24 December 2010

Gloria in Profundis

- by G. K. Chesterton

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.



Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all –
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?




For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.



Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate –
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.






"The Heavenly & Earthly Trinities" by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1617-82

04 December 2010

Perpetual Lack, Perpetual Activity

. . . As I steeled myself to do what was necessary to provide my family with daily bread, I recalled a story I had recently read: a dark yet beautifully resonant tale by George Eliot entitled, THE LIFTED VEIL:



The principal figure – one would hesitate to call him a hero – is Latimer, the frail and sensitive second son of a wealthy banker who owns a large country estate and has in his first son, Alfred, a proper heir: robust, handsome, commanding – all that most men admire. But Alfred represents to Latimer all that fills him with despair and repugnance. He sees in Alfred the shallowness, vanity, complacency and, at times, cruelty of that attitude of mind and heart that protects one from the vulnerability of genuine love and brings instead the egoism that finds its fulfillment in worldly success. Latimer’s sensitivity, his preoccupation with natural beauty and poetry, is regarded by his father and brother as the sign of an enfeebled body and weak mind. His father has tried to reform Latimer by providing him with an education in scientific disciplines, but the experiment has failed and, in the last round of his formal instruction in Geneva, Latimer discovers, not the realm of work and solid accomplishment, but a strange ability: he is given at times a vision of scenes that will occur in his later life, and, added to this, he discovers that he can read the thoughts of others and see into their hearts. This latter capacity is not subject to his will, but thrust upon him by the proximity of another person. It becomes Latimer’s curse.

There is one exception to his powers: his brother’s fiancĂ©, Bertha, whom Latimer loves. His brother’s untimely death delivers Bertha to him as his wife, along with the social responsibilities that should have devolved on Alfred, who would have relished them. For Latimer, however, to be in society is a torment. His irresistible reading of minds and hearts makes the grand dinners and parties he is required to attend occasions of dread. He even comes to penetrate Bertha’s inmost being and discovers there, not the hidden depths he had imagined, but a prosaic, unimaginative world of petty vanities. He becomes more reclusive, more derided by those around him as an inept husband and an eccentric.
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As I thought about this story that night in the newsroom, it struck me that Latimer’s curse has become a general condition. We do not possess his power of penetration as an aberrant mental faculty, however, but rather come by it with the aid of ever more omnipresent and obtrusive media. And whereas Latimer could not escape this awareness, we pursue it.

As I write this article in the peace of my home, legions of people are rushing about madly in all the corners of the Earth, from the great capitols to the remotest villages, looking for news, looking for something to report, hoping for the sensational, the spectacular, the glorious, the grotesque, the odd and improbable – for anything that might excite the eyes and ears of their readers or listeners. The results of their relentless ferreting come to us in many ways: through newspapers and magazines and televisions and radio and the Internet and the now ubiquitous handheld devices. It is endlessly discussed and commented upon, by everyone from the media savants to the people in the checkout line at the supermarket. There is almost no escaping it, short of sealing oneself up in a cave. Latimer’s curse has become our curse, but few of us regard it with the loathing and regret that he felt for his strange power. Some even see their jobs of providing this endless stream of information as a sacred trust, and those who assiduously follow the news often think that in staying informed they are fulfilling some presumed duty incumbent upon them as citizens of the republic or men of the world.

And following the news in all its form and gradations becomes an addiction. From a cabinet meeting in Kabul to the latest Hollywood divorce, the desire to know is fed and grows and becomes insatiable. But this knowledge has little or no value. For most, it is a substitute for, indeed an escape from, true knowledge. Most knowledge these days is of this superficial kind: purely nominal.  Yet, most men are as avid for this sort of surface knowledge as they are averse to deeper meaning. Why?