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I’m having one of those inward days, a combination of reading Viktor Frankl’s recollections of his time in Nazi concentration camps, and listening to Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet while driving to pick up my granddaughter at high school.

Music can conjure up whole worlds and philosophies: Thought doesn’t necessarily come in words. 

It isn’t the words or the title to the lied that Schubert wrote based on the poem by Matthias Claudius, but the music itself, opening with a unison fortissimo D in all four instruments, a triplet figure C-B-flat-A, over a constant D bass, resolving to an open fifth, with D still in the bass and a G in the viola and second violin. It is loud, it is oppressive, it is hollow, with no third to define whether it is in minor or major. It is the sound of an empty universe. One of the most powerful openings to any quartet ever, and one that can rip your heart out (Link here). 

There are two other powerful pieces of music that use the open chord, with no third to define it. Both produce that sense of universal hollowness: The Tragic Overture of Brahms and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie. They press down on your emotions. And so the “Death and the Maiden.”

That, and the Frankl book and the specter of Auschwitz, turn on the Weltschmerz current, full voltage. One becomes intolerably aware of suffering, heartbreak, death, war, famine, loss, hatred, divorce, the death of children, fear, dread, oppression, disease, injustice, crime, humiliation — and one’s own finity.

And with my teenage granddaughter in the car, we talk of cheerier things, but there hangs over the conversation that Lebensleid. I remember when I was her age, and the pangs of emotion that exploded in my adolescent heart. My emotions seemed so big, so important. Nothing could be more overwhelming than the pains of a teenager. But when I look back, I realize how self-involved that suffering was. I wore all of myself on my sleeve.

But an entire life has passed, and the mortifications have accrued, the losses have piled high, the debilities have increased, and the world has gotten no better. I watched a film made in Hiroshima a few days after the surrender, and could hardly miss the similarity of the devastation to the nightly footage from Syria or Yemen. Rubble flat on the ground from horizon to horizon. And when you know what old books tell and that no better can be had, know why an old man should sob and weep.

The Weltschmerz of a young Werther rings false, a player playing a part, assuming a self-importance not earned. But as an old man, the suffering isn’t mine, it is the world’s; I see it and my heart cracks wide. So much lost, so much vanished, so many deaths, so many things left unsaid or undone for fears, valid and phantasmal. It weighs heavy.

This comes with having lived. It is simply experience. It piles beside a life like the gray, sooty snow plowed off a winter road. And the worst — the absolutely worst — is that there is no way to convey this sense to another person, let alone to a young person you might wish, out of love, to help avoid those thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. You can tell them as best you can, and they can nod their heads, believing they have understood, but unless they have actually lived through these things, they  cannot fully grasp them. It is all “book learning.”

I will carry to my grave — as will everyone else on this planet in their own time — all the experience I have lived through and suffered or enjoyed. It cannot be conveyed from one sensibility to another. Bits and pieces, yes, but the vast preponderance will evaporate, only to learned the hard way once again by generation after generation.

So, the granddaughters will experience heartbreak, perhaps divorce, illness, disruption, disappointment and the death of those they love as they have already suffered that of their grandmother. It will all build up the backpressure of Schmerz in their own lives, leaving them to sorrow over their own inability to use that experience to protect those they love.

It is no wonder the innocent young look at us with such pity. 

van gogh

I am sitting in my car in the parking garage of the local mall, waiting to chauffeur my granddaughter home after a shift at the food court. It’s one of the perks of being a grandfather; we get to talk on the ride. But I have been  misinformed and I’m an hour early. No problem, I sit back in the shade of the parking garage and pop in a CD of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, the heartbreaking beauty of which always leaves me weeping.

Outside, in the sun, the breeze blows the branches and leaves of a tree in eccentric and seemingly random arcs. A whole tree doesn’t blow this way or that, but becomes a symphony of animated parts, very like a dancer. Behind the tree, in the distant sky, brilliant white thunderheads rise against the blue; they are the source of the fresh breeze that moves my tree.

It is a moment of epiphany — a pulling back of the veil. It is one of those instant recognitions of intense beauty, the kind that makes your insides swell and overflow through your eyes. It is the thing about such moments that dozens of shoppers coming out of the mall and finding their cars can see the same thing and not be overwhelmed because seeing the beauty requires being ripe for its discovery. It is available there for anyone to see, but most of the audience — like me most of the time — are preoccupied and so the moment escapes and they are robbed of one of those times that transfigures the mere act of living and gives one a reason to be grateful.milky way 1

At such times, it is occasionally possible to be misled into believing that the world is truly a beautiful place and that we just don’t take the time to notice. The beauty is overwhelming in its persuasion. I’m not talking here about pretty scenery or colorful flowers, but about a metaphysical insight into the animating spirit of the cosmos. It is the sense one gets if you find yourself in an unpopulated region of the planet and can see at night the bright gash across the sky that we call the Milky Way. You sense something bigger, transcendent, sublime. It is both profoundly beautiful and also more than a bit scary.

