Ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας, μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδῶν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι᾽ ἀπαγγελίας, δι᾽ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν. (Aristotle, Poetics 6)
“Master Aristotle, how does one spell ‘catharsis‘?”
“You know perfectly well how to spell it, Alexander.”
“I suppose. But I don’t know why you say tragedy stimulates the bowels.”
Incorrigible. So hard to resist the urge to beat this boy within an inch of his life.
“That is not the kind of ‘purging’ that a tragic play brings about in the audience.”
“And yet in the Laws, the immortal Plato …”
Alas for his father Philip. What will happen to Macedon when this princeling becomes king, I cannot imagine.
“Now, as I was saying, Alexander, the great events of tragic drama arouse pity and fear in the spectators, and in this way …”
Once, years ago, I hit a deer. It was dark, and I was driving fast on two-lane blacktop. From stage right, a large buck leaped into the light of my high-beams. It then veered ninety degrees and raced down the double-yellow line ahead of me. Animal and car were now on the exact same path, the gap narrowing by the second. I braked hard. The front end of my car dipped. In the footlights, the deer’s antlers rose and fell, rose and fell.
(There is an old story about a hunter who became a deer. In the woods he stumbled upon a leafy grotto so picturesque that it did not seem real: nature imitating art imitating nature. And standing in the cool water on a hot day was a naked goddess. The virgin goddess of the hunt, in fact. She turned, saw, blushed. Lifting a handful of water, she cast it at the hunter. Through his wet hair antlers sprouted. His neck lengthened. Fur grew over his body. Soon, too soon, his own hounds noticed. He, or it, fled. The terror was unspeakable. Hunter, predator, seeming rapist had become hunted, prey, victim. Can so much turn on one chance encounter?)
Too late, with a slight tilt of its powerful body, the deer began its exit, once again stage right. In the end, it was a glancing blow. Driver’s side mirror torn away, windshield glass cracked by one antler. And in that moment before life and death parted ways — the one on a course to now, the other into the darkness of that night — our faces were separated by mere inches.
I saw a movie recently, The Rider. A young cowboy named Brady Jandreau, who once suffered a career-ending injury in a rodeo when a bronco stepped on his head, plays a young cowboy named Brady Atkinson, who suffers a career-ending injury in a rodeo when a bronco steps on his head. In the film’s most difficult-to-watch scenes, we see Brady visiting his close friend Lane Scott, played by Lane Scott, who is paralyzed and being cared for in a rehab center. Brady and the fictional Lane watch videos of the real Lane competing in bull-riding competitions and hamming it up for the camera. Near the end of the film, Lane uses hand signs to spell out for Brady the words “Don’t give up on your dreams.”
In The Rider, Brady Atkinson is a brooding, intense young man whose squinty-eyed profile against the South Dakota grasslands is iconic. For his part, Brady Jandreau, already somewhat jaded, now has an agent and is auditioning for other movies. And the real Lane Scott? Tragically injured not by a rodeo bull, as I had assumed, but in an automobile accident.
There must have been a moment in human history when, for the first time ever, a person had the realization, “This right here is like one of those great stories.” I wonder what time of the day or night it was when this thought first occurred to a human being: “I myself am the hero of this story.” In that moment, the mythical emerged from myth. In that moment, imagination was born, and humankind began its rapid ascent from animal instinct toward godlike contemplation of self.
So, it’s not that we turn to art to be cleansed and emptied out, as the literal-minded philosopher had it. Just the opposite, in fact. We look to art to be filled up with story, stories that we can tell ourselves about ourselves.
Alexander the Great is supposed to have slept each night with a copy of Homer’s Iliad nearby.
Whenever Brady Jandreau settled on the back of a wild bronc, clutched the reins, and waited for the gate to open, it was a mythical cowboy very much like Brady Atkinson — stoical and indomitable — whom he was emulating, just below conscious thought.
Finally, the real Lane Scott, from his wheelchair at QLI Rehabilitation Center in Omaha, Nebraska, is reported to have improvised at least one line of dialogue for his character Lane Scott. The latter asks Brady how he is doing with the brand-new metal plate in his head. Lane listens to his response and then signs, grinning a big grin, “J-u-s-t r-u-b s-o-m-e d-i-r-t i-n i-t.”
