Friday, December 28, 2012

Tense and Christmas

"I will say to God, 'Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me.'" -- Job 10:2
"Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet are unstable." -- Job 12:5
On Christmas day, or boxing day, if you read this then, we are in peculiar straits, at least insofar as the usual Christian message goes. The Dean of the National Cathedral sent out his Christmas remarks this morning, and he said that Christmas reminds us that "peace will overcome strife."

Despite Afghan police shooting their allies, felons shooting EMS workers, young men shooting children, movie goers, politicians, and each other, what he said is true -- as is the papal call for peace and the angelic host's call for joy -- but is is a multivocal truth that it inhabits. There is an obvious truth, such as was seen in World War I's Christmas Truce, but there is another truth that is hermeneutic and only read through tears.

Let us recall what many would have us forget: the passion and incarnation are linked, just as the teaching is, and the freedom Christians lay a claim upon is at a savage cost. The ministry of Jesus isolated from the incarnation and passion is ethics, as the passion without the ministry is narcissism or masochism. The incarnation without the baffling message and bitter humiliation is tinsel.

Last Sunday night, Turner Classic Movies aired "The Passion of Joan of Arc." Like Mel Gibson's agit-prop movie, this film delivers exactly what the title promises: Joan in extremis. We watch the mocking and martyrdom of a girl, and Melle Falconetti's performance is so graphically real that it is hard both not to deplore the director for sacrificing so much for art and oneself for the implication of enjoying, on some level, the performance. However, the movie put forward again the Christian mystery of suffering, which makes it an odd choice for December 23.

If you will abide me, I will try to discuss suffering to the degree that any of us might, and explain how it can be that we can believe that peace, like the wings of a brooding God, can prevail.

2012 has not ended the political states of the world, although it has seen more theocratic states rise than there were, and it has not seen the sky rent in twain, although we have all felt some death this year. The greatest watchword for the year may be "divided," and that does not pertain merely to political parties. Poverty is interspersed with wealth, and slow disease hides amid happy populations. As the year ends in a wail of sirens that drowns out the carolers, there are not generalities but confusion.

Newtown is probably the most emotionally revolting moment since 9/11/01. It has driven observers to the customary human reactions: a desire to know why, a desire to isolate it, a desire to ensure that the "world" present in one's horizon has certainty. With 9/11, we got "al Qaeda and Iraq did this" leading to "the muslims hate us because freedom" and then "revenge, wanted dead or alive." Those three steps gave a contour to experience that kept it from the realm of suffering -- at least the way that I'm using the term.

Narratives make sense of untamed experience. When we can fit explosions into "attack; agents of evil; reason for evil is evil without rehabilitation," then we have them in magnified version of a playground shoving match. We understand it. We can have pain from it, and we are prepared to accept more pain in the process of finishing the narrative ("hit them back"). Suffering is Job's country.

In the eighteenth century, two approaches to theodicy relied on Job. Leibniz's Theodicy of 1710 "turns directly to Job as a type of the man who makes a partial complaint about unjustified evil," and Leibniz "distinguishes between local malice -- the brigands who make off with his goods -- and the divine purposes served by the loss" (Jonathan Lamb Rhetoric of Suffering 64). On the other hand, Immanuel Kant wrote "On the Failure of all the Philosophical Essays in the Theodicee" in 1796 and argued, very much like a Romantic, that Leibniz's justification of evil in the plenitude of creation is not a consolation for suffering at all, but only a sentence. For Kant, what made Job acceptable to God is that Job never wavered in proclaiming himself innocent. Job's singleness of character and intensity of feeling of pain kept him from ever giving in to the temptations of the Accuser and ultimately granted him the direct encounter with God in the theophany (Lamb 66-7).

If I lost you in the Latinate terms, let me try it again. Leibniz said that God's plans are too big for us to judge, and what we have done to us may be "bad" and yet "good" within a larger scope of time or place or person. In the simplest scenario, imagine a batter in a baseball game. When he strikes out, he may wonder why his prayer's weren't answered, but the pitcher who gets a strikeout may praise God for hearing him. Good, Leibniz argued, is ultimately up to God. Kant said that that is no comfort for man and no guide, either. On the other hand, he felt that Job's purity of soul and determination were such that he was rewarded with God's declaration of mystery, but the answer to why evil exists is not given. Soren Kierkegaard, who saw Kant as usually sterile, said, "Job’s significance consists not in his having said it ('The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord') but in his having acted upon it."