One has a memory trove of such moments — and they almost all come in brief flashes; I’m not sure how we could stand it for any length of time. I felt it one dawn at the beach in South Carolina, staring east at the twilight getting brighter. At the moment the sun popped the horizon, when its movement against the stationary line dividing ocean and sky becomes apparent, like a second hand instead of a minute hand on a clock, I got dizzy, almost lost my balance on the sand, because instead of seeing the sun rise above the horizon, I felt as if I were at the top of a planetary ferris wheel, jerked forward toward the sun; I was moving, not the sun. The light played on the waves, dividing the lit from the shadowed water in a shifting network of obsidian black and glowing copper. The effect lasted only a few seconds before the quotidian world reasserted itself into a familiar sunrise, but the memory of that instant is burned into my mind with a fury and insistence that informs now every sunrise, even when I no longer lose my balance.

Arch Cape

Many years ago, I went to the Pacific Ocean with a woman I was crazy about. We rented a cottage on the Oregon coast and after a night of playing geography on her body and memorizing it (so that I knew every swell and bulge, every mole and wrinkle on it), when the morning came, we stayed in bed until our consciences ached. We smelled of each other and reveled in it, our muscles were sore. When Robin finally got up, she said, “I’m going to make breakfast this morning.” I stayed in bed with my head propped up on a pillow and I watched her silently going about her business. The world had stopped turning; the fury of machinery, trucking, commerce and struggle had ceased. Robin opened the curtains and the light poured in, but she was herself lit solely from within.saskia

She was more than just Robin at that time — she was transfigured in the light and seemed almost to glow. It was just a beam of sunlight that struck through the window, but the light seemed to come instead from some internal tungsten filament. She became all women. She was Ruth and Naomi, Eve and Rembrandt’s Saskia. She was not performing some minor task, but had hooked into the flow of the world and was living, glowing myth. Pure Archetype.

In a white blouse and black pleated trousers, she began fixing breakfast in a slow, methodical fashion and everything she did was the mimicking of thousands of years of daily living. She slowly cut off a piece of butter and placed it in the sizzling pan; she sliced the onion and cheese and with her arms holding the bowl on her hip close to her belly, she beat the eggs and prepared to dump them in the pan. The light was uncanny and I nearly cried for the beauty of that morning, the quiet intensity of her motions. All I know is that for 15 minutes Robin ceased being Robin and became everyone who ever prepared breakfast.

That moment couldn’t last, and neither could that relationship. Things beyond my ken were involved. They usually are.

P02969 001In the late 1960s I went camping at Cape Hatteras with my college buddy, Alexander. It was March, before the tourist season and the beach was empty and the wind was cold and brisk. One night we went out toward the cape point. The only light we had was our Coleman lantern and near the point the surf sounded from both sides. The air was thick with moisture and the lamp cast our shadows up into the sky where our heads touched the constellations. Our forms cast out on the cosmos and looked rather like the Colossus of Goya’s late “Black Paintings.” And I recalled the phrase from the Magnificat — “quia fecit mihi magna,” — and I felt magnified.

There are many instances of such epiphanies, although each will be personal to us, unshared in particulars, but common in outline. I have the climb up Mount Angeles in the Olympic Mountains of Washington to the lake with a pure John Martin waterfall on the opposite shore. There is the moment that slammed me in Port Jervis, at the joint of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when I saw a vacant lot by the railroad roundhouse that was blasted with fall wildflowers — ironweed, asters, yarrow, goldenrod, queen-anne’s lace, joe pye weed, mullein, cow itch — it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and even now I prefer weeds to domesticated gardens.

Buchenwald

Buchenwald

But I said such epiphanies can mislead us. For the religious or the sentimental, such moments speak of a beautiful cosmos. But these epiphanies can carry the opposite. When I was still a boy — probably five or six years old and it was just a few years after World War II — films from the liberated concentration camps were shown on television. I don’t know whether they were George Stevens’ films from Dachau or Army films from Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen. But these films burned into even my childhood imagination, those spectres, those skeletons, those harrowed, sunken cheeks, those piles of skeletons wrapped in sacks of their own withered leathery skin. Soldiers picked up the stiffened bony puppets and tossed them into the backs of trucks. This too is ephiphany, the drawing back of the veil.

Aleppo, 2016

Aleppo, 2016

I see something of the same in the eyes of Syrian refugees, I see revenants of postwar Berlin in the bombed out walls of Aleppo. There is beauty in the world, but there is also horror. Ugliness to balance that transcendence, evil to mock the elation.

