Dark garland/Affirming flame

Leaves from my commonplace book, September 2001

Published September 25, 2001 7:04PM (EDT)

I have shored these fragments against my ruin ...

From Walker Percy's "Love in the Ruins"(1971)

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last? [...]

Undoubtedly something is about to happen. Or is it that something has stopped happening? Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

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From Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms"

Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first toward the center where the fire was; then turned back and ran toward the end. When there was enough on the end they fell off onto the fire. Some got out, their bodies burned and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.

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From Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure of the window pane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff -- and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

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That Polish generation that survived the War -- the Holocaust, the razing of their entire capital, millions upon millions dead -- and bore the burden of such survival, they understood ...

From "Could Have" by Wislawa Szymborska

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you. [...]

You were in luck -- there was a forest.
You were in luck -- there were no trees.
You were in luck -- a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant.
You were in luck -- just then a straw went floating by. [...]

From Zbigniew Herbert's "Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision"

And yet in these matters
Accuracy is essential
We must not be wrong
Even by a single one

We are despite everything
The guardians of our brothers

Ignorance about those who have disappeared
Undermines the reality of the world

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Saturday morning, somebody on NPR dug up e.e. cummings' "I go to this window" poem, with its haunting last lines:

-- and all about
the sprouting largest final air

  inward with hurled
downward thousands of enormous dreams

Meanwhile, other lines kept thrumming through my own mind, Rilke's, from near the outset of the first of the Duino Elegies:

... For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of a terror we can only just barely endure,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.

And it has to be said that for all the horror of those endlessly repeated video spools, there was something terribly, compellingly sublime, about the spectacle of those towers plunging in on themselves, the crumpling exhalation of being -- something, perhaps, not so much simply awful as awe-filled. Is it perhaps, too, in this sense, that every terror is beautiful?

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Pillow of air.

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It used to be, rising out of the subways anywhere between Midtown and the Battery, you would quickly and almost automatically orient yourself by looking to one side -- and yes, there was the Empire State Building -- and then to the other -- and there indeed were the twin towers -- and depending on their relative sizes and placement, you immediately knew where you were, in what city, and how far north or south, and indeed which was north and which south, which was west and which east (the very enactment, after all, of Orient-ation). And now of course all that is over. Now with each automatic swivel of the neck, we represent for ourselves the absent, the endlessly absent ...

Now instead the twin towers will become temporal markers. With every cinematic or photographic sweep of the New York skyline, or even simply of the New York backdrop, we will invariably register, subliminally, automatically: the world of time neatly trisected -- the era before the twin towers, the era of the twin towers and now the era ever after.

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From W.S. Merwin's 1971 prose poem, "Unchopping a Tree," which launches out ...

Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places ...

And it goes on like that

It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated ... It goes without saying that if the tree was hollow in whole or in part, and contained old nests of bird or mammal or insect ... the contents will have to be repaired where necessary and reassembled, insofar as possible, in their original order, including the shells of nuts already opened.

And so forth, for paragraph after hallucinogenic paragraph: Every single leaf is reattached, every single branch; tackle and scaffolding are hauled in so as to facilitate the final reattachment of the reconstituted bore to its stump, at which point the tackle and scaffolding start getting pulled away:

Finally the moment arrives when the last sustaining piece is removed and the tree stands again on its own. It is as though its weight for a moment stood on your heart. You listen for a thud of settlement, a warning creek deep in the intricate joinery. You cannot believe it will hold. How like something dreamed it is, standing there all by itself. How long will it stand there now? The first breeze that touches its dead leaves all seems to flow into your mouth. You are afraid the motion of the clouds will be enough to push it over. What more can you do? What more can you do?

But there is nothing more you can do.

Others are waiting.

Everything is going to have to be put back.

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From Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "The War Has Had a Place" (1945)

We have learned history, and we claim that it must not be forgotten. But are we here not the dupes of our emotions? If ten years hence, we reread these pages and so many others, what will we think of them? We do not want this year of 1945 to become just another year among many. A man who has lost his son or a woman he loved does not want to live beyond that loss. He leaves the house in the state it was in. The familiar objects upon the table, the clothes in the closet mark an empty place in the world ... The day will come, however, when the meaning of these clothes will change: once ... they were wearable, and now they are out of style and shabby. To keep them any longer would not be to make the dead person live on; quite the opposite, they date his death all the more cruelly.

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From Thomas Merton's "The Sign of Jonas"

The perfection of 12th-century Cistercian architecture is not to be explained by saying that the Cistercians were looking for a new technique. I am not sure that they were looking for a new technique at all. They built good churches because they were looking for God. And they were looking for God in a way that was pure and integral enough to make everything they did and everything they touched give glory to God.

