Near an exit to Death Valley,
next to a rusty two-pump gas station,
there used to stand a shack
with a faded sign:
STILL LIFE CAFÉ
BREAKFAST LUNCH DINNER
Only clumps of sage brush,
a Joshua tree like a broken candelabra.
We passed it every summer
on the way to Whitney Portal.
I could imagine only too well
the still life inside:
a beer-sticky formica counter,
the sticky plastic tablecloth
smeared with a sticky rag.
A fan frantically whirrs,
moving the hot air around;
one sluggish fly, a few locals
sticky with beer and sweat
under a half-gone neon
of Miller’s Highlife,
and non-stop country-western
songs all whining into one —
“God may forgive you, but I won’t.”
The last time, in dead August heat,
we were going to Whitney Portal
to celebrate my mother’s
She could walk only slowly;
it’d been ten years since she hiked
to the top of Mt. Whitney.
Yet she insisted on hiking on her birthday,
fragile and lovely like a dying orchid.
She went with us part of the steep trail.
Around, sheer walls of granite,
pale beige or rosy with streaks of greenish gray,
or burning gold in the setting sun.
And the cascades, shivers of white
against the shiny skirt of rock;
the huge coins of eroded stone
above the deep green of fir and pine.
Near the streams, the tender monkey flowers,
wild rose and Indian paintbrush,
blue borage and tall purple candles
of lupine, the regal wolf flower.
She had to stop and rest many times.
Told me again about the thunderstorm
at the summit that could have killed everyone.
Exclaimed more than once,
“The high mountains. Just smell the air!
The high mountains make me feel alive.”
A New Age friend told me of her near-death
trip out of the body, floating among the planets
and the stars. “There were colored lights
and music, and galaxies like swirling neon.”
God was like the sun, she said,
only brighter. “He told me, ‘Go
back!’ I felt angry, so very angry.
Who’d want to go back?”
I asked her, “Are there trees there?”
She glanced at me as though rudely
interrupted in her ecstasy. “Oh no.
Nothing like trees.” I thought,
if there are no trees, I’m not interested.
And if my mother had had a choice:
an afterlife floating around
the galaxies, admiring the colored lights,
hearing the music of the spheres,
or waiting for a long time,
centuries perhaps — in August,
at the Still Life Café,
hoping for a campsite at Whitney Portal,
I had no doubt what she’d choose —
knowing the granite that rises there,
immense and nearly vertical,
a cascade of light.
~ Oriana © 2016
(another view from Mt Whitney trail near the summit; both photos were taken by my mother)
How strange it feels to be looking at a poem in which my mother is still alive and the Still Life Cafe is in its original forlorn location rather than in Lone Pine, gentrified and meaningless.
My mother would indeed choose to wait for a campsite at Whitney Portal because she knew what was important, and it wasn’t an imaginary afterlife amid the swirling galaxies. The galaxies are of course fascinating to ponder, but to us humans at this stage, only one planet is important. It’s interesting that there is a book by Nancy Abrams, A God That Could Be Real, which argues that the only god that could be of interest to us humans is not cosmic (so much for “cosmic consciousness” as the ultimate in spiritual chic), but planetary.
We don’t want heaven, we want life, this life, just more beautiful and more loving.
(Abrams considers god real as an “emergent phenomenon.” Here is one explanation of emergence: “Cells have individual life, but when billions are gathered together in a certain form, what emerges is greater than the sum of the parts: it is (or can be) a human being. Humans themselves have individual life, but when millions focus their efforts in certain ways, other realities emerge. One might be called “the stock market,” which exists and has definite rules and characteristics. Another is “the media," and so on.” ~ from Amazon
Bird migration is an example of an emergent phenomenon. In terms of religion, god didn’t create us; we created god as part of our collective brain function. According to Abrams, that man-created god could be just as real as bird migration.
This is my first shameless digression in a long time.)
Back to what is important: to make wise use of what little time remains. “That’s not important,” my mother would say countless times during her last years. She wanted “what wakefulness remains” reserved for the essence. That included the daily walks where she could look at trees, dogs, children, squirrels. A bird hopping on the pavement was important. The sale at Sears was not important. Neither was meeting the tax deadline, even if the IRS seemed to differ.
My mother on her 75th birthday.
