Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The End of the World

With the approach of 2012, apocalyptic thoughts are in order, not just because of the passing of the old year but also because the next winter solstice will, according to some, bring the end of the world. Throughout history--at least throughout Western history--there has been no shortage of those who propound eschataological theories, and this matter of the Mayan calendar is simply the latest in a very long line which includes the Anglo-Saxon Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Joachim de Fiore, Karl Marx, and Oswald Spengler, to site some of the more impressive. (One might also name Al Gore, though perhaps he is not quite in Spengler's league.)

I recently came across a very different apocalyptic statement, one which took me quite by surprise because of the the way in which it differs not only from the more sensational predictions found here and there in our culture but also for the way in which its content differs from its title. The title is "A Song on the End of the World," and the whole is a poem by Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. It is found in his volume Ocalenie (Rescue--aptly named, since it was published in 1945), and it runs as follows:

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspouts young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy near the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightening and thunder
Are diasppointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

This poem struck me as a revelation and that for various reasons. First is the drama of the poem itself. On my first reading, I was pruriently drawn in by the title, hoping to find, if not some certain secret gnosis about the end of the world, then at least some information about the eschatological views of a poet I admire. But as one reads through the poem, hoping to find some portentious significance in the bee circling the clover or the yellow-sailed boat approaching the island, one feels growing disappointment and doubt. Both disappointment and doubt are confirmed at the beginning of the third section, in which the poet confesses that you will find no traditional apocalyptic here: in the poet's view, the end of the world consists only of ordinary things, though it is well to note that these ordinary occurrences are all of them suffused with a joy--explicitly in the case of the porpoises and young sparrows and infants being born, more implictly in the glimmering of the net which is growing better under the careful hand of the fisherman.

But the poet goes further still. The final section of the poem gives us a pointed assertion that the traditional accounts of the end of the world are wrong: the end of the world will not come as one grand, climactic event, though such events as the sack of Rome or WWI do indeed occur in human history. No, the summation of all history, the thing that in the end brings clarity and a sense of order to experience is nothing less than existence itself, which, according to the white-haired prophet at the end of the poem, is the most important thing itself. Those philosophical malcontents who wish to see the end of the present order because for them human history is a series of miserable failures better blotted from all consciousness desire a final accounting, in which they, the virtuous, will be recognized by all as having been right all along, while their foes will finally understand in a stunning epiphany that they have lived in darkness and error. For Miłosz, however, the point of human existence is apparently not a matter of meting out justice to the rest of mankind; human existence is something far more wonderful, something that surpasses the ability of any human intelligence to lay hold of, sum up in a phrase or a system, and thus possess (with self-satisfaction) more than can some rival thinker or actor upon this stage of life.

But the poem is not simply a debunking of an overly-dramatic reading of human history. It is also the most wonderful of affirmations. One might expect that a writer who had lived through the Nazi occupation of his beloved homeland and the subsequent invasion by the Soviet Union, one who had by the time he wrote this song expressed himself in an unforgettable poem on the slaughter of the Jews in Poland, one might expect such a writer to long for a final accounting that would bring to book all those perpetrators of titanic evil that flourished in Europe during the middle third of the twentieth century. Instead, however, he delivers a quiet, joyful affirmation of the most common and, dare one say, banal events.

Such an affirmation might well be a puzzle until one reflects again on the title. Our hunger for sensationalism blinds us to the other meaning of the eponymous phrase: "the end of the world," i.e., the purpose of the world, the reason for the world. Here the poet of Catholic sensibilities, one who perhaps heard less at Mass about the final moments in history when Christ will come back to judge the world than about the coming of Christ every day in the bread and wine, seems to point out that the world is indeed instinct at every moment with divine significance. Every event he describes, every happening is a celebration of something that is, a recognition that the Divine Existence has called all things into being and that they are good. In such a view, the myriad, countless beings now on earth and all their riot of vitality serve as evidence of the sheer goodness of God's creation. The purpose of the world, then, its end, is to hold brimful God's creation in all of its magnificent particularity.

