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  • Pär Lagerkvist’s Irrevocable Divide


    Gertrude-Stein-Pablo-Picasso-1906I try to imagine them meeting in Paris: the young Pär Lagerkvist and Gertrude Stein. He, a Swede of peasant stock, shock of blond hair, taciturn not even the word for his humming inwardness. She, agate-eyed, operatic in force and figure, Alice in tow, compelling him to come furrow his Nordic brow at the three Juan Gris paintings she’s just purchased. What an awakening it must have been for him – this woman, this modern art – comparable, perhaps, to his discovery of the work of Charles Darwin while at the gymnasium not so many years earlier. That prior awakening had precipitated, or at least correlated with, a radical turn from the pietistic religion of his parents to an ardent, agnostic socialism. He and a small group of likeminded students would meet on Sunday mornings, as the church bell tolled in the little town of Växjö, in southern Sweden, where he’d grown up, to discuss Thomas Huxley, Flammarion, and Kropotkin. In Paris, he sees, there would have been no need for such statement making. Paris. And this woman! These paintings!

    UnknownHowever I try, I can’t quite imagine this meeting, at least not without it coming off as a kind of mental cartoon in need of a caption. Stein, fundamentally large, the Empress of the avant guard, the quintessential American in Paris, seems formed of such different material from the bony young Scandinavian, practically born with intimations of mortality, looking like the mold from which any number of Bergman characters would later be cast. And yet, however unlikely, this meeting apparently happened, or so I read in the introduction to Evening Land, a volume of Lagerkvist’s late poems. I read that the art to which she exposed him – expressionism, cubism, naivism – influenced his early breakthrough in style far more than anything in literature.


    Pär Lagerkvist’s life seems to have been haunted by two enormities: God and Death. In his autobiographical novel, Guest of Reality, the principal character is a boy named Anders. Anders is born into a fiercely protestant family in which the Bible is one of the few books in the house. He becomes so obsessed with his fear of death that on a rainy day he takes himself to a flat stone in the forest to pray for the life of each member of his family. After a terrifying vision of a ghost locomotive rushing into the night in a spray of sparks, he comes to believe that the world of his father, in which all things were secure and certain under the certainty of God, was not real, and not his. Instead, “It just hurtled, blazing into the darkness that had no end.”

    It would prove to be an irrevocable divide for Pär, this longing for God while watching the very idea of God recede beyond possibility.

    If you believe in god and no god exists
    then your belief is an even greater wonder
    Then it is really something inconceivably great.

    Why should a being lie down there in the darkness crying to
    someone who does not exist?

    Why should that be?
    There is no one who hears when someone cries in the darkness.
    But why does that cry exist?

    Some of his very first writings were explorations of this divide. In 1912, before Paris, Stein, cubism, he wrote a piece for a Socialist magazine in which he envisioned a young hunter who catches sight of a woman by a spring. The hunter’s feelings are divided: He both yearns for her and wants to withdraw from her. He follows her, keeping himself hidden. When she reappears at the spring, he decides to kiss her, only to discover that, like Narcissus, he has kissed nothing but his own image in the water. He is completely alone. Lagerkvist called this Gudstanken: the idea of God.

    The woman, the hunter, and the spring, would reappear four and a half decades later in his novel The Sybil. This time the story is told by the woman. She is the chosen mouthpiece of a mysterious and powerful god. On feast days, pilgrims arrive by the hundreds at the temple with requests for prophecy. She enters a drug-induced trance during which the voice of the god erupts from her in inchoate shrieks and groans, which the priests then interpret. It becomes evident to her that they interpret in such a way as will benefit themselves and the economy of the town. She becomes a prophetess without faith. One day, walking through the woods, she arrives at a spring. She finds there a beautiful young man. Instead of a hunter, he is a one-armed soldier, and this time they meet, and fall in love. Their love becomes a god in which she can believe. When she becomes pregnant, she is expelled from the temple and banished forever from the town. The soldier, who had ceased loving her after witnessing her orgiastic convulsions at the temple, is discovered dead in a nearby stream. The child she bears grows up to be helpless and mute, forever an infant. In the end, he too leaves her, vanishing into the snowy peaks. And so she looses, at the same time, both a god of power and a god of love, and is left with what, at best, could be called a god of absence, and at worst, malevolence. But the god she longs for —that god does not exist.

    skanna00202For Lagerkvist, this divide, this longing for a nonexistent god, would itself become a kind of faith, if one accepts Paul Tillich’s term for faith as ultimate concern. “I am a believer without a faith,” he wrote, “a religious atheist. I understand Gethsemane, but not the jubilation over the victory.” But his work would show that he did have a kind of faith, a faith in the longing itself, as indicated by that subtly ecstatic final question of his poem, “But why, does that cry exist?” The asking belies a love that it does.

