It was hard not to think of all this—of the Iliad with its grand funereal finale, of the Odyssey strangely pivoting around so many burials, and of course of “Antigone”—as I followed the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s unburied body over the past few weeks. I thought, of course, of canny politicians eyeing the public mood, and of the public to whom those politicians wanted to pander. I thought even more of the protesters who, understandably to be sure, wanted to make clear the distinction between victim and perpetrator, between friend and foe, by threatening to strip from the enemy what they saw as the prerogatives of the friend: humane treatment in death. The protesters who wanted, like Creon, not only to deny those prerogatives to an enemy but to strip them away again should anyone else grant them—to “unbury the body.” I thought of Martha Mullen, a Christian, who insisted that the Muslim Tsarnaev, accused of heinous atrocities against innocent citizens, be buried just as a loved one might deserve to be buried, because she honored the religious precept that demands that we see all humans as “brothers,” whatever the evil they have done.
This final point is worth lingering over just now. The last of the many articles I’ve read about the strange odyssey of Tsarnaev’s body was about the reactions of the residents of the small Virginia town where it was, finally, buried. “What do you do when a monster is buried just down the street?” the subhead asked. The sensationalist diction, the word “monster,” I realized, is the problem—and brings you to the deep meaning of Martha Mullen’s gesture, and of Antigone’s argument, too. There is, in the end, a great ethical wisdom in insisting that the criminal dead, that your bitterest enemy, be buried, too; for in doing so, you are insisting that the criminal, however heinous, is precisely not a “monster.” Whatever else is true of the terrible crime that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is accused of having perpetrated, it was, all too clearly, the product of an entirely human psyche, horribly motivated by beliefs and passions that are very human indeed—deina in the worst possible sense. To call him a monster is to treat this enemy’s mind precisely the way some would treat his unburied body—which is to say, to put it beyond the reach of human consideration (and therefore, paradoxically, to refuse to confront his “monstrosity” at all).
If I think of a king at nightfall,
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
And a few who died forgotten
In other places, here and abroad,
And of one who died blind and quiet,
Why should we celebrate
These dead men more than the dying?
It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
This will serve as a bridge between my last post- an anecdote about faith and art by Tobias Wolff- and my next – an excerpt about the burial of the Boston terrorist by Daniel Mendelsohn.
That night—to some extent, that picture—changed [my friend Rob’s] life. He enrolled in Bible classes at the church, and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The same night sent me in the opposite direction, at least for a time. But would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.
And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. One night, I was reading the last lines of “Little Gidding” to a friend, my voice thick with emotion, and when I looked up he was staring at me with kindly amusement. “So,” he said. “You really like that stuff?”
Every poet, consciously or unconsciously, holds the following absolute presuppositions, as the dogmas of his art:
(1) A historical world exists, a world of unique events and unique persons, related by analogy, not identity. The number of events and analogical relations is potentially infinite. The existence of such a world is a good, and every addition to the number of events, persons and relations is an additional good.
(2) The historical world is a fallen world, i.e. though it is good that it exists, the way in which it exists is evil, being full of unfreedom and disorder.
(3) The historical world is a redeemable world. The unfreedom and disorder of the past can be reconciled in the future.
It follows from the first presupposition that the poet’s activity in creating a poem is analogous to God’s activity in creating man after his own image. It is not an imitation, for were it so, the poet would be able to create like God ex nihilo; instead, he requires pre-existing occasions of feeling and a pre-existing language out of which to create. It is analogous in that the poet creates ￼not necessarily according to a law of nature but voluntarily according to provocation.
Christ is contingency, I tell her as we cross the railroad tracks and walk down the dusty main street of this little town that is not the town where I was raised, but both reassuringly and disconcertingly reminiscent of it: the ramshackle resiliency of the buildings around the square; Spanish rivering right next to rocklike English, the two fusing for a moment into a single dialect then splitting again; cowboys with creek-bed faces stepping determinedly out of the convenience store with sky in their eyes and twelve-packs in their arms. I have spent the past four weeks in solitude, working on these little prose fragments that seem to be the only thing I can sustain, trying day and night to “figure out” just what it is I believe, a mission made more urgent by the fact that I have recently been diagnosed with an incurable but unpredictable cancer…
– Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. (Specifically Sorrow’s Flower). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 2013. p. 16.
Then trace the river of language back:
While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
Each afternoon, in the casserole heat
Of the flat, as I sweated my way through
The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket
Rose like a reek off a flax-dam.
At night on the balcony, gules of wine,
A sense of children in their dark corners,
Old women in black shawls near open windows,
The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.
We talked our way home over the starlit plains
Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil
Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.
