Monthly Archives: November 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Blog I Was Going to Write

A few years ago a friend of mine was going to write an article on the literary character Dido. He began to do so, only a few days later to receive in the mail an off-print autographed by a then acquaintance of his with virtually the same title containing virtually the same analysis of that famous heroine. I say famous because, though Dido enjoys her greatest claim to fame in Virgil’s Aeneid which not everybody has read, she also finds her way into other works of literature, other genres and works of art. purcell-dido-and-aeneasPurcell’s Dido and Aeneas gives Dido a voice you don’t just read but you can hear or see. dido-aeneas-in-concertWhile Purcell’s opera is well known, few likely know of Ovid’s famous letter (Epistula Heroidum VII) written “by Dido,” that is to say in Dido’s voice. It capitalizes, of course, on Virgil’s version, allowing Dido to explain her dilemma from her particular point of view.

That dilemma, in case you might have forgotten, is that she was madly in love with Aeneas and considered their relationship, which certainly did have a physical side, to be permanent. She interpreted the noises in the background that she heard when she and Aeneas were making love in a cave to be a blessing on their relationship—a blessing that made it enduring, that made it “marriage.” Aeneas, meanwhile, was so busily engaged in the act of lovemaking that he (presumably) didn’t hear or experience what Dido did. He perhaps saw their relationship as steamy, even meaningful, but not permanent and certainly not marriage. And thus they broke up when Aeneas went on to “law school” (i.e., to found the place that would become Rome). Dido meanwhile—what did she do? Well, you likely recall this point. She would elaborately construct a heap of wood and put on it everything Aeneas owned. She mounted the heap with Aeneas’ sword in hand plunged the sword through her bosom just as the heap was set afire. She died by her own hand and was burned, together with every memory of Aeneas, on a tragic pyre.

And that was the article—or something like that, something about Dido and how she dealt with her grief philosophically and spiritually—that my friend was about to write. But he never wrote it because he received in the mail a beautifully autographed off-print, an off-print that invited further discussion with its author and blossomed into an enduring friendship. He told me all this just yesterday when I read a very thoughtful piece written by a professor at Columbia University that had more or less the content of the blog I was thinking about writing. It was to be a blog about the disenfranchised. It was to be a blog that spoke to the depth of sadness of the human experience—the feeling of being left behind by society, the feeling that everyone else gets ahead except for you.

Maybe you were born into a home without a father. Maybe the poor mother who tried to raise you as best as she could had very little money, especially when you were a child. Maybe you were picked on at school. Maybe your mom smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and the person with whom she lived did, too, and maybe you kept getting pneumonia in part, though you never knew it, because you were around so much second-hand smoke. And the list could go on—the point is, maybe you just feel flat out sorry for yourself and you think, if only I hadn’t been born to such a disadvantaged situation, I could have done so much better. And then throw in the extras—the big negatives: maybe you are a woman, maybe you are a minority. You know there’s a glass ceiling for you. You can only ever achieve so much, and that’s it. And you might even feel that the world owes you an apology.

Not just the world—no, that’s too general. The person who owes you the apology is the person who has all those advantages that you know you did not have. That person is not a minority. That person is not a woman. That person did not grow up in poverty. That person has no pulmonary issues—never did. That person has had every advantage and never had the system rigged against him.

And all this makes perfect sense to you. That bastard owes you an apology. And he even owes you some of the money he has made and will make in the future. So you vote for politicians who promise you that they will tax him and give you better goods and services—that’s something the government owes all people. The problem is, of course, from that bastard’s point of view, he hasn’t been doing anything to hurt you at all. Maybe he even stood up to a bully once on behalf of someone he perceived to be weaker, maybe he gave his lunch to the kid without money, or loaned money to a poor kid at school and purposely never asked to be repaid. Maybe he went to the birthday party of the kid they always picked on at school. Maybe he walked you, yes you, home one day when you were cursing like a sailor over something a teacher had said or done. And maybe he didn’t judge you but just listened. Does he need to apologize for the fact that he happened to be born into what is clearly a more privileged situation?
sticks-and-stone-cartoonAnd maybe even that privileged white kid has his own struggles, I mean bigger than just pimples or not getting the car he was expecting from his parents, or being turned down for the prom date he was really hoping for. Maybe his dad has just been diagnosed with something really bad like melanoma. Maybe the severity of his dad’s illness is owed in part to the family doctor who, at the dad’s last routine physical, didn’t see a change in a one of the dad’s moles. Maybe this privileged kid has his own problems—different than yours, yes, but just as real. And maybe there’s even blame that could be doled out, blame much more particularized than yours. Maybe he could really blame the doctor in the same way that Dido had a legitimate beef with Aeneas. It’s one thing for Dido to hate all men because one behaved badly. But it’s much more visceral when she hates one in particular—hates him so much that she would commit suicide over his leaving.