What, then, IS important? The answer depends on the person and on the stage of life. Right now, amid medical difficulties, holding on to the bliss of slow reading and slow writing has become primary. “Harvesting” my poems and bringing them to perfection is important, building on my strengths rather than striking out in new directions as I did in my twenties and early thirties.
What else is important? Beauty and tenderness, but much has been written about those. So let me repeat: slow reading and slow writing. That’s how I become more my central self. Though this is not yet old age (but will it ever be? doesn’t it start at only at ninety?), I identify with what May Sarton (Journal of a Solitude) says
HITLER’S ACENT: MYTH AND MEDIOCRITY
Yet within a few years, large crowds of Nazi supporters would be hailing this anonymous failure as their Führer. At 43, Hitler became the chancellor of Germany, and by 52 he could claim to be the most powerful man in the history of Europe, with an empire that spanned the continent. In the sheer unlikely speed of his rise — and then of his catastrophic fall — Hitler was a phenomenon with few precedents in world history.
Hitler cries out for explanation, and perhaps always will, because even when we know all the facts, his story remains incredible, unacceptable. How could so insignificant a man have become so potent a force for evil? How could the world have allowed it to happen? And always, the unspoken fear: Could it happen again?
Historian and journalist Volker Ullrich sees his subject as a consummate political tactician, and still more important, as a gifted actor, able to show each of his audiences — from the rowdies at mass meetings in beer halls to the elites in the salons of rich industrialists — the leader it wanted to see.
Like most biographers of Hitler, Ullrich passes quickly over his subject’s early years, which are little documented, in part because one of his last orders before his suicide in 1945 was for all his private papers to be burned. The story of Hitler’s public life doesn’t really begin until 1919, when he emerged in Munich as a far-right agitator, one of many who capitalized on the chaos in Germany created by the world war and a short-lived leftist revolution in Bavaria.
By 1923, his National Socialist German Workers’ Party had grown bold enough to try to overthrow the provincial government, in what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The coup failed, however, and after a short stint in jail, Hitler decided it would be easier to destroy the deeply unpopular Weimar Republic by legal means. He maneuvered ruthlessly toward this goal, aided by widespread despair over hyperinflation and then the Great Depression, until his triumphant elevation to the chancellorship. Notably, the Nazis never won a majority of the vote in any free election. Hitler came to power because other, more respectable politicians thought they would be able to control him.
Once in office, Hitler quickly proved them wrong. With dizzying speed, he banned and imprisoned political opponents, had his party rivals murdered, overrode the constitution and made himself the center of a cult of personality to rival Stalin’s. These moves did not dent Hitler’s popularity. On the contrary, after years of internecine ideological warfare, the German people went wild with enthusiasm for a man who claimed to be above politics. The fact that he hated Jews with a demented passion only added to his popularity in a deeply anti-Semitic society.
Hitler was a man who evacuated his inner self, as much as possible, in order to become a vessel for history and what he believed to be the people’s will. On a podium, he could mesmerize huge crowds with his rhetoric about Germany’s destiny. But everything we learn from Ullrich about Hitler’s personal life — what he ate for breakfast (cookies and chocolate), how he bored his guests with endless monologues, even his clandestine love affair with Eva Braun — is commonplace. He was himself conscious, on some level, that he was a thoroughly undistinguished person. When in the company of intellectuals or aristocrats, what Ullrich calls his “inferiority complex” was inflamed, and he grew fidgety and irritable.
Hitler’s mediocrity is all the more noticeable in this book because Ullrich strives not to mythologize his subject, knowing how many myths are already in circulation. There is a tendency, in stories about Hitler, to try to locate the magic key that explains him. Thus people sometimes say that he hated Jews because a Jewish doctor failed to save his mother from cancer, or that he was sexually neurotic because he was missing part of his genitals. Ullrich summarily dismisses both of these legends, noting that Hitler actually had a good relationship with his mother’s doctor, and that records of his medical examinations reveal no physical abnormality.
More important, Ullrich is consistently skeptical of the myths Hitler tried to create about himself. Much of the evidence we possess about the early life comes from the stories he told, and from the tendentious propaganda of “Mein Kampf.” These were designed to further Hitler’s image as a man of destiny, which meant that they were highly melodramatic. For instance, in 1939, while visiting the Bayreuth Festival, Hitler remarked that it was seeing a performance of Wagner’s opera “Rienzi” as a teenager that first gave him a sense of his heroic destiny: “That was the hour everything started.” Ullrich chalks this story up to “Hitler’s need for exaggerated self-importance.”
