Frames

‘Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a WIND reef. The wind does that.’

‘So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?’

‘I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally KNOW one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart’

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book— a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me.

A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.

Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi (pp. 46-48).  Kindle Edition.Emphasis mine.

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Blessed Are the Meek

After last night’s annual bacchanalia, it was a pleasure to awaken groggily to Samuel Hammond’s delightful celebration of materialism, in which he channels The Preacher, known to many as Ecclesiastes, which tries to translate the Hebrew “Qohelet,” the one who calls the assembly.

It is the godless book of the Bible, disturbing in its nihilism, but it became one of the “little scrolls,” those books which are designated for use by the post-exilic Jews for public reading during their own bacchanals. This 2900 year old book was read aloud during the Feast of Booths, that gargantuan outdoor party celebrating the harvest. In short, while you are totally blitzed on new wine, engorging yourself on the fat of the land, and looking lustily upon one another, as commanded by Moses, The Preacher shouts over the landscape: “Meaningless!”

Consider Sam:

“Status competitions are our main, if not only, source of meaning in the universe.”

and

“So meditate if you have to, but don’t be afraid to day dream a little, too. It may fill you with anxiety, and it definitely won’t make you happy, but later in life you just might find yourself building a spaceship to Mars.”

And The Preacher:

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10 ESV)

Adam Gurri has been pestering me to write a defense of Christianity here in the hallowed halls of Sweet Talk, but I have thus far demurred, being unmotivated to do so in the midst of those who are so certain, but Sam’s stimulating post has evoked a little something irresistible.

If I may categorize (naturally, drawing distinctions simplifies, and the elements of this taxonomy will, in real life, overlap):

There are those who see the world as it is and celebrate it. Thus Samuel Hammond.

There are two classes of those who see the world as it is and mourn over it as broken.

Class One copes, meditating.

Class Two will not cope, continuing to mourn, in the hope for a restoration of what is broken. Christians define this class.

For Christians, the brokenness of the world is best mourned in the body of Christ, who stands crucified, in which Christians participate by means of the mystery of the sacraments.

This mystery is articulated by one Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted the Body of Christ with all his might until he had a vision of the Crucified One, and he writes about him whom he saw:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17 ESV)

It is important here to note a few boundaries. This is not a refutation of the science of evolution, but it is a declaration of pre-eminence, which is offensive. Note carefully that the Christian view of creation is cast not in terms of material manifestation, which Christ says is vapor, but in terms of dominion, rulers, authorities, i.e.,  that rascally elusive normativity.

More than that, since the universe is held together in, with, and under a human body, the material world is transformed into a world of relational interaction. To wit: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and equally (because God is a human in Jesus, and we are in him and he is in us), love your neighbor as yourself.

A rocket-size measuring contest is the epitome of pursuing meaninglessness. Meaningfulness is measured in interpersonal relationships, beginning with the male-female relationship, which perpetuates the species, and also embodies thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities, beginning at home, which is broken and should be mourned. Normativity dominates; it does not love, nor does it allow for distinction, only ruthless conformity, as evolution teaches: we adapt to strength, not weakness.

The relationship of a man to a woman is hopelessly weak.

 

Get Thee To a Nunnery

On the descent into madness

The contest for the greatest play in the English language comes down to one of two Shakespeare plays: Hamlet and Macbeth. Both of these plays delve deeply into the psyche of ordinary men and women who enter the realm of madness. The plays themselves and the characters therein resonate deeply, crossing boundaries temporal and cultural. In our contemporary culture, the descent into madness is the theme of two of the most popular record albums ever recorded, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The former used to rival Michael Jackson’s Thriller for worldwide sales, and is still the second most selling record of all time. I’m sure that as soon as either David Gilmore or Roger Waters dies (Rick Wright, RIP) many new fans will restore the rivalry at the top of the all-time charts

Shakespeare draws a picture for us: Hamlet, young Hamlet, possessed by the ghost of his father to avenge his death, has been veritably banished by his uncle to England, whereupon he will be murdered, as everybody knows. By some twist of fate and the adventuring spirit of young Hamlet, he escapes, making his way back to Elsinore. Upon his arrival at the outskirts, he stumbles across an open grave. Holding up the skull of Yorick, his father’s jester, and a favorite person from his childhood, he says, “I knew him.”

