Moon Swoon June

In October, I wrote this:

The belief that there is a connection between things that happen on Earth and things that happen at around the same time in the night sky is such a seductive one that it has transcended human eras, societies, religions, and politics. Dictators and democrats alike have believed in auspicious and inauspicious times to begin initiatives or end policies. (Or lives.)
 
It is understandable that we humans would think of ourselves so non-humbly, that we would see ourselves not only as the conclusion to nature’s long, almost-eternal, statement, one that seems to have led to us, but that we would view ourselves as not merely a conclusion to nature’s statement, a period mark, but as THE conclusion, an exclamation point. To paraphrase a TV show: “We are the one who knocks.” We aren’t much, but we’re all we think about.
 
In the universal scheme of things, however, humanity’s history may not even show up as a comma in eternity’s sentences.
 
And this is just fine. Nature or the Big You Know Who Upstairs granted us a wonderful gift, life, for no reason at all, which is the definition of grace. And humans, many humans, were granted consciousness, which also was undeserved.— “‘The Way’,” October 28, 2014

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‘For the Time Being,’ Part 2

During World War II, the poet W.H. Auden wrote a book-length poem entitled “For the Time Being.” It is subtitled, “A Christmas Oratorio,” and it is a retelling of the Christmas story, but with a 20th Century sensibility. His Herod, for instance, is a technology-loving king who loves that he lives in an Age of Reason and is ever-perplexed by faith and irked that he must hunt down and exterminate the baby Jesus.

An oratorio is a type of composition that was popular in the Baroque period and in churches and has not had many comebacks as a poetic or theatrical form because it never had a period of dominance. It never went away but it was never the first choice of writing mode for many writers. (Paul McCartney produced a quite famous one, “A Liverpool Oratorio,” two decades ago.) Auden was a poet of structures and forms, though, and he produced an attempt at almost every style and poetic structure in his body of work (about 400 poems and several full-length verse plays).

Oratorios are not often staged because the form resides somewhere between performance and recitation. The piece will have characters, but the characters only address the audience and rarely each other. Music is not necessary but can supply punctuation and help telegraph and amplify the intended moods of the work. There is only one full-length recording of Auden’s Christmas oratorio online, from a performance in 2007 by the St. Peter’s Cultivators in Chicago:

By 1940, Auden’s personal spiritual journey saw him rejoin the Anglican Church of his youth in the form of the Episcopal Church. It was also around this time that he had emigrated from England to America. As Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, describes it, “Auden returned to the Anglican Communion in 1940 after seven years of thought about the moral content of Christianity, about what it means to love—or not to love—one’s neighbor as oneself.” (New York Review of Books, December 6, 2007.) More Mendelson:

Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To the extent that they became ends in themselves, or made it easier for a believer to isolate or elevate himself, they became—in the word Auden used about most aspects of Christendom—unchristian. Church doctrines, like all human creations, were subject to judgment. […] Auden referred to himself as a “would-be Christian,” because, he said, even to call oneself a Christian would be an unchristian act of pride. “Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.” [Emphasis mine.]

After a decade in which he personally witnessed the Spanish Civil War and watched Europe move into two philosophies—fascism and democracy—and gird itself for a war over them, Auden removed himself to New York City and developed for himself a personal faith that to some might sound a-religious and to others like he had become born again. It is in that mode that he wrote “For the Time Being,” a work that uses both verse and prose and toys vertiginously with setting (it is simultaneously urban and contemporary, 1940, and the Roman Empire in its Judean outposts).

For Christmas Day 2014, here are two sections, a verse by the Star of the Nativity and part of a long monologue by Herod on the subject of Faith versus Reason and how Reason must triumph (but won’t). The full poem is found in Auden’s Collected Poems.

The Summons
STAR OF THE NATIVITY:

I am that star most dreaded by the wise,
For they are drawn against their will to me,
Yet read in my procession through the skies
The doom of orthodox sophrosyne:
I shall discard their major preservation,
All that they know so long as no one asks;
I shall deprive them of their minor tasks
In free and legal households of sensation,
Of money, picnics, beer, and sanitation.