Yet he doesn’t deny that Wagnerian opera had a profound influence on the young Hitler’s view of the world. In fact, the strange thing about Hitler is not that he imagined himself as the leading figure in a historic drama — many people have such grandiose fantasies — but that life ended up vindicating him. It might have taken a world war, the Great Depression and other calamities to prepare the way, but in the end Germany decided to see Hitler just as he saw himself; the country matched his psychosis with its own. What is truly frightening, and monitory, in Ullrich’s book is not that a Hitler could exist, but that so many people seemed to be secretly waiting for him.” ~
Oriana: In lieu of a commentary, let me simply quote the last sentence: “What is truly frightening is not that a Hitler could exist, but that so many people seemed to be secretly waiting for him.”
MILOSZ ON CHRISTIANITY, COMMUNISM, AND THE IDEA OF HISTORICAL NECESSITY
Part of the charisma of Communism was the idea of its own historical necessity. Its victory was assured and only a matter of time; the progress of history was the writing on the wall. Milosz derives the concept of historical necessity from Christianity, but I think it started with ancient Judaism (and Milosz too actually starts with the conquest of Canaan). The world had a beginning, and the world will have an end, followed by the Last Judgment. History is the unfolding of god’s justice.
Tiger (Tygrys) was the nickname of Tadeusz Kroński, who in a 1949 letter to Milosz wrote this notorious passage: “Just because the majority [of the Polish population] is against us, we are to give up a great historical opportunity? . . . With the butts of Soviet rifles we’ll teach the people of this country how to think rationally, without alienation.” And thus he later became infamous as the man who wanted to use Soviet rifles to teach people how to think rationally.
However, he also said, “Anyone who crosses himself in public crucifies Christ. I also cross myself, but only when no one can see me. (Please keep this a secret. I can say it only to my closest friends.)” (But I am not aware if he ever held the view that Christ was the first Communist.)
In “Native Realm,” Milosz writes: ~ “Powerless Europe in 1948 had already been described in the Book of Joshua. The inhabitants of Canaan trembled when the Israelites arrived on the Jordan because they knew that the Lord had delivered Canaan over to the newcomers and that nothing could resist His will. At the sound of the Israelite trumpets, dismay filled the hearts of Jericho’s defenders. Now the trumpet of Communism resounded so loudly in Paris that the more discerning were convinced that to resist resist the verdict of historical Providence would be futile.
The citizens of the declining Roman Empire . . . felt weak in the face of Christian fanatics announcing the good news of the Last Judgment. Thus when Tiger spoke of “Christians,” it was understood he meant Communists. The allegory is justified insofar as the idea of inevitable progress or of a hidden force behind the scenes -- implacable toward all who disobeyed the Teacher’s commands -- took its origins from Christianity: without Christianity, after all, there would have been no Hegel or Marx.
. . . Tiger, of course, adored Hypatia, the last pagan philosopher of Alexandria, not the dirty, terrifying mob of Christians who tore her apart. And yet, he said, the future did not belong to Hypatia but to the Christians.” ~
“AMERICANIZATION” AS A COUNTERVAILING FORCE
Milosz, however, saw a countervailing force. Aside from the rise of the Soviet Empire, he’d also witnessed something that he considered equally important: the “Americanization” of Europe and, more slowly, the world. While fanatical Communism kept losing its charisma, Americanization was marching on. It’s been widely equated with “modernization.” It’s only now that we see another charismatic movement make gains against Americanization, and that is of course militant Islam. Countries such as Iran, once quite Westernized, have become theocracies. The triumphalist mood after the collapse of the Soviet union has given to a wide perception of vulnerability and decline. I haven’t heard the phrase “historical necessity” for a very long time. Let’s hope that the phantom of historical necessity will never again haunt the world.
To be sure, apocalyptic gurus still abound . . . Or simply those who are a variation on “Gott mit uns” of the German belt buckles.
Odd: Communism lasted such a short time, while the waiting for the First and Second Coming, that ultimate historical necessity, continues. The chronic failure of the prophecy of the end of the world does not seem to inspire much skepticism about its veracity. It’s easily explained away: so, there’s been a delay . . . As for all the New Testament statements about how imminent this end was supposed to be, surely we can find a metaphorical meaning: the world will end for each of us, won’t it?