In an introduction he wrote many years later to an anthology of poetry that he edited, Miłosz casts the same ideas in prose: "When W.H. Auden says that the poetry 'must praise all it can for being and happening,' he is expressing a theological belief. Affirmation of life has a long, distinguished past in Western thought. Thomas Aquinas' placing of an equal sign between God and pure being belongs here, as does the constant identification of evil with insufficiency of being, by means of which the Devil acts as the power of nothingness. Also in this history is the song of wonder at Nature conceived as the work of the Creator's hands, work which inspired countless painters and supplied a powerful impetus to scholars, at least in the first phase of victoriously ascendant science. 'The Metaphysical Sense of the Wondrousness of Being' means, above all, that contemplating a tree or a rock or a man, we suddenly comprehend that it is, even though it might not have been." ("Against Incomprehensible Poetry" in To Begin Where I Am.)

That calling attention to what is, says Miłosz, is one of the characteristics of good poetry. Homer, I think, would agree, for he is above all the poet of wonderfully specific physical detail, and so would Shakespeare. Anna Akhmatova, who like Miłosz suffered as a poet under a Communist regime, says in a famous line that poetry arises precisely from a jumble of trash. One man's trash, says the old apothegm, is another man's treasure, and thus what Akhmatova surely must mean is that poetry begins in specific experience. On this even the poets of classical China and Japan agree. This affirmation underwrites Miłosz's very fine "Song on the End of the World."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, ctd.

Still thinking about the passing of Christopher Hitchens (an obsession fueled in part by reading through so very many eulogies by so many different people), I recently came across the following paragraph in Czesław Miłosz' essay "Religion and Space," which seems apposite:

"I am not afraid to say that a devout and God-fearing man is superior as a human specimen to a restless mocker who is glad to style himself an 'intellectual,' proud of his cleverness in using ideas which he claims as his own though he acquired them in a pawnshop in exchange for simplicity of heart. Besides, it seems to me that we are born either pious or impious, and I would be glad were I able to number myself among the former. Piety has no need of definition--either it is there or it is not. It persists independently of the division of people into believers and atheists, an illusory division today, since faith is undermined by disbelief in faith, and disbelief by disbelief in itself. The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions--the bread on the table, the rough tree trunk which is, the depths of 'being' I can intuit in the letter opener lying in front of me, entirely steeped and established in its 'being.' My piety would shame me if it meant that I possessed something others did not. Mine, however, is a piety without a home; it survives the obsessive, annihilating image of universal disjointedness and, fortunately, allows me no safe superiority."

Well said (as always with Miłosz) and almost perfectly appropriate to the occasion.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the obituaries of Christopher Hitchens with which the press abounds today is the way in which they teem with moving and amusing details of a life fully lived. That certainly is the theme of Hitchens' (awkwardly titled) memoir of a couple of years ago, Hitch-22, a book that is nothing if not a contemporary celebration of Epicureanism--in the best sense of the term. On the more immediate, physical end of the Epicurean spectrum, there are the booze and the smokes, both of which seem to have been ever-present personal accessories. They were not, however, pure affectations, for Hitchens seemed to think them essential to the somewhat bohemian figure he cut among contemporary journalists, a throwback to the adventurer-writers of the early and middle twentieth century, towering figures like George Orwell (whom he adored) railing against oppressive tyrants at a time when people played for keeps. That the booze and cigarettes were both props and something more than props is clear in the photographs from Vanity Fair illustrating Hitchens' stint in the gym conducting research for a series he did on healthy living. The photos show him, cigarette and glass in hand, in a health club, in which he looks as much at home as he would at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in rural Mississippi.