It may not surprise you to know that I agree with Kierkegaard "Only the person who has been tried and who tested the saying in being tested himself, only he rightly interprets the saying; Job desires only that kind of pupil." From the earliest moments of the Jewish tradition and the Christian faith, suffering has been present. It is not mandatory, but it is there, always.

(The great) Charlie Pierce had the most graceful little essay I have seen in a long time last Friday. His "out on the weekend" for last weekend contrasted the original and altered lyrics of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The altered lyric puts "We'll hang a shining star upon the highest bough" in place of "Until then, we'll have to muddle on somehow." The original lyric, he argued, is the true spirit of optimism, that we are all muddlers -- believing that we will go on, that we will make headway. (Additionally, the song has an aura of loss and poverty about it, as the singer is having a little Christmas rather than an "li'l ole" Christmas.) As he put it, the people who demand smiles are the betrayers, for
"They want us to stop and stare at the artificial gleam of their private stars high up on the boughs they have designed forever to be out of our reach."

Whether it is a divorce or the cold hand gripping your heart when you get news of a disease, whether it is an eternal fight to gain a basic right or a particularly arbitrary visitation of violence, suffering exposes us to its tempering heat.

Suffering does not, so far as I can tell, "build character." It may impart wisdom, but, by itself, it does not do anything. It does not arise out of a message nor resolve into a lesson. It is not for something. It cannot be weighed or measured, denied or affirmed.

Job is not informed that his suffering has been for someone or something. Only by living and maintaining his integrity (Job 27:5), by becoming a new man, does the suffering lead to an epiphany. Job can bless the name of the Lord when he has a different understanding. Similarly, Joan of Arc testified that God might well allow her to be imprisoned and killed, because His ways are not our ways. She had to admit that God's horizon is not ours. Both of them have gotten "wisdom," in that suffering is leading them to stand in a new place and have thus a new parallax on life.

I suspect that a person who suffers passively emerges with scar tissue and little more. A person who denies suffering to turn it toward injury will well up with rage and spread the contagion of suffering -- sending missiles into the ground a continent away to do to hundreds of places what was done here and to inflict on scores of places the same horror of empty places and unknown losses as we went through at 9/11. A person who commands suffering to mean, too, announces ahead of time that it cannot teach, for he has already laid out the options for the suffering to fit into.

We come to tense, to verbs, and this is where we are bound by dark magic.  The preterite has us at "am" and "is." Ours is experiencing, not life. We have memory and history, and remembering makes up most of the mountain and tide of intellect, but we only see a segment of a line.

You are the car in "Tron," or a water bug skittering across the surface of the water, or a snail going over the smooth cement. No matter what metaphor you use, you are a line segment.
The burning tip of the segment is the present, and it is larger than the rest.

The other end of the line segment is "living memory," and it is both small and diffuse.

From your vantage point in the onion bulb of the present, you and I form lessons and hypotheses. This is what we are afforded and commanded by the to-be verb. However, a clear beginning-to-end set of experiences is always beyond our reckoning. I cannot say, "Ask her out, because all she can do is say 'no,' and 'no' is no worse than what you get for not asking," but I have only my context, my rays of experience.

Suffering is otherwise, else ways. Suffering, distinguished from injury, appears with paradox or enigma around it, and it comes always with powerlessness. It suspends time's regulation and the preterite's control, because it defies cause and effect. Hurricanes have causes in warm oceans, but the hurricane that sends a storm surge up your river and over your house, while your neighbor is dry might as well be random. The building that falls, or the overpass that fails, or the violence of the mad, all render cause and test time because, more importantly than how fearfully "random" they are is the fact that they never end.

I have already written about how 9/11 wasn't a day for those of us who were in Manhattan. It was more than a month of fire and smoke, and longer than that of the dead. The BP beaches are not done, and they will never be done, burning through the soil, water, and people of the Gulf. The childless parents will suffer on a scale that has no contact with pace or time.