Wait, but what about the graves opening and so on? That was surely understood in literal terms? Some apologists like Karen Armstrong have put forth a bizarre notion that during the Middle Ages, for instance, people understood religion as pure allegory, and only we moderns have become literal — that’s why we find religious dogma bizarre. I say that mostly only we moderns have the sophistication to engage in metaphorical interpretation. Centuries ago, it took an incredibly exceptional mind to be radical enough to see mere metaphor. Even a great mind like St. Augustine took the story of Adam and Eve absolutely literally.
Communism versus Christianity is an interesting contrast between the fizzle or reality versus the power of fiction. For a moment I was tempted to conclude that the fall of communism presages the fall of Christianity, but obviously if something is fiction, then nothing needs to be delivered, and the promise of the inevitable — the historical necessity of trumpets, skeletons stepping out and putting on flesh, the rest — can continue for another thousand years (though some don’t expect humanity to survive more than a hundred more years)
Last Judgment, stained glass, Cluny
THE SPIRIT OF DADA
~ “During World War I, Zurich, the largest city in neutral Switzerland, was a refuge for artists, writers, intellectuals, pacifists, and dodgers of military service from various countries. A handful of these decided in 1916 to create a new kind of evening entertainment. They called it Cabaret Voltaire and established it at Spiegelgasse 1, not far from the room that was occupied by an occasional visitor to the cabaret, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
The initiator of the group appears to have been Hugo Ball. He was, like most Dadaists, a writer but had also worked in the theater and performed in cabarets. After having to leave Germany as a pacifist, he settled with Emmy Hennings in Zurich where, pale, tall, gaunt, and near starving, he was regarded as a dangerous foreigner. At the Voltaire, he declaimed his groundbreaking phonetic poem “Karawane” (Caravan)—written in nonsensical sounds—to the bewilderment of the public. After a few intense months of Dada activity he left the group, turned to a gnostic Catholicism, and died in the Swiss countryside, regarded as a kind of saint. His diary Die Flucht aus der Zeit (The Flight from Time) remains one of the principal accounts of Dadaism.
Among the artists of stature who emerged from Dada, Hans Arp was perhaps the steadiest and most consistent. A friend of Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, and Wassily Kandinsky, and a gifted poet, he was devoid of malice and envy, and had a superior sense of humor. His later spouse Sophie Taeuber, a notable artist herself, taught at the Applied Arts School in Zurich. She created marionettes and was a member of Rudolf von Laban’s dancing school, which had introduced a new expressive style of dance. During her Dada appearances as a dancer she wore a mask to disguise her identity.
In Tristan Tzara, calm and self-assured yet with a thunderous voice, Dadaism had its most passionate advocate and most tireless propagandist. André Breton called him an impostor avid for publicity but reconciled with him in 1929. Tzara’s poems influenced Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and a few of them were translated by Samuel Beckett. Like Arp, he subsequently became a Surrealist.
Emmy Hennings, before living with Hugo Ball, had been an alluring drifter. Diseuse, actress, barmaid, and model, she became a femme fatale for more than a few German poets. She was a gifted cabaret performer who sang “Hab keinen Charakter, hab nur Hunger” (Devoid of Character, I’m Just Hungry). An important presence at the Dada events, “her couplets,” according to Huelsenbeck, “saved our lives.”
Soon, there was also Walter Serner, a cynic and anarchist who, as a writer, would become notorious for his thrillers and scandalous novels. Tristan Tzara called him “a megalomaniac outsider.” This was a time when dandies wore monocles. Serner wore one, and so did some of his Dadaist colleagues. He rebelled against society by being a high-class confidence man, producing a juridical thesis of which 80 percent later turned out to be plagiarized. Writing under the name of his painter friend Christian Schad, he reviewed a collection of his own stories. He also enjoyed feeding the press false information. His essay “Letzte Lockerung” (Ultimate Loosening) is for some a Dada classic.
From the near improvisation of the first events at the Cabaret Voltaire, one of the most influential avant-garde movements of the century emerged. The word “Dada” was introduced only a couple of months later. There are several explanations for it: the babble of a child, the word for a toy, the double “yes” in Slavic languages and Romanian, and Dada lily milk soap and hair tonic, which was first produced in 1912.
