Tag Archives: Alcestis

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Visiting Ukraine

Recently I found myself tagging along again with my friend the philologist as he visited Ukraine. The Catholic University there is an amazing place—the top academic institution in the country—with a vibrant teaching faculty, a vivacious coterie of students, and a caring administration. Behind it a strong driving force has been a Harvard PhD named Jeffrey who has helped to shape and guide the university to ever higher ground, including, for its improved location, some fresh ground—literally—next to Lviv’s central park.

The beauty of the town, the joy of the students, the vim and vigor of Jeffrey himself easily outstripped my own jet-lagged energy, and in a way contrasted with it. But a deeper contrast was in the acute awareness I and, I think, everyone had of the soldiers on the other side of Ukraine fighting and dying against the pro-Russian factions (and even Russians) just as we were enjoying a lovely “dark prune” tort with raspberry tea. The blood red tea made me think of the blood being spilt by the noble Ukrainian soldiers at that very moment, the prune cake of the mire in which their bodies might just then be lying.

And as we visited church upon church, I though in brief prayers about those soldiers and about a dear friend’s mother who was even as I was praying for her dying. I thought about the inevitability of death, and that death is all around us. “Lo, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And we do walk through that valley and beneath that shadow quite often in this life, all too often. Death is ubiquitous, too close at every moment.

Alcestis Triumphs over Death; Roman Sarcophagus from Ostia; Approx. 161-170 A.D.; Rome, Museo Chiaramonti

The ancients knew this. Euripides devoted an entire drama to it entitled Alcestis, the story about a husband, Admetus, losing his wife to death only because she chose to undergo death’s penalty that her husband might live. And then it struck me: Death is seeking us to pay something, to give something back. Does he require that in return for life? I don’t think so, or at least not precisely. If that were the case we would not be so outraged by death, would not weep so bitterly; rather, Death is asking us to pay for our sins. You can see it in the sarcastic and pitiless way he looks at us. He comes with no care for “timing,” no sense of decency. Rather, he comes to punish us—not the person dying, but the people left behind—abandoned, orphaned by Death. He has come to punish us for our sins.

Which is why Euripides, as if enjoying a vision of a spiritual sea change to come, portrays Heracles defeating Death, beating him mercilessly as he deserves. In that play, Heracles brings Alcestis back to life for Admetus. And I think I know another “mythology” that teaches this same thing, boldly proclaiming redemption and resurrection as a historical event. In light of which I think that the next line of the old Psalm then makes sense: “I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Now I get it: the Psalmist is saying “Go to Hell, Death, or at least go back to Hell, for I am in a good state: ‘my cup runneth over’.” Is that the reasons those religious students at Catholic University in Lviv seemed so vibrant and alive, so optimistic even with Death knocking at another, not-so-far-away Ukrainian door? I’m not sure, but I am sure they at least know the twenty-third Psalm and, when the time comes in their life that Death draws nigh, they’ll remember what it means.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Air

On hearing a marvelous pianist, my friend, Helge Antoni play Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite Opus no. 40” this week, I found myself stopping and thinking. I thought generally of music’s transformational qualities, its capacity to transport you from one state of mind to another, almost from one place to another. But when he played the fourth movement of that suite, “Air,” that is when I thought of something else: time.

Edvard Grieg

I say time not because I found myself thinking of the work’s title in Norwegian (Frå Holbergs tid) or even a language that I actually can speak like German (Aus Holbergs Zeit)—Little did I know until later that “time” (tid) was even in the original title. Nor was it the fact that the piece was written in 1884 to celebrate something that had occurred a bicentenary before, the commemoration of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg’s birth; that detail I found out at the concert, though I think I had read it somewhere previously. But I had forgotten that when I was thinking about time, even as I listened intently to Mr. Antoni playing the piece so movingly, so timelessly.

If you recall the movements of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, you perhaps already know that they are based on eighteenth-century dance forms that were themselves connected with Baroque music, the music and the style of dance that came from when Holberg himself was living. [1] The Holberg Suite, then, was written to do precisely what it did for me, to transport someone through time to a previous epoch.

But the epoch in which I found myself was not two hundred years before. It was just a few years ago when Elaine Jakes died. For it was not the style of a Norwegian dance form from the seventeenth century that created an image in my mind, but it was the transcendent quality of the suite’s fourth movement, “Air,” that seeped into my soul and took me back, specifically to my mother’s death. Not in sadness or despair, but in an idea, an image. And that image originally occurred to me when I first encountered Death. For when I first encountered Death I had, as all of us perhaps at some point in our lives, never known him. He had been a distant reality to me, something that happened to other people, like a terrible disease or a horrendous accident or natural disaster.

Hercules Fighting Death to Save Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1869–71

I was twenty when my grandfather, Harry Jakes, died. And hitherto I hadn’t entered into the holy land by way of reading. The notion of someone who could defeat death, like Heracles come to bring Admetus’ dear Alcestis back from the grave, was not an image, even in Dionysian theatrical terms, that had jelled in my mind or occurred to my spirit. Rather, Death entered Harry’s hospital room with a strong upper hand as I and my cousin Eric had, moments before, looked upon him, wired with tubes and grasping at his last few moments of life. We stepped out, hungry and in need of something to eat, when we were called back from the hospital’s canteen to the room, too late. He was gone. His soul had flitted away, on air, not even the Air of the Holberg Suite, but just air. Death had won, for now. But Air is written to be played in andante.

Andante religioso, to be precise. And thus it was that Death’s victory was but short-lived, for in just a few months I found myself, for the first time, entering into that holy land of which I spoke, encountering a literary force much stronger than the Euripidean Heracles. But that force was something greater than even a literary force, or even one made popular at the time (and incredibly still so) by a movie and, later, series of films. Indeed I was not on Miltonian ground, I knew before I heard Air what andante religious really meant. And that is why when I attended my grandmother’s funeral and when I came down the stairs the morning of my mother’s death to find her cold body lying in her bed, I knew that her spirit had risen on the air, the air of Greig’s fourth movement of the Holberg Suite. That Air leads to the joyous opening of the fifth, Rigaudon, a piece that is written to be “alive with energy,” allegro con brio. How fitting, for Grieg’s Air doesn’t just dissolve. It wafts, it wafts somewhere.

And so had Harry, though I knew it not. And Blanche. And, thirty years or so after them, Elaine. Their spirits had not just passed away, but had climbed, not simply “up” to a sky deity but to the Master’s home, a home beyond the sky. They had all gone, by faith, allegro con brio. And before they left they had given me a gift—not a cheese plate or a serving tray or even a teapot with a most interesting brown, undulating pattern. No, they had given me the faith to envision, or perhaps the vision to believe that the air on which our souls shall one day climb, leads somewhere, until we shall, about the supreme throne, of Him t’ whose happy-making sight alone, forever sit, attired with stars, in triumph over Death, and Chance, and even Time. But not Air. For when that day comes, that is precisely what we shall breathe, con molto brio.

Helge Antoni
Helge Antoni

[1] Further, cf. http://www.favorite-classical-composers.com/holberg-suite.html.