Good heavens, we’re getting rather far afield. Or are we? What I am trying to say is this. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t feel pain, real pain. Some do have a lot less of it—but I would argue that they may in that lessening also have lost something of the full dimensionality of life, even have a smaller soul than those who have suffered in some way. Even if I can’t prove that, I can say this: expecting someone to apologize for something they didn’t precisely do is, if not ridiculous, at least unproductive. And that is the blog that I was thinking to write. But Professor McWhorter wrote it for me. So I now feel like my friend whose article on Dido was never written—at least not by him. So I leave you with this thought, one I owe to Dr. McWhorter. At some point we, as human beings, have to look forward.

The kid in the broken, poor and very smoky home has to decide not to smoke, to stay married even at those difficult moments when divorce seems preferable, and to work hard and to take advantage of whatever she can. She may never go to an ivy-league school—at least not as an undergraduate—but she might just find her way to a college, and she might prosper there if she is smart enough and willing to work hard enough. It might be, because it is economical, a community college at first. Then it might be, with some scholarship aid and some loans, a state university to finish. Then, if she is smart enough, on to graduate school, whether law school, medical school or maybe even graduate school in music or art or literature. The last three of these can be fully funded for exceptional students like her. Will she make it? I don’t know. The odds are admittedly against her. Yet in America, however imperfect its system is—and it is imperfect—at least she has a fighting chance.

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Dido made it; she lives on.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Reading Boring Stuff

I have a friend who likes to read manuals. I mean by this the instruction manual that might come with your television, your hair dryer, or even you dog shampoo. Though I feel that this is a very strange habit, lest he should be reading this and be even marginally insulted—and lest you, dear reader, should share this same penchant (for perhapswashing-machine-manual there are more who have this predilection than I am aware)—let me say that I am not here to condemn the enterprise, however strange I may find it to be.

I confess that I myself am of the opposite camp. I am one of those people who, when on the rare occasion that they might buy something that includes a manual, reads it not one whit. I rush to judgment about how this piece obviously goes here, that piece there. The result: I must often take the item apart after I’ve constructed it because I put it together all wrong. And thus, I am always later forced to concede (normally to my wife), that reading the manual first would have been a good idea, however boring it might have seemed at the time.

Indeed, there is great value in reading “boring stuff.” Some might call I Chronicles boring. In case you’ve not read it lately, the opening chapters consist of lengthy genealogies, names of human beings who lived and loved and laughed long ago. They had families, saw their children take their first steps, celebrated birthdays, enjoyed religious festivals, ravenously devoured a good meal, opened the door for the elderly, and taught their children life lessons. They danced, read aloud to their families (probably every evening), sang songs, and prayed fervently. They had lives. We have but their names, names in a list. And those jewish-festivalnames are the only ones we have, for their were many, many more than those, both alluded to in I Chronicles or mentioned as being part of a larger group—not by name, but merely as one in a thousand. And they have the same kind of lives that I just expounded upon above.

But what has this to do with reading boring stuff, you might ask? Well, I will put it simply: it’s one thing to read any document piecemeal, whether the best parts of the Bible or The Brothers Karamazov or the Oedipus Rex or even a modern novel, of which we all know it’s not cool to read the ending first. Dante only makes sense if you know Paradiso comes after Purgatorio, and Purgatorio after Inferno. The amendments to the Constitution only make sense if we have some idea of what the Constitution says. The boring stuff in life—the job we are not too fond of because it is “no fun,” the season of our marriage that is difficult, the décor of our living area that really, really needs to be replaced sometime soon—provide a necessary function in our lives, for these things give us, albeit obliquely and paradoxically, hope, something to look forward to. We hoabandoned-couchpe, even have faith that the rough patch will pass and our relationship will get better; we appreciate time with our family more in part perhaps because our job environment is less than felicitous; we look forward to the day when we can haul that couch out the front door an put a “FREE” sign on it—and then, fifteen minutes later we, incredulous, see someone pull up with their truck and haul it away.

While reading I Chronicles is not precisely analogous to that, it is perhaps just a little bit so, and that’s why I like to read it. In fact, I like to read the whole Bible straight on through in the KJV; I am not sure precisely why I like that version, save that I enjoy, even in the vast tracts of prosaic narrative, its prosody. I realize that my saying that I read through it directly may sound strange. Yet I actually like knowing what the whole document has to say, and there is no better way to discern that than to read through it directly. And, yes, that takes a while.