‘Go back’ one said, ‘try to touch the people’…
– from “4. Summer 1969”
– Heaney, Seamus. Poems: 1965-1975. (Specifically from North). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 1987. p. 224-225.
If a person has read Wiman’s “Ambition & Survival: On Becoming a Poet” and doesn’t immediately go read Seamus Heaney, then she didn’t pay attention to Wiman’s (almost) imperatives.
On another note, the allusion bears some digging. The “her” in Wiman’s essay (Sorrow’s Flower) is a woman Wiman had known in his youth. As the essay progresses we realize that he has taken some sort of retreat in middle-age as he has both come to faith in Christ, and as the essay says, been diagnosed with cancer. The woman on the other hand has recently gone through a divorce that essentially wrecked her faith. Brief recollections of their conversation carry the narrative of the essay. Wiman quite self-consciously realizes how abstruse (ridiculous, he says) his statement “Christ is contingency” sounds in the midst of her suffering – especially against the backdrop of his monthlong sabbatical he has taken to “figure out” what he believes. Who among us can take a month off of work to scribble a few paragraphs about something as cloudy as belief? And while people suffer. Hmph.
Wiman gets that sentiment though. And I think the allusion is intended here, not just as a flourish for description, but to embellish the irony of his errand. Like Wiman, Heaney’s narrator is on a retreat, but instead of spiritual matters, this voice has held up in a Spanish flat to study Joyce (who but a poet can afford such luxuries) while a revolution oppresses the natives from whom he’s renting. Someone tells him to go back and touch the people, but instead he retreats to the Prado and ends with a meditation on Goya. Wiman knows this; he hopes the reader does too.
I read a review of Wiman’s book wherein the reviewer criticizes Wiman for writing a memoir “full of God but quite empty of people.” I’d take the genre to task, but the criticism is misguided (*2) and for these purposes the Heaney allusion is informative: Go back and touch the people, the critic said; but the poet instead searches the flesh-rending brutality of history then moves to the nightmares of Time and Chaos. What does a poet do when confronted with such horrors? What does a carpenter do? Or a farmer? They fall back into the rhythms of their trade and craft examining what meaning their labors have provided in the past. So Wiman fills the book with fine meditations on poetry (there are 33 cited in the acknowledgements), writing “with fists and elbows, flourishing”, in Heaney’s words, “the stained cape of his heart as history charges."
That’s pretty damn touching.
*1 – How much money would one like to wager on the fact that Bryan Adams was also alluding to Heaney’s poem?
*2 – The criticism is misguided because Wiman writes: "It is not meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.” – from Wiman’s essay “A Million Little Oblivions” p. 164.
So if we try to feel our way towards a general sense of what the contemporary fantasy world is telling us about violence and destruction, the result seems to be this: pain and injury and sudden death are unpredictable, not planned or chosen by anyone like ourselves, yet always threatening, always around the corner. Against this threat, we defend ourselves as the situation dictates — without many qualms about how we do so, because we are not dealing with agents like ourselves, whose motives and methods would need scrutiny, about whom we might be able to make considered predictions. Violence does not belong in the moral world; it has nothing to do with human responsibility, with the kinds of choices by which we make up our lives from day to day. You could almost say that it is a non-human phenomenon, in the sense that it is so strange and specialized a happening. And it always begins ‘somewhere else’- in the mysterious and uncontrollable world Out There….
On the basis of what we have looked at so far, it certainly seems as though our society is aware of enormous but badly-defined threats — some internal (arising from the complications of technology), but most external. It is, as a result, tense and afraid, and alarmingly confused because it cannot locate the real sources of danger. More disturbingly, though, it is incapable of seeing this as a moral problem — as something to do with power, vision, understanding and choice, with the ways in which we decide to make sense of our lives.
“So lasting they are, the rivers!” Only think. Sources somewhere in the mountains pulsate and springs seep from a rock, join in a stream, in the current of a river, and the river flows through centuries, millennia. Tribes, nations pass, and the river is still there, and yet it is not, for water does not stay the same, only the place and the name persist, as a metaphor for a permanent form and changing matter. The same rivers flowed in Europe when none of today’s countries existed and no languages known to us were spoken. It is in the names of rivers that traces of lost tribes survive. They lived, though, so long ago that nothing is certain and scholars make guesses which to other scholars seem unfounded. It is not even known how many of these names come from before the Indo-European invasion, which is estimated to have taken place two thousand to three thousand years B. C. Our civilization poisoned river waters, and their contamination acquires a powerful emotional meaning. As the course of a river is a symbol of time, we are inclined to think of a poisoned time. And yet the sources continue to gush and we believe time will be purified one day. I am a worshipper of flowing and would like to entrust my sins to the waters, let them be carried to the sea.