The release date for The Burdens of Aeneas: A Son’s Memoir of Duty and Love (Mercer University Press) is May 1, 2018. Two birthdays! My wife’s and this book’s, the gestation of which was a LOT longer than nine months — more like fifteen years.
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.
Early yesterday morning, the phone rang. Too early. I saw my mother’s name in white letters on a black screen. My heart skipped a beat.
She was calling me at not quite the crack of dawn to tell me that she had a proposal, namely, that on my visit later this week, I read aloud to her James Joyce’s “The Dead,” followed by a critical essay on the story by Cleanth Brooks. She said I’d find the essay somewhere in the archives of The Southern Review.
I give her due credit for not saying into her phone, “I’m not dying, sweetheart, but I do want you to read me ‘The Dead.'”
“The Dead” is the concluding story in Dubliners, which appeared in June 1914. (Meanwhile, on June 28, in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Already in turn-of-the-century Dublin, as Joyce depicts it, the characters sense that an epoch is passing. Within days of his book’s publication, that world would be gone forever.)
The story has two parts. (more…)
“I stopped speaking and went on board ship, bidding my companions come aboard and unmoor us. They did so immediately, and having settled themselves in order upon the benches, they struck the gray sea with their oars. When we reached the mainland nearby, we saw a cave at the edge of the sea, lofty and overhung with laurel. Many animals were being kept there, both sheep and goats, and a high forecourt had been built of flagstones ringed round with long pines and tall oaks. And there dwelled a giant of a man, who kept to himself as he tended his flocks and herds, aloof, having nothing to do with others, rather in his isolation doing just as he pleased. For he was a wonder to behold, gigantic, not at all like a bread-eating man, but like a single forested peak in a towering mountain range, standing out from the others” (Homer, Odyssey 9.177-92).
Suppose you’re just a tad skeptical that you yourself have a personal destiny, and that it was created by a god who dipped from two jars, one full of blessings and the other of sorrows.
Suppose the implication of that scenario, viz., that every other human being partakes of your condition, if not your exact circumstances, doesn’t do anything for you.
Suppose the thought, “Their joy is my joy, their suffering my suffering, and so there can be no genuine peace, no true justice until every single one of us shares them,” just makes you super tired and a bit cranky.
Maybe you’d prefer a life that resembles the cyclops’ cave, that is, a refuge from other people and their messy, tedious, these-are-so-emphatically-NOT-MY problems. Dark in there? Dank? A bit cramped? Sure. But try squinting. Or if you happen to have just the one big round eye in the middle of your forehead, you won’t have to. (more…)