So, when you hit a boring patch, you keep reading. And you try to imagine what that boring patch really means. It means people lived then, they really did live, and they had the same fears for the future—actually, likely a much higher order of fear—than we do now. They saw a change in leadership often coming only after spilled blood, not a democratic election. They worried because someone named David had been anointed as the new king of Israel. King Saul had fallen on Mount Gilboa. They had no idea if their government would stand, what the future held.

So, I encourage those who like to read boring stuff, to keep right on doing so. Generally speaking, at least when it comes to manuals, I am not of that ilk. Nevertheless, I encourage those of us who do not like to read boring stuff to consider indulging, at least for a season, in something like I Chronicles, for in its apparently boring narrative, we can find things that will encourage and inspire us to laugh, love and live courageously in an uncertain age. Boring stuff doesn’t just belong in a case or sitting on a library shelf. It belongs to our hearts and in our minds. Here’s to “boring.”kjv-bible-ms

↓ NOT Boring Stuff ↓

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The French Underground

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Monument to the French Resistance, Chartres

In the 1940s the term “French Underground” was akin to the French Resistance, which operated underground mostly in a figurative sense—je ne dis rien du égout ou catacombes parisennes. The Resistance sought to help the allies drive the Germans out of Paris, out of France altogether. The French had become strangers in their own land, working against an evil government that had wrongfully appropriated their own country, wrongfully appropriated their principal city, and in many cases, their goods, their livelihoods. There were reports of women raped, houses looted, automobiles confiscated. What had been theirs before was theirs no longer. So the ablest and bravest among them went underground to work against the foe.

When I was in Paris this time—I just got back from Europe two days ago, only to discover Donald Trump surprisingly having been elected to become the forty-fifth president of the United States—I experienced a different kind of French underground, though the more I thought about it, the less different it seemed. I had been invited by a dear friend named Maria to join her in visiting a church that she was familiar with but that she had hitherto herself never visited. The reason for that was, oddly enough, because she is a member of a home church group, metaphorically speaking its own kind of underground movement.

The church we attended was no more an edifice than Maria’s home church. Rather, it met in the basement of an office building, which, I am assuming, they either rent or are granted access to because someone in the group works for the company that owns the building. In any case, entering the church was strangely and wonderfully covert. A woman met us in the street. “Are you Maria?” she asked.

Oui,” I answered for both of us, but the woman looked at me in a puzzled fashion, at which point, of course, I directed my gaze and my index finger toward the real Maria.

Satisfied, as if we had given some coded response to a coded answer, she led us inside, through a courtyard, down some stairs where we were met by another Christian, who led us down yet another flight of stairs under the courtyard to thtea-and-cookiee rather ordinary subterranean room that served as a makeshift triplex of narthex, nave and apse, though it itself was but a relatively small square room. A table held a few items associated with Christianity—a party string with the name J-E-S-U-S in gold-colored letters hanging from it, a cross, and some brochures, I think, along with cookies and a coffee pot for the after-service fellowship, which really was more like an after party and went on quite a long time. There I was delighted to meet a charming, young Russian woman studying hotel management in Paris. I would love to tell you more about her but I can’t, as she is member of the Resistance.

Before that, of course, the service itself was held. It began with a prayer, a few minutes for a friend of Maria to share about God’s recent provision of a job and His general sovereign kindness in her life, and lots of singing; several contemporary hymns in both French and English; more of the former, of course. Then, after several such lively hymns, another prayer and a sermon—a good but rather long one—on Martha and Mary. This theme was familiar to me and perhaps to a few others, though probably not as familiar to all, as the congregation there was very young and they had surely not heard as many sermons as I have. At the end, another prayer and that was it. No, I was not expecting any liturgy—quel dommage—but yes, I was expecting another hymn to end the event. But there was none. De gustibus non

Yet now I return to how this French underground church, quite literally underground, is akin to the French Underground of the occupation of France during the Second World War. Hitler’s idea had been to appropriate the beauty of France—indeed he looted many city’s artistic treasures and had them brought to Berlin or held in other secret locations in Germany. He wanted to take what was great about France from the French, make it his own, and force the French, the rightful owners of their own country, their own democratic government, their own staples of wine and cheese, and their own rich artistic cultural heritage, to serve the German government, to serve the German people, and ultimately to serve Adolf himself.