Linear perspective insists that all parallel lines converge upon the horizon. Well, here at the open grave, the horizon been brought dramatically forward, and Hamlet experiences the confrontation which is a response to his melodramatic soliloquy: what dreams may come after we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

Hamlet 1948 réal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier  Collection Christophel
Hamlet 1948: Laurence Olivier

Not for long, for the grave is not passive; it is active, yawning, galloping, devouring. In a brilliant interpretation of the subtlest kind, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, when he hears the approaching funeral procession, tosses the skull of Yorick back into the grave, just in time for old Yorick to receive the recently deceased and politically important Ophelia.

All the powers of the earth are here converging, with love, politics, royalty, vengeance, and that always-pressing anxiety intersecting over a grave. War is ever on the horizon, hemming everyone within easy reach of the same.

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun

But it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again

Banquo’s ghost won’t rest, either, charging up from the grave to confront, wordlessly, the ambitious Macbeth.

Here’s a curious aside: Richard Burton, an actor of some note, refused to play Macbeth because, as he says, he cannot be dominated by a woman in that way. The irony is captivating once you come to the understanding that he drove himself to drink over his treacherous divorce in order to win for himself the great prize, Elizabeth Taylor, who dominated him.

The descent into madness, and its appeal to popular and literary culture, is not limited to obsessive thoughts concerning the grave. “This is the end. There is an end to me. Life has no purpose, no meaning.” No, that’s maudlin stuff. Pap. Child’s play. The descent into madness is the lonely individual coping with the active, ongoing confrontation of the grave, that all our evil deeds and the evil deeds of many others manage to wriggle free from death’s strong bonds in an effort to possess us ahead of time.

Ordinary people have a fascination with the exploration of the descent of ordinary people into madness. A playwright or musician will set the scene in extraordinary circumstances, by my reckoning, to sell tickets on the entertainment value. The literary value, i.e., its meaningfulness to the paying ordinary public, is its deep-seated commonality, the themes which grasp a deep-seated anxiety, an anxiety which many people would declare possesses us all. Some of us, for various reasons, cope better with that anxiety than others.

The meaning of life, in other words, is a question of how to maintain meaningful behavior even while under possession of the grave.

Richard Burton’s Hamlet gestures toward Ophelia’s womb, saying, “Get thee to a nunnery.”

subhumans-from_the_cradle_to_the_grave

On Drinking Single Malt Scotch

College is a wonderful place to learn the medicinal value of fermented beverages and distilled spirits. To avoid debt, I took on a few jobs at a time, weaving them as the warp to my class schedule’s woof. One of those jobs involved some physical labor which would have made OSHA disintegrate in the heat of its own outrage, but the abuse was overlooked because we were teen-aged students needing the dollars; moreover, we enjoyed the adventure. One aspect of that job had us navigating the underground tunnels looking for leaks in the steam system. Pressurized steam is invisible, but a steam leak is usually audible. The thrill of the terror of possibly not hearing the leak was invigorating.

I went to a small religious school in Chicago, which is, I might suggest, a beer drinking town. I suppose that doesn’t make it terribly unique, but beer it was for our aching muscles and joints–also for the realization of the possibility of actual bodily harm, which youth, in its wisdom, suppresses until after the battle. The good people at the Miller Brewing Company had just introduced a fine concoction which they named “Miller Genuine Draft.” Pitchers of this golden elixir were available at an affordable price at a Madison Avenue bar which was not particular about enforcing the draconian and prohibitory drinking age laws, so we expressed our love for MGD, as it was known, by purchasing gallons of it at a time. On my twenty-first birthday, we celebrated by buying a pitcher of the more expensive Miller Brewing Company product, Leinenkugel’s Red.

Performance anxiety requires something a little stronger. My boss was a nice, rather muscular lady who enjoyed wearing coveralls and screaming unprintable epithets at us young men to ensure we were earning our pennies. At any rate, she was of Polish descent, and we were living in one of the Polish strongholds of Chicago, so I was introduced to cheap vodka, which was readily available, and I learned, through it, how to scream those same epithets with efficient effectiveness to mitigate anxiety. Continue reading “On Drinking Single Malt Scotch”