We cannot reproduce what they did because we approach the problem in a way that makes it impossible for us to find a solution. We ask ourselves a question that they never considered. How can we make a beautiful monastery according to a style of some past age and according to the rules of a dead tradition? Thus we make the problem not only infinitely complicated but we make it, in fact, unsolvable. Because a dead style is dead. And the reason why it is dead is that the motives and circumstances that once gave it life have ceased to exist. They have given place to a situation that demands another style. If we were intent upon loving God rather than upon getting a Gothic church out of a small budget, we would put up something that would give glory to God and would be very simple and would also be in the tradition of our fathers.

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The question of whether or not we now should simply rebuild the twin towers as an assertion of our defiant resolve thus adumbrates in all sorts of directions. What were "the motives and circumstances" that once gave authentic life to those buildings (to the resolve, that is, to build them in the first place)? Are they motives and circumstances that still pertain, and ought they? And if not, what other motives and circumstances might now pertain, or ought to be made to pertain?

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From Carl Sagan's "A Pale Blue Dot"

In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said -- grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

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Perhaps some of those who convince themselves that Allah is absolutely everything, and that there ought not to be anything else, have precisely nothing else themselves; they look at a monument like the twin towers as its own celebrants also looked at it, as the Center of Everything, the very "everything" that they have nothing of. Theirs hence becomes, at its base, a war of Nothing against Everything -- although, of course, they would parse matters exactly the other way around.

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From George Orwell's "Reflections on Gandhi"

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing human beings must avoid.

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Thirty years ago, I was in college and Nixon had just invaded Cambodia, and we were of course all up in arms. The college had convened as a committee of the whole in the dining commons -- the students, the professors, the administrators -- what were we going to do? How were we going to respond?

Our distinguished American history professor got up and declared this moment the crisis of American history. Not to be outdone, our eminent new-age classicist got up and declared it the crisis of universal history. And we all nodded our fervent concurrence. But then our visiting religious historian from England, a tall, lanky lay-Catholic theologian, as it happened, with something of the physical bearing of Abraham Lincoln, got up and suggested mildly that "We really ought to have a little modesty in our crises. I suspect," he went on, "that the people during the Black Plague must have thought they were in for a bit of a scrape."

Having momentarily lanced our fervor, he went on to allegorize, deploying the story of Jesus on the Waters.

Jesus [he reminded us] needed to get across the Sea of Galilee with his disciples, so they all boarded a small boat, whereupon Jesus quickly fell into a nap. Presently a storm kicked up, and the disciples, increasingly edgy, finally woke Jesus up. He told them not to worry, everything would be all right, whereupon he fell back into his nap. The storm meanwhile grew more and more intense, winds slashing the ever-higher waves. The increasingly anxious disciples woke Jesus once again, who once again told them not to worry and again fell back asleep. And still the storm worsened, now tossing the little boat violently all to and fro.

The disciples, beside themselves with terror, awoke Jesus one more time, who now said, "Oh ye of little faith" -- that's where that phrase comes from -- and then proceeded to pronounce, "Peace!" Whereupon the storm instantaneously subsided and calm returned to the water.

Our historian waited a few moments as we endeavored to worry out the glancing relevance of this story. "It seems to me," he finally concluded, "that what that story is trying to tell us is simply that in times of storm, we mustn't allow the storm to enter ourselves; rather we have to find peace inside ourselves and then breathe it out."

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Case in point: "Operation Infinite Justice"
(the Pentagon's original code name for their evolving operation)

Wouldn't finite justice suffice? Can human justice ever be anything more?

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From Tomas Tranströmer's "Sentry Duty"

Task: to be where I am.
Even when I'm in this solemn and absurd
role: I am still the place
where creation does some work on itself

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"Deciamos ayer"

Fray Luis de Leon, the great humanist scholar (and Hebraist) of the Spanish Golden Age and one of the sages of Salamanca University, was condemned by the Inquisition for translating the Song of Solomon and spent four years in prison before being allowed to return to his lectern at the university, where he began his first lecture with the phrase, "Deciamos ayer" -- "As we were saying yesterday ..."

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Comte Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand:

Nobody who wasn't alive then will ever know the sweetness of life [la douceur de la vie: the sweet/soft plushness of life] before the Revolution.

By Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler, director emeritus of the New York Institute for the Humanities, is the author among others of "Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative" and, forthcoming next spring, "Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez." 

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