At night on a backroad in rural America, circa 1990, one of two things happened.
A deer ran out in front of a car and got hit.
Or two earthly creatures had a sudden and violent encounter, in which was figured the divergent paths taken by their remote ancestors, the one mostly unaltered from then until now, and the other speeding ever faster and faster into an uncertain future, both blessed and cursed with his Promethean gifts. And in that chance meeting on the boundary between human and nonhuman, past and future, heaven and hell, the man caught a glimpse of what was and is no longer, and at the same time, what might be but won’t.
Scene: rooftop at night. There stands the Watchman, looking east.
Beyond the horizon, a wooden horse is mantled in flame, and a baby, beautiful as a star, tumbles through space.
“Will this never end?” he asks. He means the watching.
No answer from the gods. No answer from the darkness.
Beneath his feet, the palace sleeps. Around it sleeps the city. In the countryside, farmers and their wives are sleeping. Their oxen sleep, their sheep and goats, too. All the trees are sleeping, and in them sleep birds. Hill and dale, river and bay: fast asleep. The fragrant air itself is drowsy with sleep. Only the Watchman is awake. He and the vigilant stars, those cold fires in heaven. Each night, in perfect silence, they describe their perfect arcs, and in their fairy light, the Watchman is a shadow in a dream.
Across the sea, a headless corpse lies upon the shore, a body without a name. Seeds of fire swirl and drift across a great plain. Women, in their terror, clutch at a mute icon and pray for a swift death.
Loneliness, he thinks, is a death-in-life. A motionless vortex. Once when he was a child, he woke from sleep into a seeming paralysis. He willed his arms and legs to move. For a moment, until they answered, his mind was trapped in its own body. He rose and went straight to his mother. She held him as he breathed in her familiar unfamiliar smell. Heart thudding, eyes shut tight, he saw stars like glowing embers. They flared into life, danced, faded. “Shh, shh,” she said, stroking his hair.
At the foot of the palace wall grows an ancient olive tree. From above, its leafy crown is the purest black. Starlight pours into it and disappears forever, leaving no trace. It’s the mouth of a cave, he imagines, a branching cavern of countless rooms. In every room is a memory. Every memory is both true and false. Discern the truth and pass into the next room. Prefer the lie and pass into the next room. It doesn’t matter. Each memory is the god of its own underground chamber, and you are just a tendril of mist, floating through the labyrinth.
The chill on the rooftop deepens. It’s the hour of night when he straddles yesterday and tomorrow, past and future. In these moments, he sees the membrane thinning almost into nothingness, the impassable barrier, that is, between him and Everything Else (even himself). Always, pity rises in him. He feels tender toward the doomed world. “Lovely, lovely,” he thinks, those terraced fields clinging to the hillside. Beautiful, those trembling hands as the girl ties back her hair. Unforgettable, those unnoticed acts of individual courage — one person’s “I refuse” in the face of ravening despair.
Four seasons. Four seasons have wheeled round since he first climbed to the roof, sent here by a woman who thinks like a man. “Watch,” the queen said. And so. Short naps on his arms like a dog. Fear of discovery flapping its soft wings against his face. Doubt. Time passing and passing and passing like a shuttle drawing a sable thread through a warp of solid black. And more than once, tears. Tears for what once was and can never be again.
In any case, a watchman must watch. Some night soon, he hopes and he dreads, will offer up that bonfire on the horizon, signaling that they have done what they sailed away to do: to end history, and to begin it.
Twenty-five feet below Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama, I found this tunnel. See for yourself. Rusting metal chutes jutting from the ceiling. Water seeping through the walls and trickling into black puddles on the floor. A blooming pattern of lime-green and ocher. Underfoot, a metal grid forever carrying the ghosts of furnace workers, swinging their ropy forearms, into the darkness beyond.
What strange beauty.
I’ve been thinking recently about some words from an old essay by Adam Parry on the Aeneid. They go, “It is as if Virgil were telling us that the way to resolve our personal sorrow over the losses of history is to regard these losses in the same mood as we would a beautifully wrought vessel of clear glass.”
They put me in mind of a scene described by Holocaust survivor Thomas Buergenthal in his memoir A Lucky Child:
As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, making frequent stops, we began to see men, women, and children standing on the bridges we passed under. They waved to us and shouted, and then loaves of bread began to fall into our train.