    Recently, I re-read Barabbas, the novel by which, if by any, Lagerkvist is generally known to readers in English. It is his imagining of the life of the world’s most famous bailed criminal. Beginning with his uncomprehending witness of the crucifixion, it traces his journey, not to faith, but near it, and into the ultimate, inscrutable dark. I found myself perplexed by Lagerkvist’s simple, almost naive, approach to the writing of this tale, wondering how he achieved such formidable drama. I think it is because of his love for that cry. It is the cry of one divided. In Lagerkvist’s vision, Barabbas, the man who cannot believe, burns with the greatest passion of all for God, or an idea of God to sustain him. That he never finds it is, paradoxically, his final grace; what would he have become if he had become, at last, peaceful? His eventual death at the hands of the Romans would, in the end, have had no more significance than that of any of the assured believers around him. Instead, he pays, by choice, the ultimate price for a God in whom he longs to believe but doesn’t, with no one to hear his “cries in the darkness.”


    May my heart’s disquiet never vanish.
    May I never be at peace.
    May I never be reconciled to life, nor to death either.
    May my path be unending, with death its unknowable goal.

    standard_lagerkvist_parFascinated, I read in quick succession The Sybil and The Dwarf, and found in each, as in Barabbas, a captivating protagonist, each different from the others in every way, save for an un-ironic seriousness through which they engage their ironic worlds. Each longs for God, or a stand-in for God, and fails to find either.

    I wanted to know more. I had not known that Lagerkvist was a playwright, apparently a great one, considered the successor of Ibsen and Strindberg. Nor that he was one of a small handful of poets to bring Swedish poetry into the modern era. For a little over a week now I’ve had by my side Evening Land (Aftonland), his final collection of poems, published in 1953, and happily translated by W. H. Auden. I find in them a voice so potent I am amazed to have never come across his poetry before. He appears in none of my anthologies. Surely, he is no Tranströmer, lacking the later poet’s power of image and, what? levitation? But I now understand how Tranströmer would not have been Tranströmer without Lagerkvist.

    One poem stopped me cold. It may be among the greatest statements of faith I have read by a modern poet:

    I wanted to know
    but was only allowed to ask,
    I wanted light
    but was only allowed to burn
    I demanded the ineffable
    but was only allowed to live.

    I complained,
    but nobody understood what I meant.

    To ask. To burn. To live. This, in the end is all one is permitted. It is not, as it nearly sounds, an Eastern approach to enlightenment, for the payoff is patently not equanimity. The revelation here is that one must do these things with or without one to accompany.


    I think that for Pär Lagerkvist, turning from God to Darwin, then to Picasso and Braque, was never really a turn from God in the first place, but rather a turning towards his own longing. I have no idea what kind of encounter he had with Gertrude Stein, or if there was any ensuing connection between them. But he must have seen in her another who, though she may never have said so, was, like him, longing for God. For what is the thirst for art and the far reaches of language if not a demand for the ineffable?

    Pär Lagerkvist, winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature: My Shortlist

    Bloopers loves books so much!


    A few years ago I mentioned to a good friend of mine who is a writer that I have never read Midnight’s Children. He didn’t say anything, but it was the kind of not-saying-anything with beats to it. I would say a full eight bars. “I’ve been meaning read it,” I assured him, as his silence began a second phrase, “I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”

    Like most readers, I hold in mind a list of books I’ve been meaning to read. It’s a list which includes books I almost certainly will actually read, but also others, many others, which, to the end, I will only ever mean to read. Which is to say, my list is a hedge against mortality. Such lists always are. It is defensive in other ways too: to say I mean to read a certain book – Emma, for instance – salves the moral sting of not having read it. That it is an ever-expanding list paradoxically marks the rise in my sins of omission while shoring up my sense of rectitude; surely knowing what I lack mitigates the lacking.

    Though equally unread, not all books I mean to read are equal; some glower from a higher shelf – it seems correct to say that my not having read Don Quixote is a more serious omission than not having read Midnight’s Children – while others have partisans. For example, I distinctly hear Harold Bloom Jewish mothering me for allowing my Shakespeare read-through to stall after Richard III. (“If you can bear living without the poetry of Romeo and Juliet, well then go right ahead. Who am I to say? Clearly nobody ‘t all.” “But Harold. I read it in high school. And I’ve seen the Zeffirelli, and even Leonardo DiCaprio.” “I’m just saying.”) Susan Sontag has been hectoring me from beyond the grave to read The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. You know, the 19th century Brazilian novelist. My friend Nathan is concerned that I haven’t read more of the daftly brilliant little novels of César Aira. I, absolutely, mean to read them all. Pax, everyone.

    In the wake of Nadine Gordimer’s death, my failure to have read Midnight’s Children began to afflict me, like a cramp, or hunger. As I sifted through material about her, Rushdie’s name kept popping up. As would be expected, she had been among his defenders during the years of the fatwa. In her Nobel lecture, she asserted that “he has done for the postcolonial consciousness in Europe what Günter Grass did for the post-Nazi one with The Tin Drum and Dog Years, perhaps even has tried to approach what Beckett did for our existential anguish in Waiting For Godot[.]” (Who doesn’t love a healthy flirtation with hyperbole, especially when it may prove to be (a) not a flirtation, or (b) not hyperbole.) In 2005, novels by both Gordimer and Rushdie were among the six nominees for the “Best of the Booker”, a one-time award given for the single best novel to have been awarded a Booker Prize in the award’s forty-year history. Gordimer was represented by The Conservationist, Rushdie by Midnight’s Children. Rushdie won.