And that is precisely what has happened to Christianity in France. Secularism has taken from it some form of morality, has taken from it ideas whose origins, in purest form, are the property of the church—such as the concepts of true and unadulterated justice, honor, freedom—and degraded them. Then, secular society there (and, by the way, in my own country and many other lands as well) twists the moral code to fit its own purposes. It starts by appropriating the church’s language, the language of love. It redefines love so that it primarily means sex. It reconfigures the term “family” so that it means virtually anything at all, it corrupts fairness, it restricts parental responsibility, and it redefines even (and perhaps especially) the word recreation, which now comes to serve as a way of obviating someone of responsibility (to wit recreational sex, recreational drug usage) cocaineinstead of it meaning what it is supposed to mean: re-creation, refreshing behavior. (The image that occurs to me when I hear the phrase “friends with benefits,” for example, is far from refreshing.) And that is but the tip of a very, very deep iceberg, when it comes to the pillaging of the church by secular society.

And that is why the opportunity to worship with the new French Underground was so exciting, even if the lack of liturgy (and likely deficiency of appreciation of church history that is incumbent upon such a dearth) and the absence of traditional hymnody are not to my taste. Still, the entire event was pure excitement for me, for I felt as if, at least just for one day, I was participating in that movement against the secular regime and its ultimate power structure, for which, unlike John Milton and Mick Jagger, I have little sympathy.

And all this happened just a few days before Mr. Trump was elected. In regard to him, let me share in closing a small warning that I was asked to bring back from France. The French have jestingly told me that, if he misbehaves as president of the United States, they plan to change the spelling of the word tromperie, which ironically means “deception,” to trumperie. Or maybe, though it is difficult for them to pronounce the ‘h’ sound, they will call Airforce One “Hairforce One.” Yet the church I visited is not wofrench-resistance-radio-largerried about the guile or rabid, grasping secularism of humankind, for in the midst of this new conflict with the society around them, they have a means of communication with their own true Leader, as if by a wireless telegraph machine that allows the new French Resistance to communicate with the allies or at least their principal Ally.  That communication begins  two flights underground but can be heard in the Highest of Realms, whence that Leader replies in His own coded messages. It was indeed a delight to join the French Resistance for one day and to hear those wireless messages going back and forth. Vive la Resistance, et vive le Roi vrai!hair-force-one

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Shirt

theshirtIt is always a strange and wonderful privilege to go to a philological congress. That word, congress, may sound to some perhaps a bit old-fashioned. Nowadays, in the States at least, such a meeting is called just that, a meeting, usually preceded by the word annual and followed by specifics such as “of the A. E. Houseman Society” or “of the Shakespeare Society” or “of the Milton Society” or “of  the T.S. Eliot Society” or the like.

In my case, I was tagging along with a friend of mine who was speaking at just such a literary meeting in France on epic poetry, the poetry of sagas. Now, as I was saying above, while these gatherings are called “meetings” in America and sometimes even in the U.K., in France they are called congresses or colloques. This time it was the latter, though the two terms are often interchangeably used. And there were some famous folks at this colloque, which is in part why I tagged along. I won’t mention their names which are, in any case, to an Anglophone audience nearly as unreadable as they are unpronounceable.

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Front entrance to the Sorbonne, Paris

But suffice it to say that there was a famous professor from the Sorbonne there, a famous Italian professoressa and an exceptional teacher at a collegium in northern France who has more publications on Theocritus than Theocritus had poems.  And I, though but a writer, was allowed to crash this party, as it were, simply because one of my friends was speaking. His speech, given in French, of course, seemed to me to have gone well. Fortunately I have enough French to have followed it, and I told him that it went well, which of course pleased him.

But none of this is any real part of this story per se. Rather it is merely explanatory, providing the setting for it. The saga of the shirt began at the colloque’s opening dinner, when one of the participants accidentally spilled wine on my friend, who was at the time wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. That rich, red liquid went cascading across the tabletop and soaked rather quickly into the waiting weave of the soft cotton fabric that was my friend’s shirt. Sure enough, his shirt absorbed the drink like an alcohol-starved alcoholic or a fresh diaper, and like a diaper, was quickly stained, as were my friend’s pants. His tan pants were his immediate priority, and he managed to get the major part of that wine stain out in the bathroom by dousing them with water right away, as if they were on fibordeaux-winere. But the shirt, alas, as the wine in question was red (specifically a Bordeaux as we were in the Bordeaux region of France) was a goner, a casualty on the especially delicious epicurean battlefield of southern France.