Can you see it? Two lines, crossing but not quite intersecting. Above, faces looking down, arms extended. Below, faces turned up, arms reaching. Look now, loaves of bread falling, falling, falling through the empty air. Other lines, too — the invisible ones of a gargantuan family tree, millions upon millions of branchlets that you must trace back to their union with sturdy branches and then to their joining at massive limbs and finally to the trunk itself, where (behold!) carved into the bark are pictures of hunters and gatherers, standing amazed before a field ruled with furrows straight as a train track. Hoe, mattock, plow. And there, too, an image of the very first oven for baking bread, ancient precursor of the iron ovens at Auschwitz, to which Tommy Buergenthal’s train is headed, inexorably, ten thousand years later.
A mirage, then. All those straight lines are a mirage. Instead, a perfect circle. As perfect, in its way, as a beautifully wrought vessel of pure glass.
I read the other day that outbreaks of Ebola virus in humans are quite probably due to deforestation. Fruit bats from deep in the forest are attracted to the newly open areas. These bats bring the virus with them. Patient Zero in the outbreak in 2014, which killed 11,000 people, was a toddler in Guinea, who had been playing near a giant dead tree swarming with bats.
For millennia, we’ve cleared the forests to farm, to gather fuel, to harvest building materials, and to dig for precious metals and minerals. We’ve hacked our way through the primordial forest to locate the Tree of Life. And in doing so, we’ve opened a Pandora’s box of deadly viruses, exterminated an untold number of potential cures for disease, and filled Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gases. That is, we went looking for life, and we’ve managed in doing so to hasten our own death.
What strange beauty, the symmetry of it all.
There’s a verse in Virgil’s Aeneid that reads, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt (1.462). It means something like, “Here are tears for the way things are, and the plight of mortals touches the heart.” In Adam Parry’s view, the epic poet is inviting his readers to find consolation and hope in our willingness to look squarely at all of human history, both good and bad, with detachment enough to feel sorrow at what is undeniably sorrowful in our condition, even — though it may be difficult for any of us to reach this degree of detachment — to regard sorrow itself as a thing to be desired.
Longtime readers of Traces know that Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) is a touchtone for me. In the scene below, Malick captures something of the sensibility that Parry claims infuses Virgil’s Aeneid. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) stands in for us, the film’s audience, as he stands watching the Melanesian villagers with whom he has been living, and thinks about the death of his mother:
I remember my mother when she was dyin’, looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn’t find nothin’ beautiful or uplifting about her goin’ back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it’d be when I died, what it’d be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same… calm. ‘Cause that’s where it’s hidden – the immortality I hadn’t seen.
In that calm, even if it is a sorrowful calm, we can be open to the full range of our existence, from our births to our deaths, from our triumphs to our failures, from our great suffering to our wonderful consolations.
In that calm, we can honor those who came before, and those who will come after.
In that calm, we can live fully, capable of acting both for ourselves and for others.
from Scar Tissue (2006)
Suzanne Plunkett / AP
“It’s about fear. You know! They’re all throbbing with fear. We all are.”
He drank the tea without cleaning the lipstick off the rim.
“Bits of it floating in the air. It’s like dust. You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything. You’re breathing it in. You touch it. You drink it. You eat it. But it’s so fine you don’t notice it. But you’re covered in it. It’s everywhere. What I mean is, we’re afraid. Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues. If we’ve stopped to take account of it, we’d just fall into despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.”
“I don’t know. That’s my problem.”
~Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (more…)
Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than Man:
his footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter,
up the stiff blue waves and every Tuesday
down he grinds the unastonishable earth
with horse and shatter.
Shatters too the cheeks of birds and traps them in his forest headlights,
salty silvers roll into his net, he weaves it just for that,
this terribly quiet customer.
animals and mountains technically,
by yoke he makes the bull bend, the horse to its knees.
And utterance and thought as clear as complicated air and
moods that make a city moral, these he taught himself.
The snowy cold he knows to flee
and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in:
every outlet works but
Death stays dark.
Death he cannot doom.
honest oath taking notwithstanding.
Hilarious in his high city
you see him cantering just as he please,
the lava up to here.