But there is also a higher-end Epicureanism of which he was, once again, one of the principal exponents of our time. For Hitch-22 is also a testimony to friendship, and to the friendship of many of the foremost men of letters of the English-speaking world, such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan. (So enthusiastically does Hitchens testify to friendship that a number of his eulogists in the press today have hastened to point out that they, too, were among the number. Christopher Buckley, for instance, in his obituary on Hitchens for the New Yorker, writes in his usual self-serving way, making clear in his tribute that he knew Hitchens very well indeed.) Hitchens' memoir speaks also of the joys of reading, of writing the well-crafted sentence, of high polemical drama, and of fine conversation. This is indeed the stuff of the high-minded epicure, even as wine, women, and tobacco--all of which abound in Hitch-22--form the dreams of the garden-variety epicures of any time and place.

If Hitchens' life had simply been filled with fun and drama, however, he would have offered little more than entertainment, but like any good work of art, his life gave instruction as well as delight. His best--and defining--quality is his opposition to tyranny in any form, particularly political. His aversion to those who abused power marked him throughout his life, and it does much to explain his opposition to the Vietnam War (which he opposed in part because of the way the young draftees, mostly from the lower classes unable to purchase college deferments, were at the mercy of politicians who to all appearances were more interested in their careers than in the lives of the soldiers). Near the other end of his career, it explains his support for George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, since to him American involvement meant the end of a ruthless regime that capriciously, often for its own entertainment, brutally ended the lives of its citizens. And in his case, as in that of his hero Orwell, his firm belief in human freedom and equality proved stronger than his ties to party or his loyalty to any group. One of the most interesting sections of his memoir recounts his journey in 1968 to a Cuban work camp for international supporters of the Castro regime, an experience with which he quickly grew disillusioned when his minders refused to let him wander the country and see for himself how the revolution had remade society. His deepening suspicion of Castro's regime led him to speak out against it, though in the 1960s and early 1970s, support for Castro, as for Mao, was still a shibboleth of the radical left, with which Hitchens had long identified.

Indeed, his willingness to break with colleagues, to risk ostracism by the tribe, is another of his most admirable qualities. Perhaps the best portion of his memoir concerns the events surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. Because the novel is offensive to radical Islamic sensibilities, it earned Rushdie a fatwa from the Aaytollah Khomeni, who placed the author under a sentence of death. Then as now, left-wing artists and writers, those who prided themselves on their transgressive boldness in applauding such desecrations as gained Robert Mapplethorpe his fame in the 1990s, were cowed into silence when confronted with a religion that is willing to answer blasphemy with death. (Even Rushdie himself tried to placate the Islamofascists by issuing an essay in which he claimed that he was, in fact, a believing Muslim.) Hitchens alone stood up to such threats and urged the international community of writers to sign a petition of solidarity with Rushdie. As if to confirm (for the hundredth time) what Mario Vargas Llosa has said about los intellectuales barratos, those who talk a good game about their independence of thought but who can without difficulty be bullied or bought into silence, Hitchens was at first almost alone in this stand. Eventually he persuaded such as Susan Sontag to stand with him, but some, including Arthur Miller (whose Crucible, precisely about how terrible it is for a state to bully its citizens, is supposed to serve as a cautionary tale about the McCarthyism of the 1950s) proved very reluctant indeed. Eventually Hitchens rounded up enough signatories to make a credible show of opposition to Khomeni's censorship, but had it not been for his single-handed efforts, this chilling act of repression would have met no serious response anywhere in the Western world.