Dada was a joint achievement of the group. Its soirées were multimedia events: they combined words and literature, singing, music (with Ball at the piano), dance, art, farce, and a fair amount of noise. “Repelled by the butcheries of the world war 1914 we surrendered to the arts,” said Hans Arp. “We looked for an elemental art that would free the people from the insanity of the times, and for a new order that might establish a balance between heaven and hell.” “What we celebrated was a buffonade and a requiem mass at the same time.
In Paris, Tzara created a stir with his Dada manifesto of 1918 as well as with his electrifying presence. There, Erik Satie, another major composer, was a Dada sympathizer, and the literary ground for Dada had been prepared by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1920, Breton and a number of writers and artists who later became Surrealists joined Tzara, but in 1922 the Dadaists officially fell out with one another—according to Theo van Doesburg, over the question of whether a locomotive was more modern than a bowler hat.
The profound difference between Dada and Surrealism was that the Surrealists had a program and a dogmatic leader (Breton) while Dada was freewheeling and steeped in ambiguity. It was everything as well as nothing. Nevertheless, each of its branches had a different character. Berlin Dada, with Huelsenbeck, Raoul Hausmann, and Johannes Baader—an eccentric who intruded into the National Assembly to distribute Dada leaflets—was the most aggressive and political. The virtuoso draftsman George Grosz, another member of the Berlin group, despised bourgeois culture as well as modern art.
Picabia, The Lovers, After the Rain, 1925
Hausmann, a Dadaist with philosophical ambitions, and his companion Hannah Höch became champions of photomontage and collage, techniques central to Dadaism. The surpassing master of collage was, however, Kurt Schwitters, an artist of genius with a very different temperament from most Dadaists; he was apolitical and totally devoted to “Merz,” his own brand of Dada. Extremely tall, he used his booming voice to declaim, shout, hiss, and scream his mighty poem “Ursonate,” to this day the most striking specimen of phonetic poetry. His recitations were said to be so impressive that audiences were seized first by laughter, then by awe. Schwitters was also part of the Amsterdam Dada scene that was connected to Theo van Doesburg and the constructivist movement De Stijl.
In Cologne, Max Ernst produced some of the most exquisite Dada drawings and photomontages of the early 1920s. Together with the son of a banker who called himself Johannes Baargeld (cash), Ernst shocked the public with a Dada exhibition that was promptly closed by the police. A Dadaist sentence by Ernst reads, “Thanks to an ancient, closely guarded monastic secret, even the aged can learn to play the piano with no trouble at all.”
According to Schwitters:
Dada subsumes all big tensions of our time under the biggest common denominator: nonsense…. Dada is the moral gravity of our time while the public collapses with laughter. As do the Dadaists.
Traditionalists see Dadaists as silly people. To a degree, they are right. Silliness was liberating from the constraints of reason. Silliness has the potential to be funny, to provoke laughter, and make people realize that laughter is liberating. Raoul Hausmann mentioned the sanctity of nonsense and “the jubilation of orphic absurdity.” To Dadaists, Charlie Chaplin was the greatest artist in the world.
There seems to me more than a little resemblance between the world a hundred years ago and much of what we observe today. This is no all-out war, but there is a sense of a deep crisis and an overbearing feeling of menace, of being faced with enormous threats. Karl Kraus, the Viennese moralist, satirist, and critic, wrote, “As order has failed, let chaos be welcome.” The buzz that Dada has recently generated in Zurich was best illustrated last February, when the Kunsthaus invited the people of Zurich to attend a fancy dress ball coinciding with the Dadaglobe exposition. No fewer than nine hundred masked neo-Dadaists turned up.” ~
Paintings regarded as Dada seems like typical modern art to me. In that sense, in the visual arts Dada is still going strong. In poetry . . . well, language poetry can be seen as the direct descendant, but there aren't that many admirers. Surrealism likewise proved to be more vital in the visual arts than in poetry.
Kurt Schwitters, The Psychiatrist, 1919 ("This has a bit of Steam Punk about it" ~ Gwyn Henry)
LENIN AND DADA
I love to imagine Lenin — who did live in Zurich on Spiegelgasse (Mirror Alley) — attending a Dada performance. By contrast, Putin is totally inartistic.