When we know, truly, that God considers death no punishment, that it is a thing neither good nor bad, but merely the way of all things, then suffering is a way of moving us to see beyond time, beyond the segment we occupy. There is no acceptance. There is, instead, an ability to weep, drink gall, and yet praise the name of the Lord. In a joyous birth may be a martyrdom, and in the darkest death may be redemption. The values of things do not come from our perspectives as a group, even less alone, but only from that which is past time and emanating all life.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dropping the Button

"Now that highway's coming through,
So we all got to move.
This bottom rung ain't no fun at all." -- John Doe, X, "See How We Are"

In 2003, I made the same salary that I make now, until I was laid off. However, I did far better, because I was not in a "right to work" state that was eager to cooperate with any bill collector, no matter how shady, and garnish, pre-tax. That job lasted only three months, more or less, because the year before the head of the schools had written over one hundred million dollars in bad checks. The school system therefore laid off everyone who had been hired that year. However, I had money left over enough, after paying rent and power and the like, to keep paying rent and groceries and telephone for another six months. Today, a paycheck does not last a month.

We have insane inflation. If it's measured by indicators, then our inflation rate is flat or terrifically low, but it is about like the incessant hammering of a man's gaze on a woman's body. It looks for any slip, any weakness, to see the forbidden and then glories on "win." Ritz Crackers now come in half roll sizes for the same price. . . because you might buy them. Your "big" candy bar got smaller and flatter to get wider. The result of shopping anywhere but Mal*Wart is that irrationally selected items of grocery will be $1-$2 above that evil empire of land destruction.

Once, I went to a school that charged $7,000 a year for tuition, and that was the highest outside of the professionally expensive schools (Ivy League, Bard, Sister Cecilia's Special), and the retiring head of Coca-Cola gave the university $110,000,000.00. The school responded by raising tuition, and one VP was honest enough to say they were doing it because Vanderbilt and Duke were raising theirs, and, if we didn't raise ours, people would think we weren't as good.

Businesses seem to be run by the dicta that they have a duty to maximum profits. This is not true even in neo-classical economics. As Henry Ford said, their goal should be the highest quality possible for the lowest cost possible while paying the highest wages possible. Once you believe that your job is "maximize profits," then the job gets easier, and you believe perforce in every other organism as a resource to be mined.

The majestic pile

I was in church this morning, and the offeratory came around. I thought about how I had no cash to put in the plate, and how I was uncertain that I would have money even in two weeks to send off to help pay for the house I'm living in -- much less cover expenses.

I thought that I might put a pain pill in the plate.

(Prescription drugs do not go into the inflation index, I bet. Then again, they don't increase in cost. They all cost exactly the same thing, which is a metered price-per-dose, and that price depends on how far you can be pushed before you would rather die or suffer. These days, $2.00 and $3.00 seem to be popular dose prices.)

"Do you remember that fell evening,
When you heard the banshees howl?
Those lazy drunken bastards
Were singing 'Pity in the Vale.'
They took you up to midnight mass
And left you in the lurch,
So you dropped a button in the plate
And spewed up in the church." -- Shane McGowan of The Pogues, "The Sickbed of Cuchuliann"
Pogue mahoney and all that, but this is not a matter of shame or tradition. This is a matter of relief. Life is beautiful, when once want is gone, which is why want never seems to leave.

"What a jovial and merry world would this be, may it please your worships, but for that inextricable labyrinth of debts, cares, woes, want, grief, discontent, melancholy, large jointures, impositions, and lies!" -- Corporal Trim to Uncle Toby, Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Critically, functioning in any given context depends upon having the prerequisites. Even the widow's groat is not a prerequisite of church, but it is of being a church member. One always feels insufficient if one is insufficiently integrated. Going to the town commission meeting is free-ish, but one knows that voices carry best when carried by money. Old cars are charming, and then they are not.