Beware. All those who follow me are led
Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

If you will recall, the Three Wise Men visit King Herod to ask if he knows the location of the newborn king of the Jews that they have heard about. In response, Herod requests that the Wise Men find the baby Jesus and report back to him, ostensibly so he can travel and worship the baby but in truth to eliminate the child who might usurp his crown. In Auden’s oratorio, Herod is given a four-and-a-half page prose speech, because a man of reason would not be represented in verse. And Herod is above all a man of reason, a technocratic king with building projects throughout the land and an ongoing war against what he calls witchcraft and idolatry. He is also a bit of a fusspot:

The Massacre of the Innocents
Herod:

[…]To-day, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”
One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realise that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions—feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces.
Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver tea-pots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumours, or four o’clock in the afternoon.
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue, “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged. And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance.
[…]
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. […] Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid. Why can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better?

A conclusion tomorrow. Thank you for indulging me. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 25 asks, “You wake up one morning to find a beautifully wrapped package next to your bed. Attached to it is a note: “Open me, if you dare.” What’s inside the mystery box? Do you open it?”

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‘You must learn to bluff, too’

2014 was (is) the Unpredictable Year in The Gad’s house. For one thing, I had resolved to not start a sentence with a number this year (I just failed that right there in front of all of you) or address myself in the third-person using the amusing name I gave to this blog (fail numero two).

There is an expression, “The only constant in life is change,” and the person in my life who used to utter this expression every single day that I saw him died in May. What a terrible way to illustrate a notion. There were “I love you’s” spoken in the hospital, so that friendship ended as a completed thought for us both.

At this time last year, I was living in a different house in a different town altogether and even though I had plans to move house in 2014, it was not to where I am living on this December 22.

So it goes,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, many times. Often it was a sigh spoken by one of his characters, a philosophy of acceptance in three words and not one word more because there was nothing more (for them) to say, and at other times it was uttered with a tone of defiance: Acceptance as defiance. “You want me to fight back? Don’t hold your breath.”

From the birth of the calendar, in the year before counting, cultures have connected two opposite modes of thought to the new year. It is a time for reflection and even atonement, for clearing the wreckage of the past year if there is any, and it is a time for resolve, for aspirations and plans for the coming year, which are usually desires to make plans to be somehow different than one was in the immediate past.

No one resolves to perform deeds for which they will have to atone the next new year, at least no one that I know does, but the coming year is the territory in which one will make mistakes or cross people the wrong way. So it goes.

There were other goodbyes in 2014. Because I moved to a town that is forty-five minutes from where I lived for the last several years and I do not drive, there are some friends I have not seen in eight months. Sometimes friends who live a cross-country flight away can seem closer than those who live an hour drive away. Do not feel sorry, or anything, for me: I’m not exactly using up anyone’s phone batteries.

One goodbye was a surprise, and I wrote about it a few months ago: “Requiem.”

Because I work at living my life in the moment, expecting success, this year has in fact been a great, interesting, love-filled year. If I had even tried to make a resolution at the start of 2014, it would have been something like that statement: Accept the year to come as great, interesting, and love-filled, but also work hard at presenting life as great, interesting, and love-filled to those around me. I have no clue if I achieved that second clause, other than the working at it part. I worked at it. As a result, most of life is a pleasant surprise and those things that aren’t are that way for a reason I will figure out. (Anyone reading this who is a parent can probably tell that I am not one.)

I keep returning to a charming story about Auden (more from him later this week) that was published last year, an anecdote about his kindness. I want to work at being more like this:

Sixty years ago my English teacher brought me to London from my provincial grammar school for a literary conference. Understandably, she abandoned me for her friends when we arrived, and I was left to flounder. I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself. Auden must have sensed this because he approached me and said, “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff, too.”

So it goes. Let’s bluff our way together into 2015.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 22 asks, “We’re entering the final days of 2014—how did you do on your New Year’s resolutions these past 11.75 months? Is there any leftover item to be carried over to 2015?”

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