One thinks of all the genocides, mass murders, atrocities and pogroms of history, the cities razed to the ground with all their populace put to the sword, of all the gulags, all the dead Cathars, Tutsis and Hutus, all those drowned in the cataclysms of swollen rivers, ravaging earthquakes, the decimation of populations through plague, the millions lost to bizarre insect-born diseases. As soon as you find yourself Panglossing over the glory of a sunrise, you catch yourself short remembering Cain and Abel and the real meaning of the brotherhood of man.

One could make a list of those moments of disillusionment and disaffection. Such a list is a weight around the neck of any afflating joy. One recognizes the moment when you realize someone you have loved no longer loves back, when one is betrayed at work or by a friend, when you see the ravages of illness in those you care most deeply for. The world is not an easy place to love. Suffering is universal; even the rich lose their loved ones.

The truth is that we seldom live in the joy or the pain, but rather spend our days in utter banality. Banality is our salvation: If we lived in the joy we would go mad; if we lived in the pain, we would also go mad. So, we don’t see the dancing tree and we ignore the drowning refugees so that we can get on with our lives. It can hardly be otherwise. The world would come to a halt if we all lived in the beauty, if we all bore the suffering.

grunewald

pieta 1Yet, we cannot ignore our epiphanies, either. They sneak up on us, and for a brisk instant we glimpse eternity and its glorious, horrible uncaring. We recognize our place in this swirling inhuman chaos, both ecstatic and virulent. We ask our artists to memorialize both. They can take the two and bind them together, such as the exquisite beauty of Grunewald’s painting of the torture and gruesome death of a man on the rack of a crucifixion, or the sorrow of a mother grieving over the death of her son.

Certainly not all art addresses this special issue, but a surprising amount of our art, whether painting, sculpture, music or poetry, attempts to remind us of the forgotten intensity of existence, whether on the side of ecstasy or on the side of suffering. Even so simple as a watercolor of a vase of flowers hints at this.

If it is banality that saves us from madness, it is art that saves us from banality.

burned at the stake

“What’s wrong with belief?” she asked. ”I have been a Christian for many years, and my faith has given me great comfort.” 

That’s fine, I told her. I have no problem with that. I, myself, am a lapsed atheist: same non-belief, but no interest in the rituals of atheism. I don’t care to proselytize. 

She took exception, she said, to something I had written about political art. I had said that bad political art came as much from the Christian right as from the Marxist left. 

She got me to admit that I had been using hasty polemicist’s shorthand when indicting the Christian right. And she’s correct. For one thing, I’m hard pressed to name any art at all currently made by the religious right. They don’t make art, they criticize it. It is the conservative’s impotence that he can only react, never create. 

For another thing, the Christian right seems to me less a religious than a political faction. The items on its agenda are not notably Christian — at least not from the Christ who advocated poverty and humility — but rather free-market and male-dominated conservatism wearing the imprimatur of authority — a kind of soup made up of half-baked doctrine floating in a broth of testosterone. 

So, it wasn’t Christianity at all that I was indicting, and I should have left the term out of the story. I have no quarrel with Christians. 

Yet, there is something about a certain persuasion of Christian that worries me. And that thing that worries me is the same thing that worries many of us about the Muslim fundamentalism that bombs airplanes or the Hindu fundamentalism that killed Mohandas Gandhi. 

Because it isn’t really Christians who scare me, it is believers. 

I have always made a distinction between faith and belief. Faith is a comfort, and it is a willingness to let pass from one’s heart the angst, rancor and jealousy and recognize that there is something greater in the universe. And further, you are willing to give up control to something greater. 

In some ways, this is only common sense. 

The power you think you have is only illusory in the first place. You cannot control whether you will die, for instance, or whether you will go bald. That is the kind of power you must be willing to give over to the universe that gave you birth. It doesn’t much matter if you name that power Jehovah, Allah or the Void. On this point, the atheist and the Christian can come together. 

Belief, on the other hand, requires an agenda, a dogma, a list of specific things you must accept as ultimately true. Faith is generalized, belief is specific. 

And it is those specifics that have caused all the trouble. 

For human beings are willing to believe the most astonishing things. And what is worse, they are willing to act on them and impose them on their neighbor. It matters not whether you are Savonarola or Madalyn Murray O’Hair. 

Belief is the very devil. It is not a willingness to recognize one’s ultimate powerlessness in a universe that is an overwhelming mystery; it is rather the arrogant assertion that there is only one right way and what is more, you know that right way and everyone else had better start wearing your uniform and marching in step. 

What I should have written, if I had had the time and space, is that the root of evil is certainty. If there is a Satan, he is certainty. 

Certainty gave us Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.

The wheel of the inquisition

It gave us Hitler, gave us Pol Pot. Certainty justified slavery and permitted white Americans to believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. 

