Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Poem for Late Autumn

Horace III.xviii

Thou, Faun, O lover of the fleeing wood-nymphs,
come through my acres and the sunny country
softly, and keep off from my youthful nurslings.
Come, I beg, gently!

I will for my part kill a tender yearling,
nor shall we lack love's ever-present steward—
deep, brimming wine-jugs—as the ancient altar
billows in sweet smoke.

On the green meadows prance the sheep assembled,
as mid-December comes again upon thee;
idle and merry in the mead the peasants
rest with the cattle.

Wanders the fierce wolf through the fearless sheeplings;
wind-tossed trees strew thee with their wild frondlets;
gladly the ditcher slams the hated soil
thrice with his strong foot.

Man was once so audaciously artful that Jupiter snatched
pre-Raphaelism away, leaving us with modern painting.   

Faune, Nympharum fugientum amator,
per meos finis et aprica rura
lenis incedas abeasque parvis
æquus alumnis,

si tener pleno cadit hædus anno
larga nec desunt Veneris sodali
vina crateræ, vetus ara multo
fumat odore.

Ludit herboso pecus omne campo,
cum tibi Nonæ redeunt Decembres,
festus in pratis vacat otioso
cum bove pagus;

inter audacis lupus errat agnos,
spargit agrestis tibi silva frondes,
gaudet invisam pepulisse fossor
ter pede terram.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tasting Honey

And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring. 
—Numbers 15:39

Then said Jonathan, My father hath troubled the land: see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey.
—I Samuel 14:21

When I was in high school, I had no friend who understood me better than Leo Tolstoy. He was my rabbi, my kind but stern uncle, my companion on sleepless nights. When Allan Bloom insulted him I was furious; when my senior seminar didn’t grasp his apocalyptic message I preached it to them. Along with Heschel, he made me a believer. He was capable of bringing me to flights of ascetic fervor, but just as much of reducing me to a nervous, wide-eyed state of anxiety. 

That enthusiasm has faded by now into a low-burning gratitude to my old teacher. One scene of his, though, still has the ability to grasp me in an emotional and intellectual headlock. It’s from War and Peace: Natasha, engaged to the good Prince Andrew, goes to the opera. There, in another box, she sees Anatole, a handsome hedonist who—besides his incestuous relationship with his sister—has married and abandoned an anonymous Polish woman. Natasha, who knows nothing of this, falls passionately in love with him:
In the fourth act there was some sort of devil who sang waving his arm about, till the boards were withdrawn from under him and he disappeared down below. That was the only part of the fourth act that Natasha saw. She felt agitated and tormented, and the cause of this was Anatole whom she could not help watching. As they were leaving the theater Anatole came up to them, called their carriage, and helped them in. As he was putting Natasha in he pressed her arm above the elbow. Agitated and flushed she turned round. He was looking at her with glittering eyes, smiling tenderly. 
Only after she had reached home was Natasha able clearly to think over what had happened to her, and suddenly remembering Prince Andrew she was horrified, and at tea to which all had sat down after the opera, she gave a loud exclamation, flushed, and ran out of the room.
After reaching home Natasha did not sleep all night. She was tormented by the insoluble question whether she loved Anatole or Prince Andrew. She loved Prince Andrew—she remembered distinctly how deeply she loved him. But she also loved Anatole, of that there was no doubt. “Else how could all this have happened?” thought she. “If, after that, I could return his smile when saying good-by, if I was able to let it come to that, it means that I loved him from the first. It means that he is kind, noble, and splendid, and I could not help loving him. What am I to do if I love him and the other one too?” she asked herself, unable to find an answer to these terrible questions.

Natasha’s deep-founded love, strengthened over months and confirmed by virtue, falls apart in literally minutes as soon as she is exposed to a resplendently beautiful sight. What does this say about the love she had had before?

What it does not say is that her previous attachment to Andrew had been founded on air. No: Natasha and Andrew had a loving, noble, happy relationship. But here is Natasha’s problem: when it comes to aesthetics, such a solid attachment is on equal fighting grounds with a love that is empty, vain, and sinful. Her most human instincts are no help to her in deciding between them. How can she live a life that she knows to be good if her eyes and beating heart can lead her so far astray?

This is something that’s been troubling me recently. In a calm moment, I’ll profess an unwavering belief that ethics and aesthetics are orthogonal. In English, that means that what’s beautiful has nothing to do with what’s morally good; that you can just as easily have something good and hideous as wicked and resplendent. All that glisters is not gold, and not all that’s gold glisters.

All well and good. But like any good Greek, I can’t quite leave it there. A generous share of my moral sense does indeed come from what shines resplendent in front of me. I became an Epicurean in part because of the painful beauty of a certain poem. I turned away from the strictures of Jewish law in part because I found it morally questionable, but more honestly because it came to feel stuffy, colorless, and heavy.

For Plato, the just and the beautiful were two reflections of the same heavenly quality. Thus his highest word of praise for a man was καλὸς κἀγαθός, or “beautiful and righteous”. In the Republic, as Allan Bloom has lucidly explained, he accordingly has Socrates teach justice to Glaucon by appealing again and again to his erotic sentiments. I can’t assent to this outlook, but it’s obvious to me why it has been so compelling to countless souls.