But, seriously, Lenin was not a secret Dadaist (that theory, along with the notion that the Dadaists found Lenin’s idea “the greatest Dada,” is strictly tongue in cheek). The avant-garde Russian art of the first years after the revolution had more of a futurist feel. The main movement was called “Constructivism.” And it is true that Lenin at first did support avant-garde art, championed by his Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky. Lenin’s great dream was to make Russia a leading modern country, like the United States, a country he openly admired.
Still, the only part of Dada that Lenin would have appreciated was its desire to destroy the old order — and certain elements of the industrialism that pop up in the imagery. But Lenin was basically too “bourgeois” to approve of the bohemian and anarchic spirit of Dada. I realize that he would have hated to be called a bourgeois, a term he used to denounce almost anything he disliked.)
Klee, The Little Jester
Power and violence are always based on psychopathy and fantasy. Violence denies the basics on which authentic human interaction must be based: empathy, trust, and compassion. ~ Ralf Klinger
ON BEING A LITERARY ATHEIST — YAHWEH VERSUS YODA
Though I could easily call myself a gnostic atheist (one who knows that god doesn’t exist), I prefer the label “literary atheist.” This is a person who understands the power of fiction. Any atheist can say that god is fictional, but a literary atheist knows that fictional characters are a part of our psyche and can have an amazing power to influence our behavior.
When a character like Superman is invented, he enters the collective psyche of humanity. “Star Wars” is an even better and more positive example, with Yoda as a spiritual guide and the master of “The Force.” Or even Harry Potter. Having supernatural powers is a big part of the appeal of those characters that become cultural icons.
A literary atheist regards a god, including any Abrahamic god (Yahweh, Allah, the Christian Trinity) as a fictional character. Perhaps “mythological” would be a more precise label, but “fictional” covers more ground. Just because a character is fictional doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t “exist.” A fictional character can have a vivid neural existence, having become an indelible part of our psyche, along with the main narratives.
“Stories that never happened can have infinitely more power than stories that did.” Of course. You can have all kinds of impossible things take place to convey moral lessons and create strong emotions.
The story of the woman taken in adultery is regarded by many as illustrating the very essence of Christianity. It’s almost a foundational story. Yet it doesn’t appear in the early Greek manuscripts. Scholars have established that it’s a later medieval addition. Even those who know the story is made-up can still treasure it as a story, and still use the expression “to cast the first stone.”
Ultimately, so what if the story is made up? It’s all made up. It’s possible that Jesus never even existed — or if he did, we can never excavate the “historical Jesus” from the layers and layers of legend. A powerful story is not based on “it really happened.” Factual accuracy is beside the point. A story enters our psyche and exerts its influence. Even something clearly unbelievable, e.g. the resurrection, can contain an element that the psyche may find valuable — the symbolism of rolling back the stone, or the very idea that we can survive something devastating.
A literary atheist is a gnostic atheist, but with a subtle difference: she recognizes that a fictional character can be very powerful part of our lives, often more powerful than an actual person. The human brain doesn’t strictly separate reality from imagination. It’s not just young children who confuse “imaginary” and “real” characters and events; adults show the same tendency, as demonstrated by the phenomenon of false memory. And “false memory” is the rule, not the exception. In a way, all characters (including ourselves and our friends) are “imaginary.”
So in a way it’s fine that Yahweh is a fictional character. The distressing part is that he’s not a well-written one. This is not surprising, given that the bible was written and edited over a long time by many men. He’s not the creation of a single literary genius; he’s a collective creation.
And then there is the question of selective reading and shifting interpretation over the centuries that followed. Given that, it’s remarkable how, for all the efforts to soften him, he remains an obnoxious character, definitely “not a swell dude,” as someone recently put it. But a character doesn’t have to be likable to be powerful — literature is full of villains and good guys, as well as more complex villains who now and then have a gracious moment.
But let’s face it, Yoda is wiser and more endearing by far.
“THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE” — CHRISTIANITY AND THE PROBLEM OF WEALTH
~ “One of the central embarrassments of Christianity arises from one of the most central errors of its founding figurehead. Jesus Christ was convinced that the next world — a radically different world from the observable reality of Roman Judea in which he found himself — was, as he continuously put it, “at hand.”
He was the prophet of this change in the exact same way John the Baptist had been the prophet of his own coming — that is, as a roadside herald, trumpet in hand, declaring the coming of something extremely imminent. Jesus repeatedly tells his listeners that he is a divisive figure, an enemy of complacency — he repeatedly tells people they must choose sides, this dusty live-a-day world all around them, or the next world, which is just about to dawn and change everything.
