“. . . and Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled . . .” (T.S. Eliot, from “Ash Wednesday”)

eliot

Eliot before Anglicanism. The Prodigal Son?

(Written March 1, 2017)

Today is Ash Wednesday. A day to read T.S. Eliot.

Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights, tempted and yet undefiled. (Not Eliot)

I obviously can’t be sure, but I would guess that I could sing – stop keyboarding and start singing – lines of the words of as many as forty hymns the authors wrote either for Ash Wednesday specifically or for Lent generally.

Lord, who throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray.

I have written at least once each day since February 24, the last time I posted here, written always with a guiding idea, one might almost say a “thesis,” only to have the idea disintegrate under my fingers before I reached the conclusion.

I have written about Trump, and I have written about not writing about Trump. I have written about a couple of scary experiences of forgetting that left me (moderately) shaken, and I have written about not being shaken by such experiences. I have written about a couple of joyful moments of tutoring, and I have written about the impossibility of teaching anyone anything. I have written about the shocking and irrational hatred of President Obama I encountered in conversation with a friend before the election, and I have written about my hope that my dislike of Trump is intellectual and political and not viciously personal as my friend’s is of President Obama. I have written about my pleasure at living by myself and having solitude, and I have written about my fear of being old and alone.

All of these unfinished writings are in a folder on my desktop either haunting me or waiting for me to finish them.

Last weekend I had lunch with an old friend. We were catching up on conversation we have not had in too any months. In the process of telling me about a reception he attended at the Meadows Art Museum, he said, “. . . and my Higher Power told me not to leave.” He was explaining how he happened to have an especially interesting and enjoyable time at the reception even though it was the sort of social small-talk event we both dislike.

My initial response, which I did not act on, was, “Whoa! You’ve found a Higher Power who speaks to you directly?” My friend has always been, in general, as uneasy talking about “God” as I am, and his direct reference surprised me to say the least.

My friend and I are both well beyond T.S. Eliot’s age when he converted to Anglicanism – in 1927 at age 39. (We are both approaching Eliot’s age, 77, when he died.)  Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” is the first major work he wrote after he found faith and the English church.

Ash Wednesday” haunts me. I do not understand it. Being a good Anglican, i.e., Episcopalian (not devout or even believing, but good), I understand and can explain the Biblical and religio-historical references throughout the poem. I can even explain the “movement” of the ideas through the poem. I understand it syntactically and logically.

But I don’t, as they say, “get it” and have not since the first time I read it years ago. Section V of the long poem begins

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word. . . .     (T.S. Eliot, 1930)

The Word (upper case W) is the Word from the first chapter of the Gospel According to John. The Word is Jesus – or is Jesus the embodiment of the Word, the truth, the reality, the essence of existence, the voice of God? The Word is the light shining in the darkness, the spiritual truth around which the world with all of its words whirls.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not (John 1: 1-5).

I am hardly a “writer.” I write a great deal, and I offer some of it for interested persons to read. But I use words for the most part to figure out what I am thinking and feeling, not necessarily to communicate or create a work of beauty. I have no illusion that I can keep company with T.S. Eliot (or with the Gospel According to John).

When I was a practicing, believing, not simply “good” Anglican, early each year I looked forward to Ash Wednesday. I saw it as a day to think about and acknowledge the reality of my life whirling about the Word but never coming to rest in the Word. I could take comfort in the church’s understanding that I am part of the “unstilled world” whirling, spinning about the center, the Word, and spending my words (all of our words) without listening to the Word.

I learned the words of those Anglican hymns.

Wilt thou forgive the sin, where I begun
Which is my sin, though it were done before?

I knew that acknowledging (confessing, as the church would have it) my sin, my whirling around the center, the Word, with unstilled words, always and forever missing the meaning of the Word, which does not speak to me directly, was enough. Confessing was all I could do. Wearing ashes on my forehead as an outward sign of the inward reality that I knew I am always and forever whirling.

The glory of these forty days we celebrate with thanks and praise,
For Christ, through whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

My words, words about Trump, about failing memory, about teaching, about hatred, about solitude, perhaps most importantly about fear are inadequate to stop the whirling. I cannot find the “centre of the silent Word” by my own speaking, writing, hearing.

rembrandt-the_return_of_the_prodigal_son

Rembrandt, “The Prodigal Son.” (St. Petersburg, The Hermitage.)

As a good Anglican, I used to believe that was not a depressing or nihilistic thought. But now? These days I can scarcely read through to the end of Eliot’s poem. I know too well that “the right time and the right place are not here.” With the church, however, I sense – perhaps my sense may some day again go as far as belief – that not “denying the voice” of the Word brings me one step closer to a “place of grace” where I can stop whirling.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(T.S. Eliot, 1930)

“No more let sin and sorrow grow . . .” In which I don’t post the most objectionable thing I’ve ever written

I wrote a little piece about how much I dislike the fighting over what to call Christmas. It was inspired by my reading a review of Sarah Palin’s so-called Christmas book which begins, apparently, with her story of buying her husband a gun for a present last Christmas right after the tragedy of Sandy Hook. She bought it as an act of “civil disobedience” because of the anti-gun talk coming from Washington at that time.