In this light I want to look at a famous prayer by Augustine:
You called and cried, and broke my deafness; blazing alight you shone forth, and put my blindness to flight. You were fragrant, and I breathed in and panted for you; I tasted you, and I hungered and thirsted for you; you touched me, and I burned for your peace. (Confessions, Book X, my translation.)
This is the linchpin of Augustine’s understanding of God. To Augustine, we are all sinners: burning with desire for the world, our eyes and our flesh lead our helpless souls into ruin. But God reveals to some his own beauty, which is far more sensuous, far lovelier, than anything you can find in a brothel in Carthage or a Roman emperor’s villa. This is what calls us up to heaven, and this is what saves the elect.

There is something perplexing about this. Here is the problem: Pharaoh’s magicians worked wonders just as well as Moses and Aaron.  If all God has to offer us is sensuous delight, then what if we find something—well—more delightful? Thus Faust, aching for celestial pleasure, found nothing in Christian faith, and gave up his soul to grasp the roots of delight. Don Giovanni did the same, and bore the full wrath of God rather than drop the reins of the horse that carried him to ruinous love.

And the woman saw that the tree
was good for food, and that
 it was pleasant to the eyes.
As my friend Matthew pointed out to me, Augustine did not believe that the Devil can possibly allure us as much as God—thus resolving the problem neatly. If this was Augustine’s view, though, it’s not the Bible’s, and it’s certainly not mine. Evil and sin can be the most overwhelming and erotic experiences available to humanity. They can outshine the sun, and they can outshine God. As I never tire of saying, the Nazis had the most uplifting songs of the twentieth century, and most Jews have never done anything in synagogue but tunelessly mumble.

This puts any religious teaching based on aesthetics on shaky ground. And yet I do think that Augustine was onto something. If we entirely renounce beauty in our search for what’s good, it’s hard to know how to proceed. Even God, when he gave his stern moral law at Sinai, prefaced his injunctions on stumbling-blocks and sodomy with a fantastic display of thunder and lightning and trumpet-blasts.

So I’m caught between Augustine, who says that aesthetics are everything in finding the good; and my deeper sense that says that they’re nothing. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Notes for Yom Kippur

I will begin with a story. This is how Nietzsche told it in the Birth of Tragedy:
There is an ancient story that king Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When at last he fell into his hands, the king asked what was best of all and most desirable for man. Fixed and immovable, the demon remained silent; till at last, forced by the king, he broke out with shrill laughter into these words: “Oh, wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is for ever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.”
The meaning of this has been hidden from me for years. A couple weeks ago, I had a thought which shed some light on the problem.

It began with longing for God, an experience that I can only compare to panting, unslaked love. As it appears to my mind, the concept of a loving God is the most ludicrously happy idea imaginable. In the presence of God, the fear of the void is a misconception, because the deepest ocean is a puddle in his eyes. (From Jonah, which Jews will read this Saturday afternoon: “The waters surrounded me even unto death, the deep encompassed me; seaweed enwrapped my head. I went down to the roots of the mountains; the earth was barred against me evermore. Yet Thou didst bring up my life from destruction, O Lord, my God.”) And even if the deep does take us, a funeral is a celebration, because it lets us finally rest in God’s bosom. And then the night will pass, and we will wake to a rosy dawn. This assurance, this soft comfort, is what I think Tolkien means here:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.​ 
Similarly: the closest I’ve ever come to bliss has been during the singing of Adir Venaor, a poem that my congregation reads several times on Yom Kippur. From ages six to twenty, it was an experience that insisted to me powerfully: it’s all okay! don’t worry! It was a glimpse of the star over Mordor; an annual drink from the well of God’s love.

And so to be violently deprived of God, to live in a modern world filled with fog and darkness, is an awful curse. If the well runs dry, then life is the shadow of a dream, and all is vanity. Who then can distinguish between beast and man, who both go down to the dusty earth? This all leads to the most fervent prayer of the atheist:

As the deer thirsts for streams of water, so does my soul long for you, God.

There is nothing bitterer to me than this longing. Among humans, unrequited love is unbearable, but it passes—you can find a person to cling to and love. To an atheist, the desire for heaven is permanently stymied, because heaven is empty, and will be forever.

And with the loss of God comes the loss of his promises. We moderns—unlike the medievals—are in Solomon’s position: we have nothing to suggest that our suffering will be alleviated here or made up for later. We can contemplate eternity, but now that we know that the sky is a thin layer of air that quickly gives way to infinite space, it’s hard to know where that eternity could be spent.

Being alive is painful for that reason alone. We are born on earth, pulled from the dark lake of eternal sleep, and taken achingly close to heaven. We look upon the light of the sun, we breathe the night air, and watch the wheeling stars—and then we are thrown back into the deep.

Even more terrible is our eternal love for other people, which death makes a cruel mockery of. My grandmother died this summer. Yes, she was in her eighties. Death often happens to people that age. It was natural and painless. But that doesn’t make it any less awful, any less scandalous. I am angry that I will never hug her again. I am angry that I will never meet my great-grandfather, and be kept from him by the thinnest veil of two decades. I am angry that I will leave everyone I know when we all wander our own ways into the night. The Archpoet sang: Quisquis amat taliter volvitur in rota. Whoever loves so fiercely is turned on the rack.

This gives me an glimmer of Silenus’ point. We’re given a foretaste of eternal love, and then it’s forced on us mockingly that we can’t have it.

But while death is painless and life painful, the fact remains that it’s incredibly wonderful—if briefly—to be above the surface of the lake, to dry off and warm up by the fire. Silenus might have been right on the first point, but his second piece of advice (to die soon) is wicked deceit. However mixed with pain and decay, the light of the sun and the embraces of a lover are intoxicatingly wonderful. Memento mori necnon vivere. Remember that you will die, but remember to live first.

Have a joyful Day of Atonement if you’re celebrating it.