“A Fable” by Louise Glück

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Louise Glück

Two women with
the same claim
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
empty-handed. He
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
women, one
renounced her share:
this was
the sign, the lesson.
Suppose
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself— she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.

__________

“A Fable” by Louise Glück.

‘We Are the People Who Sanctify Life’: Jonathan Sacks on Israel

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“Let me tell you, friends, what Israel is.

Elaine and I have just come back… We saw the Laniado Hospital in the Netanya, a place I always visit because it moves me beyond words. Many of you know the Laniado Hospital was built by an Auschwitz survivor who during the Holocaust lost his wife and all 11 children. And there in the camps of death made an oath that if he should ever survive he would dedicate the rest of his life to saving life.

Israel is the sustained defiance of hatred and power in the name of life because we are the people who sanctify life.

Israel has been surrounded by enemies and yet it has shown that even so you can still be a democracy, still have a free press, still have an independent judiciary. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where a Palestinian can stand up on national television and criticize the government and the next day still be a free human being.

Israel is an inspiration to the world… On one of my visits to Hong Kong, I went to see Mr. Tung Chee Hwa, the Beijing appointment as head of Hong Kong. And I tell you this man, this Chinese appointment, is a lover of Jews and Judaism and Israel. He said to me, ‘You know, your people and my people are very old people. You’ve been around 6,000 years; we’ve been around 5,000 years. Tell me, I always wanted to know, what did you do for the first thousand years before you had Chinese takeaway?’ [Laughter.]

I said, ‘Mr. Tung, you want to know what we did for the first thousand years? We complained about the food.’ [Laughter.]

Jonathan Sacks

And Mr. Tung said to me, I want to go and visit Israel because I see that as the model of development for us. And he did go two or three months later and came back absolutely inspired. And I went straight to the Israeli ambassador in London and said, ‘Look how the world has changed. There was a time when Israel dreamed about being the Hong Kong of the Middle East; today Hong Kong dreams of being the Israel of the Far East.’

Think about the Jewish people. How probable is it that one man, Abraham, who commanded no empire, ordered no army, performed no miracle, delivered no prophecy, should today be perhaps the most influential man who ever lived, who’s claimed as the spiritual ancestor by 2.4 billion Christians and most of you in the room today? [Laughter]

How probable is it that this tiny people, the Jewish people, numbering less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the population of the world, should have outlived the world’s greatest empires — the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans — every empire that ever stood up to destroy us? They are being consigned to history, and still we stand and sing Am Yisrael Chai.

How likely is it that after 2,000 years of exile our people should have come back to our land — having stood in Auschwitz a mere three years earlier, eyeball to eyeball with the Angel of Death — and therein say lo amut kiechyeh: I will not die but I will live? Israel is the greatest collective affirmation of life in the whole of modern history.

Friends, the Jews represent the defeat of probability by the power of possibility. And nowhere will you see the power of possibility more than in the state of Israel today. Israel has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. Israel has taken an ancient language, the language of the Bible, and make it speak again. Israel has taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. Israel has taken a shattered nation and made it live again.”

__________

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking at the 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference.

To get the full effect, listen to Sacks give the talk in his impeccable voice.

Chief Rabbi

Where Was Man?

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William Styron 324

Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.

The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’

And the answer: ‘Where was man?’”

__________

From the epilogue of Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.

“What the Pencil Writes” by James Laughlin

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John- February 2005 203

Often when I go out I
put in my coat pocket

some paper and a pen-
cil in case I want to

write something down
well there they are

wherever I go and as
my coat moves the pen-

cil writes by itself
a kind of gibberish

hieroglyphic which I
often think as I un-

dress at night & take
out those papers with

nothing written on
them but strange and

meaningless marks is
the story of my life.

__________

“What the Pencil Writes” by James Laughlin.

Alexander’s Horse

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Ranch - Thanksgiving 3

“There came a day when Philoneicus the Thessalian brought Philip (Alexander’s father) a horse named Bucephalus. The king and his friends went down to the plain to watch the horse’s trials, and came to the conclusion that he was wild and unmanageable, for he would allow no one to mount him. The king became angry at being offered such a vicious animal unbroken, and ordered it to be led away.

But Alexander, who was standing close by, remarked, ‘What a horse they are losing, and all because they don’t know how to handle him, or dare not try.’…

Alexander went quickly up to Bucephalus, took hold of his bridle, and turned him towards the sun, for he had noticed that the horse was shying at the sight of his own shadow, as it fell in front of him and constantly moved whenever he did. He ran alongside the animal for a little way, calming him down by stroking him, and then, when he saw he was full of spirit and courage, he quietly threw aside his cloak with a light spring vaulted safely on to his back… Finally, when he saw that the horse was free of his fears and impatient to show his speed, he gave him his reigns and urged him forward.