The problem with this particular mistake (the world didn’t change, the kingdom of Heaven didn’t arrive, the Romans kept nailing troublemakers to scaffolding) is that it elicits some of Jesus’ most straightforward comments – none more so than Matthew 19:21, when the Master is confronted by a rich young man who is righteous and God-abiding (when he’s given a list of commandments, he comments that he’s been following them his whole life – in other words, crucially, he’s not a sinner). The young man asks what he must do to gain eternal life, and Jesus’ answer hits him right between the eyes: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
The young man refuses and goes away disappointed, and that’s when Jesus utters his famous imprecation that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Hardly any rich Christians have wanted to do what their Savior explicitly commands them to do. The text from Matthew provides the title of Peter Brown’s dense, magnificent new book (with its gigantic sub-title), Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, and the subject – the way early Christians got around the embarrassment of not wanting to be poor – is explored in 500 pages of fascinating, engaging prose and 100 pages of close-packed and amazingly comprehensive notes. The conflict between the sacred calling of Christianity and the more mundane concerns of spes saeculi, the hope of advancement in this world, is here given an examination like it’s never had before, with money at the heart of it all.
Also at the heart of it all is that pivotal figure, St. Augustine, and readers who’ve already encountered Brown’s justly revered Augustine of Hippo will know to expect fine writing and fine insight into the figure who, more than anybody, tried to work out a theocratic framework that would allow his congregation to be wealthy if only they avoided avarice. Blatant double-talk like that would come in very handy to Christians of every subsequent century.
~ Augustine’s justification of wealth came at the right time. In a world that had been unexpectedly shaken by renewed civil war and by barbarian invasion, there was no point in denouncing the rich for the manner in which they had gained their wealth. Those whose wealth had survived the shocks of this new crisis were unlikely to feel guilty about what little of it was left to them. The radical critiques of wealth and the wealthy associated with the preachings of Ambrose and with the Pelagian De divitiis were out-of-date. Such radicalism had been the product of an age of affluence. It had played on the disquiet of the comfortable rich of the fourth-century age of gold. It had less effect on persons who now faced the prospect of losing everything.” ~
Reliquary of the Holy Umbilical Cord, Cluny, 1407
Oriana: One aspect of the veneration of relics and images is very striking to me: it was the old paintings and statues that some centuries later (usually during the late Middle Ages) started weeping, bleeding, or even walking about. This is fascinating because those old paintings were much less likely to be naturalistic, but were stiff and stylized. I found that true of the “miraculous icons” in Poland — mostly Byzantine in style. Those are not the beautiful Madonnas that were painted later, with Mary as a lovely young woman — but the severe, awkward images from earlier centuries.
I checked it online, and the quote seems authentic. Religion mostly works to anoint the ruler (the “divine right of kings”) and protect the ruling class. There have been exceptions, and peasant uprisings where the poor did murder the rich — usually quickly suppressed, and strongly condemned by religious leaders (e.g. Luther thundered against the peasant uprising of 1525).
NATURE AS A CORRECTIVE TO PRIDE
~ “Of the seven deadly sins, the one with perhaps the most diverse menu of antivenins is the sin of pride. Need a quick infusion of humility? Climb to a scenic overlook in the mountain range of your choice and gaze out over the vast cashmere accordion of earthscape, the repeating pleats swelling and dipping silently into the far horizon without even deigning to disdain you. Or try the star-spangled bowl of a desert sky at night and consider that, as teeming as the proscenium above may seem to your naked gape, you are seeing only about 2,500 of the 300 billion stars in our Milky Way — and that there are maybe 100 billion other star-studded galaxies in our universe besides, beyond your unaided view.” ~ Natalie Angier
Oriana: And now astronomers think there may be almost ten times more galaxies than previously thought and have increased the estimate to trillions.
The better to startle you: a chicken embryo
ending on beauty
My childhood theory about why prayers weren’t answered was that Yahweh didn’t speak Polish. So what did it matter if we politely called him Mr. God in a language he didn’t understand. The gods who knew Polish were hiding in the woods like the partisans. I wondered how they survived the winter. Their drinking songs could sometimes be heard.
~ Oriana Ivy