When he got back to his hotel, so he told me, he originally had thought to place the shirt in the small, round trash can in his room. Indeed he had done so. But, even though he is slightly less Welsh than I am—though he may be precisely as Welsh as I am for all I know—he immediately felt guilty. The reason for his guilt, so he told me at breakfast, was because he had come to the congress from Paris where he had seen hundreds of middle eastern refugees living in the streets, many of them dwelling in small pup tents, each tent quite often inhabited by an entire family. Those tents had been provided for the refugees, mostly from Syria, by the Parisian police and rescue society. Indeed the city of Paris is in crisis mode. Ironically, while radical Islamic terrorists seek to destroy the city—four cells associated with various mosques were broken up while I was there last week—the Parisians are nonetheless reaching out to those needy refugees, many of them of course Muslim, giving them shelter and, for now at least, some measure of hope, how ever small a measure that might be.paris-refugeesMy friend, though it took him all night, as I was saying at the outset of this blog, eventually came to view the wine-blood of the shirt differently than an object merely to be tossed away into an undersized garbage can. He regarded the wine as the blood of Christ spilled on his shirt.

“How is this so?” I queried of him as we boarded the train quite early this very morning, he going to Paris-Bercy, I getting off at another stop to catch a plane from Paris’ CDG airport.

“I washed the shirt out and, save a slight red stain on one of the sleeves and near the stomach, is almost dry, entirely clean and, if a bit wrinkled, nonetheless quite wearable. It was nearly a new shirt, you know.”

“No, I don’t know, or rather I didn’t know nor would I have known. How could I, as I was not with you at the dinner?” To which, no response. Of course not, I thought, he’s a philologist proper, he finds no need to waste words, even if (or especially because) he supposedly loves them. So, of course, I followed up. “How does the wine spilled on your shirt have anything, even remotely, to do with Christ?”

“It has everything to do with Him,” he responded.

Now, if you had the luxury of a college education, at this point you may be recalling that annoying professor, you know, the one who usually answered obliquely, a Socrates to your Euthyphro. I think that is why I like this friend of mine, because he does that very thing to me. So, of course, I followed up again, eventually worming out of him the notion that the act of spilling of the wine reminded him of the sacrifice of Christ, blood spilled redemptively, even propitiously for the whole world. And that reminded him of the love of Christ. And that he (strangely, to my mind) connected with the shirt, for he had seen refugees sleeping in tents on the streets of Paris—one such encampment on the Rue d’Hôpital, not far from Paris-Bercy. paris-refugees2His idea was, rather than having simply tossed the shirt in the trash (as he nearly did), to walk from Bercy station to the encampment and to give the shirt to one of those in need, then to walk to Denfert-Rochereau to catch the bus to Orly, whence he is flying later today—indeed will have flown, by the time you read this.

“That is a lot of walking,” I said. He indicated that recognized as much, but the blood spilled on the shirt reminded him to do that. “Couldn’t you just give money online?” I queried.

“Too sterile,” he responded in his not infrequently (indeed usually) unusual manner. His look seemed to be kind and understanding, yet at the same time he seemed to me clearly to be issuing a spiritual challenge. Soon he expanded on the theme unprovoked. “Too sterile, even unworthy of the blood, for Christ always got his hands dirty. That’s how we can know his modus operandi. That’s how we recognize the fingerprints of love.”

I alighted, as I said, before my friend so that I might catch a train to the Charles DeGaul, where, upon my arrival I found myself wandering in my thoughts about the spilled wine, the shirt, the striking metaphor of fingerprints of love—striking, yes, but nonetheless a bit incongruous for a shirt. “Can a shirt even bear fingerprints?” I wondered. “Maybe it bears my friend’s DNA, but not his fingerprints, except of course on the buttons.” I tried to give my mind and spirit a rest as I now physically wandered about the airport, passing a fancy men’s clothier with a bright white well-pressed shirt in the window, one sporting sharp-looking silver cufflinks.

“My thoughts are beginning to sound rather pedantic,” I mused. “I have been hanging out with my philological friend too much.” Still, I wondered about the shirt, the other one, the one with Christ’s blood upon it, its saga. Did it make it to a refugee? Did it bear my friend’s DNA? Christ’s fingerprints? What refugee would ever even figure that out? And then I thought of the ten lepers. Though only one figured it out, all ten were healed. “I hope that shirt, like a message in a bottle, made it to it where it was supposed to go,” I muttered, half thinking, half praying. I suppose I will only find out at the next literary congress in France, when I hope to see my philological friend again, or perhaps, if I get back to Paris first, I may see a poor refugee wearing a white shirt with a sleeve slightly stained by the wine of the cup of salvation.