the stone's in the midst of all
On Wednesday I dropped by Jim McPherson's seminar, in hope that he would be able to provide some historical context to make sense of this. He played an audio tape made by a friend of his, who I don't think was actually a preacher but who had appropriated the rhythms and diction of African-American preachers in his writing. He recited a parable. It was long and involved and I can't reproduce it with great fidelity, but briefly: there was a man who wished to forgive his enemy but could not forgive, and he prayed to God for guidance. And God sent an angel to counsel the man, and the angel said, "When others speak ill of this man, make pains to speak well of him. And serve him in secret, in ways that he shall not know." But still the man could not forgive. And so the angel led the man to a certain place, and there God gave to the man to see the soul of his enemy; but the soul in all its inner glory, unfettered by the outward attributes of appearance that distinguish a man from his fellows. And God gave to the man to see the soul of his enemy further unclothed of those attributes of time and place that distinguish the part from the whole. And in the radiance of his enemy's naked soul, the man could not help but exclaim: "O Lord, how beautiful my brother is!"
This is also a truth that Blake and the Buddha knew. In hope.
Yesterday I gave a guest lecture on poetry to both of Marlowe's undergraduate classes. Taking a page from N/Gaw's book, I handed out photocopies of Yeats' "Easter, 1916" and spent the class period unpacking it, looking at how Yeats reacted to the slaughter of his colleagues and the horrible weight of expectation that history had placed upon him. I have never been able to read those lines:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
without getting chills, and during both class periods I choked up when we got to that stanza. I had been employing some theatrics to get the poem across, but at this point there was no artifice. The students must have realized this because they just stared at me, quiet and rapt, as I talked about Yeats's return to the universal image of mother and child, those irreducible and ineradicable human bonds that revolutions and wars and massacres will never overcome.
In recent days many of us at the Workshop have been commenting that fiction writing suddenly seems superfluous and pointless. I think, now, that it's more important than ever. In the end culture will transcend politics, because culture always returns to those human universals that will exist so long as the species existsand now more than ever, we need that reminder of what will endure. I am starting to write again, and I will continue to write my Arizona stories that have nothing to do with the recent massacre or the coming war. I hope my friends and classmates are doing the same. I hope we understand that we are needed. The New York Times yesterday ran a long and eloquent piece about art as a conduit for grief.
And links: Robert D. Kaplan, a highly insightful writer and sociopolitical prophet of sorts, spent time with the mujahedin in Afghanistan and wrote a book called Soldiers of God. I haven't read it, but I expect it may be coming back into print now.
From Nick: upcoming movies with terrorism or New York storylines are being revised or postponed indefinitely.
Yasser Arafat, in a gesture I find incredibly moving, has donated blood to the United States.
This is the worst thing to happen in our lifetimes. But every generation has had its tragedy. Life continues.