow we cut through the world is straight and true because we have made it so. Victory is ours.

We are quick to say that all the glory goes to God. He is the one who has blessed us. As we warm to the subject, we rejoice in the fact that since everything belongs to God, and since He wants us to be happy, He can give us whatever our hearts desire. He does not want his children to be seen as poor. It brings shame upon the family name. God knows our needs and wants. Once we were blind, but now we see that God is our great investment banker: if we put ten dollars in the collection plate, He will multiply that and increase our goods ten-fold, a hundred-fold, beyond our wildest dreams. All things are ours if we are willing to believe that God will reward our faith.

It is a seductive message the prosperity gospel puts out. There is truth to it, but not in the ways the seduced would want to own. The first truth is that on our best days we’re running a low-grade fever of illusion that we can scrub out all our imperfections if we just put our minds to it. The second truth is that on our bad days we’re blaming everybody else for our failures. These things are so true that they whipsaw us back and forth until we demand a product that will put an end to the pain.

For some, the analgesic comes in the form of all that advertising sells. For others, the pain is dulled by a Jesus who promises a carefree life. The proviso is that our faith must keep that balloon aloft. The moment we stop huffing and puffing is the moment we plummet. Still others of us will attempt perfection because we think that is what Christ demands. We will fail. Christ’s lawyers will tell us that we fell short, that we were out of compliance. Our weakness is our fault.

But here is another kind of truth:

“And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mk 8: 34-37, Authorized Version)

This has long been for me one of the most significant texts in the New Testament. It is paradoxical, upside-down thinking, literally about matters of life and death. Without blinking or turning away, Jesus calls us to one of the most barbaric forms of death in human history. Our eyes bounce and swoop over the words now, because for many the cross has become mere jewelry. Jesus’ death on the cross is far, far back in history, the stuff of theological councils, a done deal. But this story, this ragged, gut-wrenching cry—this is a forewarning of what is to come.

Needless to say, this invitation will not draw the masses to the revolution. It isn’t even a message that Jesus reserves for those most familiar with his rhetorical themes—his disciples. He might have drawn them quietly aside, cleared his throat, and said: “By the way, you’ll want to be preparing for your eventual death on a cross. Do that and you’ll live forever.” Instead, He turns and speaks openly to the jostling people who are following him around, the ones just hoping to be healed or touched or listened to or in some real way seen for the first time in their lives. Did they hear him? Could they hear him? Is he trying to thin the crowd, to cut it down to the hard-core cell of those who would go to death for him and the cause?

He says all this, knowing somehow that all of them will abandon him to his wild dreams as he breathes his last on the cross to the laughter of the soldiers who nailed him there. But he is serious, and we must take him seriously. We owe him that much.

(In time from now we will realize how utterly clueless that was, to think our debt to him could so easily be paid up by deigning to listen, politely leaning forward, our brow wrinkled in concentration, a half-smile on our lips that we hope will be taken as agreement, but that barely hides the clanging of our hearts and the hot, racing pulse that suddenly is pounding so loudly in our ears that we cannot clearly hear what he is saying. And yet Jesus will not call us out on that. We will find it in our own time, consciousness dawning belatedly, gratitude welling up and dissolving our barriers to his gentle forgiveness.)

***

We have a soul and we can lose it, and we have a life, and we can lose that too. Actually, the way Jesus puts it here, we are ensouled; that’s what we are as humans. To have life is to be a soul; to be a soul is to have life. There are lots of ways we can lose our ensouled life, but apparently only one way we can save it, and that is by taking up our cross and following Jesus. Each of us has a cross and our cross is as individual and unique as we are. Our job is to recognize it and to take it up, not just once, but every day.

Denying ourselves, we give up our panicked glances for the exits, and our half-remembered survival tips, and we trust that when it comes to it, when our last means of escape has been closed off, that we will know as we are known, and that that will more than suffice.

For an immigrant mother, struggling in poverty to provide for her children, her cross might be the loneliness of fear and the grind of daily life, to bear it through the grace and strength of God. For another, his cross may be the wear and tear on his faith as he copes with the treatment of his cancer. A pastor, struggling with opioid addiction, who must dull his pain while caring for others.

We don’t choose our crosses, but we do find them in the course of our lives. For some of us it will be that which we cannot shake off, which haunts us at the edges of our peripheral vision. Some might call it the Shadow, the deep part of ourselves we do not want to recognize and which is capable of much mayhem within our souls.

I suspect that many of us will find a brother in the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” His first response is what he thinks Jesus wants to hear. His second response is his heart-cry, the desperate honesty of one who has no more options, but cannot let go of his fleeting hope. In like manner, our faith will wax and wane, yet can be sustained by the One who says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

“Life becomes a dark saying,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard. Yet, “it perhaps happened that your mind became more gentle and took to heart the words that had been planted in you and that were able to give a blessing to your soul—namely, the saying that every good and perfect gift comes down from above.”

We are curious creatures, we human beings. Early in life we think we know so much. Later in life, we find we know so little. Earlier in life we are making ourselves, but later in life we discover ourselves. Earlier in life, we are taught to forgive other people. Later in life, we learn to forgive ourselves.

Photo: Nout Gons, Unsplash.com