When we wonder why the poor do not voice their opinions more or participate more in local politics, we show our own obliviousness. The inverted world we occupy, where a pocket sized computer that plays only games, the DS III or whatever it may be now, is easy to get, but where shelter is dear and food is a war between corporations that own all brands and want to test each buyer's attention to the limit, makes it quite, quite clear that only the wealthy have three dimensions to their social and political selves. The rest of us are fractions and shadows -- sources of revenue or labor or data alone.

I do not want to be a resource, human or otherwise, for the continuation of the lopsided wave that is American capitalism.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fly Larvae!

"He showed concernment for his soul. Some things
In his experience were hopeful. He
Would sit and watch the wind knocking a tree
And praise this countryside our Lord has made.
. . . though a thirst
For loving shook him like a snake, he durst
Not entertain much hope of his estate
In heaven. Once we saw him sitting late
Behind his attic window by a light
That guttered on his Bible; through that night
He meditated terror, and he seemed
Beyond advice or reason. . .
. . . In the latter part of May
He cut his throat. And though the coroner
Judged him delirious, soon a noisome stir
Palsied our village. At Jehovah's nod
Satan seemed more let loose amongst us." -- Robert Lowell, "After the Surprising Conversions" 1946
Robert Lowell is one of those poets with very few friends and very many enemies, and that's at least partly due to the fact that there are several editions of Robert Lowell. There is Robert Lowell the agrarian (above) of New England, Robert Lowell the diffident yankee, Robert Lowell the insane person, Robert Lowell the confessional, and Robert Lowell the noisome political actor. That's a lot for one poor madman to bear. It's even more for one bundle of poetic skill to have to voice. Me? I pick and choose. I kind of like his snarky poems about other poets, despite the poet, and I somewhat like the pretending stridency of the early stuff.

What I really like, though, is the madness that has an unchanging essence. It is a very American form that did not quite mature with our century.
I quoted a long stretch above because of it is a subtle butterfly net. It purports to be a poem written by one of Jonathan Edwards's deacons reporting after a visit from the great man. This deacon reports the score board: the saved soul of the dissipate or indifferent. However, it then goes on, like a physician discussing a disease of the soul, and notes how the patient was lost to hereditary and environmental conditions. It ends by noting that the entire village begins to have a rash of suicides, and the bass gorges itself on the spawn of the stream.

First, this is A-OK with me, because the evangelical movement continues along the path described here. A successful meeting results in X souls saved. I have seen a weekly service at a school populated by Christian students have an alter call as a regular feature. Further, the ministers exclaim at each meeting that the top priority for the students is to save their classmates by introducing them to the Gospel. Later, the speakers are ranked on how many were saved.

(I used to be upset that these folks assumed that anyone in the U.S. had not heard the Gospel. However, my students, who attend church every week, do not recognize Gospel quotations -- even ones I consider most famous, like "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last," or "Judge not, lest ye be judged," or "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Now, my complaint is that the ones who are supposed to "introduce" the others to the Gospel are unlikely to have read one of them still.)

However, the poem is only consciously about the underlying problems of evangelical preaching. By speaking of this figure powerless to stop his village from killing itself, completely unequipped to deal with his crisis, Lowell gets at despair itself and the call to repentance. When we convince people that they are sinners in the hands of an angry God, it gets pretty hard to convince them that forgiveness is available. Some people will never believe in their own guilt, but more will never believe in their forgiveness.

Each pleasure or admiration will call to mind some way of falling short. It took the exceptionally radical (and I think toxic) view of perseverance of the saints to get evangelical preaching past this point. Today's evangelicals preach a once-saved-evermore-saved to get people past even being bothered by their sinning, but this introduces its own poisons.

So it is, also, that the modern -- triumphant over disease, glorified by radio, triumphant over the atom and the atmosphere -- had a horror betraying each marvel. Every chemist could be a murderer, and every physicist a world killer. The Janus mask of the 20th century never came off, and being responsible was too much for anyone but the most glib, oblivious, or maniacal.

Finally, though, Lowell's own guilt is captured. The depressive will fall back to William Cowper's malady of feeling damned and need distraction or encouragement, but all of the latter will fail, as it does not penetrate the internal certainty -- the "Satan let loose." Lowell, who had his insanity possibly as an incubus, had his guilt, too.

The flies that fall to the water's edge are food to the trout.