So Christmas is now the Feast of the Incarnation With Guns.

I’m not going to post the mean, cruel, and vituperative piece I wrote.

Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectRead my post about depression. I will not be depressed this Christmas any more than that undercurrent of depression I carry with me all the time.

But I do want to say this. Why is everyone in this country so determined to be mean to everyone else these days? Especially in the name of religion? or capitalism–which for too many people seem to be synonymous.

For God’s sake. If I can try to spread a little joy, why can’t the rest of you–the ones who don’t need Prozac and Lamictal? What the fuck is wrong with us, anyway? I was going to put a photo of Da Vinci’s “Madonna and Child” I took at the Hermitage this summer in St. Petersburg. I decided the Rembrandt “Return of the Prodigal Son” (which I also saw there) would be more appropriate. It shows both the profligate son and the self-righteous brother.

Merry Christmas.

No more let sin and sorrow grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of his love
And wonders of his love
And wonders and wonders of his love

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Rembrandt

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci - one of fourteen

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci – one of fourteen

Last Sunday I attended the exhibit “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks from the British Museum” at the Dallas Museum of Art. It is a comprehensive retrospective of the British Museum’s holdings of ancient Greek sculpture, with commentary about the development of the Greek artistic (and cultural) understanding of the human body. The exhibition is touring museums world-wide. Of course, all of the statues, all of the art, belong in Greece. That the British Museum “owns” these works is some kind of bizarre cultural and national hubris that I (just me, uninformed as I am) find difficult to justify.

A week ago I wandered away from our group which was making a mad dash through as much of The Hermitage, the Palace of Catherine the Great, in St. Petersburg, Russia, as we could manage in one afternoon (not much of it, let me say). I wandered into a large gallery of sculptures of human figures from ancient Greece. Two experiences of seeing somewhat overwhelming collections of statuary from ancient Greece in less than a week, both worlds away from Greece.

More statues than in Greece?

More statues than in Greece?

It may be (although I don’t know for sure) that in a week I saw more sculpture from ancient Greece than I could have had I been in Greece.

I wonder about the cultural integrity that allows that to be true. Surely neither the Russian Tsars nor the British Museum can (could) lay claim to “owning” that art. Why shouldn’t Cambodia come to New York and drag away the Statue of Liberty? Or Greece make off with the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London?

Of course, some benighted and totally discredited “communist” theorist would say these affronts to culture are the result of “imperialistic capitalism” or some such nonsense. I suppose “imperialism” accounts for the British carting off statues. I don’t know Greek history, but I do know that Britain had great influence (if not absolute control) over Greece during the 19th century and up to WWI, and that the German states also wielded power during that time (I don’t have time to do proper research). Catherine the Great of Russia was German, as was King George I of Greece, and they were both somehow related to Victoria of England. Boundaries of weaker European nations were pretty fluid, and there was no reason—is my guess—for the British not to have assumed that “your antiquities are my antiquities.” And Catherine the Great certainly had the money and power to buy up just about anything she wanted. Every country’s treasures were up for grabs by the countries with the strongest armies and monarchs and other venture capitalists with the most money.

I know, I know. I’m not a historian, and that may be all wrong, but it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (Not really. If anyone wants to bother to correct my theory, go ahead. I’ll post your correction.)

Should the Prodigal be returned?

Should the Prodigal be returned?

All of that is getting in the way of what I intended to write about.

The Hermitage is Catherine the Great’s private palace. At least the beginning of it was. She didn’t want to live a public life, so she built a small palace where she could hide away as a hermit. Of course it’s a lavish example of the most ornate styles of 18th-century architecture and decoration. And she (and her heirs) collected the greatest art of Europe. While I may be uneasy that these great works of art reside together in one place because it requires great wealth to “own” them, I have no un-ease at having the opportunity to get a tiny glimpse at a tiny percent of the works in The Hermitage.

Two of the fourteen extant paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci. “The Prodigal,” the intense and affective painting by Rembrandt, as well as his “Portrait of an Old Jew.” Two large paintings by Matisse.  To say nothing of the building (much expanded after Catherine’s day) itself. It’s overwhelming. I don’t have the words to explain the magnitude of the experience.

As a side bar, I point out that we have a parallel example of a collection of masterpieces gathered by a captain of capitalism, Alice Walton. Her Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Alice Walton’s collection is smaller than Catherine’s, but the idea, the impetus, I’d guess is the same. Should I never see the art in Arkansas because of my feelings about Walton’s billions? I don’t know. I’ve been to both museums, and I would go back in an instant (to the Hermitage in February when thousands of Japanese, American, and Uzbekistani tourist would not be braving the St. Petersburg winter to see it).

The fact is, I was at The Hermitage as part of a group of people of whom, by the time we were there, I had grown exceedingly fond. Being with them mitigated my discomfort. Perhaps the only way to see—to  feel oneself part of—our shared cultural history is in the company of those with whom one shares a personal history.
group RR

Cultural or personal history?