At First Philip and his friends held their breath until they saw Alexander reach the end of his gallop, turn in full control, and ride back triumphant. Thereupon the rest of the company broke into loud applause, while his father, we are told, actually wept for joy, and when Alexander had dismounted he kissed him and said, ‘My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you.’”

__________

A modern translation of the semi-mythic story “Alexander Tames Bucephalus” by Plutarch. This event would have occurred in 344 BC, when Alexander was 13.

Bucephalus, which means “ox head,” is the most famous horse of antiquity. According to his extensive wiki, he was black with a white star; his massive head, which would have been the foremost point of the charging Grecian army, was cast into busts and adorned some of the currency of the Greek empire in the century following his death.

Two more excerpts:

When Alexander’s sarcophagus was brought from its shrine, Augustus gazed at the body, then laid a crown of gold on its glass case and scattered some flowers to pay his respects. When they asked if he would like to see Ptolemy too, ‘I wished to see a king,’ he replied, ‘I did not wish to see corpses.’
Suetonius, Life of Augustus (121 AD)

As for the exact thoughts in Alexander’s mind, I am neither able nor concerned to guess them, but this I think I can state, that nothing common or mean would have been his intention; he would not have remained content with any of his conquests, not even if he had added the British Isles to Europe; he would always have searched beyond for something unknown, and if there had been no other competition, he would have competed against himself.
Arrian, History of Alexander’s Expeditions (140 AD)

One more post:

Shostakovich and Music as a Protest against Death

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Dmitri Shostakovich

“Shostakovich knew that death — unless it came in the form of heroic martyrdom — was not an appropriate subject for Soviet art, that it was ‘tantamount to wiping your nose on your sleeve in company.’ He could not have the Dies Irae blaze from his scores; he had to be musically covert. But increasingly, the cautious composer found the courage to draw his sleeve across his nostrils, especially in his chamber music. His last works often contain long, slow, meditative invocations of mortality. The violist of the Beethoven Quartet was once given the following advice about the first movement of the fifteenth quartet by its composer: ‘Play it so that the flies drop dead in mid-air.’”

“At the premiere, Shostakovich overcame his usual shyness to explain to the audience that, ‘Life is man’s dearest possession. It is given to him only once and he should live so as not to experience acute pain at the thought of the years wasted aimlessly or feel searing shame for his petty and inglorious past, but be able to say, at the moment of death, that he has given all his life and energies to the noblest cause in the world – to fight for the liberation of humanity. I want listeners to this symphony to realize that ‘life’ is truly beautiful. My symphony is an impassioned protest against death, a reminder to the living that they should live honestly, conscientiously, nobly, never committing a base act. This is very important for much time will pass before scientists have succeeded in ensuring immortality. Death is in store for all of us and I for one do not see any good in the end of our lives. Death is terrifying. There is nothing beyond it.’ … [Shostakovich] disagreed with all the composers who had portrayed death with music that was beautiful, radiant and ecstatic. For him, death really was the end and he took that as an inspiration to make sure that he lived his life to its full.”

__________

Paragraphs excerpted from Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of and the meticulous notes of composer Mark Wigglesworth. A fly-stunning version of Shostakovich’s fifteenth quartet is here.

Both writers cite a further, clarifying reflection from Shostakovich, which MW describes, “In the disputed memoirs… [Shostakovich] talks revealingly about death:

Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all. I sometimes think that there is no deeper feeling. The irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear people create poetry, prose and music; that is they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence on them. How can you not fear death? [...] We should think more about it and accustom ourselves to it. We can’t allow the fear of death to creep up on us unexpectedly. I think that if people began thinking about death sooner, they would make fewer mistakes.

Shostakovich makes the common though deeply misguided assumption that death serves no purpose — that there is not “any good in the end of our lives.” Of course there are individual tragedies which aren’t, in any sense, “good.” But death does the essential business of lending life a clarity and urgency it otherwise would not have. Saul Bellow’s brilliant metaphor, that death is “the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see ourselves,” sets the idea in place: without an ending, albeit an opague one, there is no way to focus on ourselves.

In case that metaphor hasn’t fully absorbed, Alan Lightman’s short story collection Einstein’s Dreams features a fictional world in which people live forever. He characterizes the tragedy of these immortal inhabitants:

[T]hey can do all they can imagine. They will have an infinite number of careers, they will marry an infinite number of times, they will change their politics infinitely. Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer…

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, great-great-aunts, and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their father. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own.

Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

More:

  • Barnes looks at how his understanding of mortality changed as he entered adulthood
  • Sam Harris puts a fine point on the tragedy of wasted time
  • Neurologist David Eagleman explains how consciousness may transcend the physical brain

Dmitri Shostakovich

“Ancient of Days” by Charles Wright

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John- June 2006 231

There is a kind of sunlight, in early autumn, at sundown,
That raises cloud reflections
Inches above the pond water,
that sends us packing into the chill evening
To stand like Turner’s blobbed figurines
In a landscape we do not understand,
whatever and everything
We know about it.
Unworldly and all ours,
it glides like the Nineteenth Century
Over us, up the near hill
And into the glistening mittens of the same clouds
Now long gone from the world’s pond.
So long.