Toward the end of his life, Hitchens gained a deal of notoriety for his atheism, which is surely his least attractive quality, though it is in a way related to those traits that made him so admirable. Hitchens was no great philosophical thinker; the stands he took usually issued from the viscera, which is perhaps why he could be so passionately devoted to his causes. Such an m.o. works very well indeed when the topic at hand is the oppression of women under sharia law; it works less well when the topic is the existence of God, a question that has summoned some of the subtlest and most profound philosophical thought in the history of the West. Hitchens was a thorough-going atheist, and as a philosophical matter, atheism is simply untenable. At the very most, a person committed only to the merest logical consideration of the question can be an agnostic, because just as one cannot prove God's existence through logic, so neither can one disprove His existence, either. One can only go so far as to raise serious objections to the arguments for the existence of God, but calling into question His existence does not by any means prove conclusively that He doesn't exist. When Aquinas asserts that the universe must have a creator since everything we see has a cause, one can indeed respond with, "Then who made God?" But this problem with Aquinas' argument does not mean that God does not exist; and to anyone confidently asserting that He is not, one can always ask with Pascal, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" To this question the atheist has no response, nor can he ever have, and thus his confidence that God does not exist is a confidence based on nothing at all. For this reason, Hitchens' insouciance about the matter, though it was of a piece with his more attractive political convictions, was ultimately annoying because he uttered with such conviction assertions about which if he was certain then he was wrong. His commitment in the matter led him at times to foolish extremes, as when, having to defend in debate with Dinesh D'Souza the position that religion poisons everything, he explained away the horrors of the atheist regimes by using the utter sophism that Naziism and Communism were deeply religious at their core. Much better to have conceded uncertainty on the big question and not therefore have felt himself required to utter nonsense on the subsidiary points.

Had he done so, however, had he been more philosophically modest, he would not have been Hitch, the embodiment of common sense, whose instinctive understanding of right and wrong endowed his commitments not only with wit but with a strong emotional force. That emotional force, which runs throughout a rich and colorful life, animated his politics for good and his metaphysics for ill. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Debate Tonight

Newt Gingrich I think took on water tonight as a result of the strong attacks on him from all sides because of his lobbying for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. His explanations were sophistic, and the attackers were able to speak much more clearly than he on the matter.

I think that Newt Gingrich has floated an interesting idea about how to rein in the courts. He certainly gave a very strong answer to Megyn Kelly's skeptical question by citing the precedent of Thomas Jefferson firing eighteen federal judges. I think that Michelle Bachmann showed her stature by not attacking Gingrich on this matter simply in order to gain attention. I think too that Romney's answer was weak: unless I misheard, he indicated that Congess is not supposed to oversee the judicial branch. (One possible alternative response to Gingrich might have been that the best answer to the problem is not so radically to interfere with the courts but to nominate--and fight tooth and nail for the confirmation of--wise judges.) Ron Paul's assertion that all the justices on the Supreme Court are good and bad is a bit childish. In what serious sense is Justice Thomas bad; in what legal sense at all is Justice Ginsburg good? Kudos to Megyn Kelly, however, for posing questions on such an important matter.

Ron Paul is now arguing that there is no evidence that Iran is soon to get a nuclear weapon. He may be right, but he might be wrong. "I would say the greatest danger is that we would overreact," he just said, but isn't the greater danger that Iran will get a nuclear weapon? Just now Paul has paraphrased the CIA as saying that radical Muslims come here and want to harm us because we are bombing them. Really? 9-11 occurred because we were bombing the Muslim world? Incidentally, I am glad that Bachmann cited the IAEA report that asserts Iran is about to gain a nuclear weapon and that Paul flatly disputed her point. We should know tomorrow who was correct.

I'm not sure I understand what Rick Santorum's purpose is in this campaign. Michelle Bachmann represents the solid conservative position more ably and attractively than does he; all he does is split that vote, which otherwise would be showing more strongly than it is at the moment.
If it were to show more strongly, it would gain more media attention and might grow stronger still.

Great answer by Gingrich on the matter of the Keystone pipeline and the way in which the current Administration is tied in knots in ways which hurt the nation because of his reelection campaign. Michelle Bachmann made the same point with less dramatic language.

On the whole, I think that Gingrich did well tonight, and I think that Paul did himself no favors. I am also glad that Michelle Bachmann did well. TMH still supports her for President. She may not have a prayer, but more than any other candidate she speaks clearly consistently.