Certainty destroyed the temples of Tibet and the churches of Moscow. 

We live in a world beset with certainty. It killed Serbs and Croats, Turks and Greeks, Tamil and Hindu. It kills abortion clinic doctors and it kills Oklahoma City government workers and Boston marathoners. 

When people die because someone believes an income tax is unconstitutional, you know something is desperately wrong somewhere. 

The bottom line is: There is a world of difference between being willing to die for your beliefs and being willing to kill for them. 

I am reminded of a chapter in a book by the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote in his Ascent of Man about the difference between knowledge and certainty. 

jacob bronowski-bbc

After a clear-minded explanation of the uncertainty principle of physicist Werner Heisenberg, Bronowski brings the reader to Auschwitz and shows us a lake bottom — muddy with the ashes of those killed there. 

Heisenberg formulated a theory that explained why if you can measure how fast an electron is traveling, you cannot measure where it is, and if you measure its location, you can no longer measure its speed. It is an expression of the ultimate ambiguity of knowledge. In science, all conclusions are provisional. 

Bronowski extrapolates that it is not just electrons for which that is true, but for all knowledge. Uncertainty breeds humility. Certainty breeds arrogance. 

We shouldn’t need Heisenberg to tell us that all knowledge is uncertain. 

uncertainty formula

”Look for yourself,” he writes. ”This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

George Gordon, Lord Byron

George Gordon, Lord Byron

Forgiveness may be the most important human quality of all.

But, I don’t mean forgiveness in the Christian sense. That has always seemed to me to be forgiveness as a kind of condescension, that it posits a forgiveness from a point of moral superiority: I am better than you; therefore, I forgive you.

The forgiveness I am talking about has its origins somewhere different. Perhaps it is in a kind of Buddhist point of view, that all life is suffering.

We all suffer. It is the foundation of life. Even when we live privileged Western lives of economic comfort, filled with closets of clothes, TVs and WiFi computer hookups, we all face the pain of losing someone we love, heartache in love, betrayals at work. Whether it is the death of a pet at an early age, or the death of a child, we all, as human beings, face emotional pain.

It is universally human.

But what else is universally human is that we cause suffering. We are on both the receiving and the giving end of suffering. We may not have wished to cause pain, but we have. We have caused the heartache of others, just as others have caused the heartache we have suffered.

This is also universal.

So, when we face the evils that others have caused us, we should approach that problem with humility: We forgive not because we are better, but because we aren’t.

It is only fair to recognize that the evils done to us are simply the result of our being human.

That doesn’t mean we have to put up with the sufferings: We can forgive the husband who beats us, but we also separate ourselves from the cause of suffering. Forgiveness does not mean being an idiot. It just means that the wife beater does what he does from the pain and ignorance of his own humanity. Something has caused him to be this way; we probably don’t know what, but we can be sure it is something.

We forgive, but we make sure we never put ourselves — and especially our children — in a position to be beaten again.

The mirror of this is the ability to forgive ourselves. We can recognize the evils we have caused, the pain we have meted out and we can forgive ourselves, because we also know we are not immune from being human.

That doesn’t mean we excuse our vileness; it means we rectify it to the best of our ability. We try always to be a better human being. But we cannot spend our lives in reliving the hurt we have caused.

We are no better than the wife beater; we have caused suffering in this world, too, and the worst thing is, it cannot be avoided.

There is a trap, however, in recognizing our own culpability.

The worst thing you can do when recognizing the pain that you have caused in the world, is to wallow in it, like Lord Byron, wearing the mark of Cain and reveling in your own sense of your own evilness. This is a sentimentality.

The Byronic mode is essentially a way of claiming to be special in the world: It is a magnification of your internal mythology, that idealized sense of yourself.

We all live two lives. That is we have at least two different selves.

The first is the public self, the self that lives among the now 7 billion others on the planet and interacts with them. That self is objectively infinitesimal in the scheme of things, but strives to live and work in that small section of humanity where you have daily interaction.

The second self is internal. It is the self that is the protagonist in the novel of your own life. You are writing this novel every day, and some chapters are more dramatic than others, but you find yourself mythologizing your self as the hero, or anti-hero. This self has an importance all out of proportion to its numerical importance in the world.

When this internal self takes on the Byronic mantle, it is asserting its uniqueness, and its importance in the world, that others should take note, also, of just how evil one is, just how powerful one is, and how much pain and suffering one has caused.

The Byronic self needs to acquaint itself with the public self: The other 7 billion people have hardly noticed you; your evilness is really just your common humanity, attached to a self-regarding sense of guilt.

One has to learn to forgive oneself, because not to do so is to brag.

We are not better than anyone else, we are not worse: We are human and to be human is to cause and suffer pain, and the only sanity to be had is to forgive others, forgive ourselves, and move on.