This is an old man’s poetry,
written by someone who’s spent his life
Looking for one truth.
Sorry, pal, there isn’t one.
Unless, of course, the trees and their bow-down relatives
Are part of it.
Unless the late-evening armada of clouds
Spanished along the horizon are part of it.
Unless the diminishing pinprick of light
stunned in the dark forest
Is part of it.
Unless, O my, whatever the eye makes out,
And sends us, on its rough-road trace,
To the heart, is part of it,
then maybe that bright vanishing might be.

__________

“Ancient of Days” by Charles Wright, who was just named Poet Laureate of the United States.

The picture: snapped in Houston, Texas, 2006.

Starting with Scattered Shepherd Tribes

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“I had from childhood the singular habit of always learning by heart the beginnings of books, and the divisions of a work, first of the five books of Moses, and then of the Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses… If an ever busy imagination, of which that tale may bear witness, led me hither and thither, if the medley of fable and history, mythology and religion, threatened to bewilder me, I readily fled to those oriental regions, plunged into the first books of Moses, and there, amid the scattered shepherd tribes, found myself at once in the greatest solitude and the greatest society.”

__________

From Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.

“Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth” by John Updike

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John Updike

They’ve been in my fiction; both now dead,
Peggy just recently, long stricken (like
my Grandma) with Parkinson’s disease.
But what a peppy knockout Peggy was!—
cheerleader, hockey star, May Queen, RN.
Pigtailed in kindergarten, she caught my mother’s
eye, but she was too much girl for me.
Fred—so bright, so quietly wry—his
mother’s eye fell on me, a “nicer” boy
than her son’s pet pals. Fred’s slight wild streak
was tamed by diabetes. At the end,
it took his toes and feet. Last time we met,
his walk rolled wildly, fetching my coat. With health
he might have soared. As was, he taught me smarts.
Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.
To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life. Even then were tears
and fear and struggle, but the town itself
draped in plain glory the passing days.
The town forgave me for existing; it
included me in Christmas carols, songfests
(though I sang poorly) at the Shillington,
the local movie house. My father stood,
in back, too restless to sit, but everybody
knew his name, and mine. In turn I knew
my Granddad in the overalled town crew.
I’ve written these before, these modest facts,
but their meaning has no bottom in my mind.
The fragments in their jiggled scope collide
to form more sacred windows. I had to move
to beautiful New England—its triple
deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets—
to learn how drear and deadly life can be.

__________

“Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth” by John Updike.

This poem was the seventh in his ten-part series “Endpoint,” published posthumously in the New Yorker in March 2009. I was lucky enough to see the man give one of his last public readings only two years before he penned this.

When the Wealthy Fought on the Frontlines

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Greek myths

“Glaucus, you know how you and I
Have the best of everything in Lycia —
Seats, cuts of meat, full cups, everybody
Looking at us as if we were gods?

Not to mention our estates on the Xanthus,
Fine orchards and riverside wheat fields.
Well, now we have to take our stand at the front,
Where all the best fight, and face the heat of battle,
So that many an armored Lycian will say,
‘So they’re not inglorious after all,
Our Lycian lords who eat fat sheep
And drink the sweetest wine. No,
They’re strong, and fight with our best.’
Ah, my friend, if you and I could only
Get out of the war alive and then
Be immortal and ageless all of our days.
I would never again fight among the foremost
Or send you into battle where men win glory.

But as it is, death is everywhere
In more shapes that we can count,
And since no mortal is immune or can escape,
Let’s go forward, either to give glory
To another man or get glory from him.”

__________

Sarpedon speaking to Glaucus during the height of the Trojan War. Lines 320-342 in book 12 of Homer’s Iliad (Lombardo translation).

The wealthy, the heads of government fighting at the front lines. What a concept.

More war:

Why Liberty?

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H. L. Mencken“I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value.

I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave…

In any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen… I am against all efforts to make men virtuous by law.”

__________

From H.L. Mencken, writing in his article “Why Liberty?”, published in the Chicago Tribune on January 30th, 1927.

I had to reread this essential essay after scanning the sixth chapter of Mencken’s Prejudices a few nights ago and running across his consummately cool statement that, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” Of course the thought is only metaphorical — and its overt violence only meant to instill verve, not aggression, in the reader — but under the shadow of the monsters now slitting throats under black flags across Iraq and Syria, the paragraph didn’t sit well. But that’s not Mencken’s fault, and there could be no more durable, stalwart rebuke of Takfirism, Salafism, and all other totalitarianisms than his article “Why Liberty,” published only a decade after the October Revolution and a decade before the Spanish Civil War.

Read on:

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