    Enough. It was time to leave off meaning to read Midnight’s Children and actually crack the cover. At the time of this writing, I’m about a third of the way through, and can say, unequivocally, it is one of the best thirds of a novel I’ve ever read. I recognize this species of delight; it attended my reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. The Adventures of Augie March also, and, oh yes, A House for Mr. Biswas. The sheer vigor and complexity of this third-of-a-novel disposes me to make a chain of assumptions: 1. that the second two thirds will match the first, 2. that, as expert testimony has it, The Satanic Verses at the very least equals it, and, 3. that the rest of Rushdie’s oeuvre, if not, perhaps, on the same Parnassian level, bears similar markings of genius. All of which leads me to wonder about the hold-up in Stockholm.

    There is, to be sure, a logjam of great writers waiting to be laureled. But, as time slips by and Rushdie remains uninvited to Stockholm’s annual highbrow powwow, the Swedish Academy comes ever closer to committing another of its stinkers. There will be much to answer for if they allow him to go the way of Carlos Fuentes, W. G. Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps he is on their own list –of writers they are meaning to honor.



    In addition to Salman Rushdie, my 2014 shortlist of Nobelable writers includes three other novelists and a poet. A more stunning group of writers you will never find. Read these experts. Listen, as you read, to how the grief and splendor of living rushes from their words in a spiritual torrent which would wash most of us away if channeled through our own faculties. Listen to how Algerian novelist Assia Djebar evokes the inner life of a “woman of the veil” who has just learned that her husband, a rebel in the Algerian War for Independence, is in grave danger, and chooses to surmount all the prohibitions of her society in order to find and warn him. Australian poet Les Murray is famously querulous, but listen to how in “A Dog’s Elegy” he grows tender, wittily mystical, disarming with image and verbal delight his reader’s defenses against the enormity of death. Listen carefully to Péter Nádas‘s narrator – young, bisexual, Hungarian, hyper-aware – and you’ll hear, in his account of learning to communicate with a young German poet with whom he is in love, the catastrophe of modern Hungary. Listen to Philip Roth, the American perennial, in one of his sublime rants which, as always with him, transcends that descriptor by saying something so heartbreakingly true about human nature that, for all it’s clattering expansiveness, it comes off like Shakespeare. And Salman Rushdie. Listen to him. Am I wrong?


    “Small things come in big packages.” —Assia Djebar (b. 1936)

    1. Assia Djebar (Algeria)

    She’d forgotten the danger itself. In truth, it’s perhaps not that which drove her, but rather a gnawing desire to suddenly know whether she could really spend her life waiting in her room, in patience and love. That’s why she crossed the entire town, bared her presence to so many hostile eyes, and at the end of her trek discovered that she was not only a prey for the curiosity of men — a passing shape, the mystery of the veil accosted by the first glance, a fascinating weakness that ends up being hated and spat upon — no, she now knows that she existed. She’s been inhabited by one inflexible thought that has made her untouchable. “Get to Youssef! He’s in danger,” she had repeated. “But is he, really?” she ended up wondering when she found herself alone on the curb surrendering to, or even beyond, the same fruitless waiting. “Won’t he first of all be shocked to see me here, out in the street?” No, the danger is real.

    (Children of the New World)


    ”Some people are born to fatness. Others have to get there.” —Les Murray (b. 1938)

    2. Les Murray (Australia)

    A Dog’s Elegy

    The civil white-pawed dog who’d strain
    to make speech-like sounds to his humans
    lies buried in the soil of a slope
    that he’d tear down on his barking runs.

    He hated thunder and gunshot
    and would charge off to restrain them.
    A city dog too alive for backyards,
    we took him from the pound’s Green Dream

    but now his human name melts off him;
    he’ll rise to chase fruit bats and bees;
    the coral tree and the African tulip
    will take him up, and the prickly tea trees.

    Our longhaired cat who mistook him
    for an Alsatian flew up there full tilt
    and teetered in top twigs for eight days
    as a cloud, distilling water with its pelt.

    The cattle suspect the Dog lives
    but three kangaroos stood in our pasture
    this daybreak, for the first time in memory,
    eared gazing wigwams of fur.

    (Conscious and Verbal)


    “By fantasizing one builds a more predictable world, and then one has no time to notice what is really happening, because of the din made by one’s expectations crashing down.” — Péter Nádas (b. 1942)

    3. Péter Nádas (Hungary)

    But as he listened to me, a radically different process was also taking place in him: as usual, he kept correcting my grammatically faulty sentences, he did this almost unawares, it had become an unconscious habit between us; in fact, he was the one who shaped my sentences, gave them the proper structure, incorporated them into the neat order of his native language, I had to rely on his expropriated sentences to work my way through my linguistic rubble, had to use his sentences to tell my story, and didn’t even notice that some of these jointly produced sentences were repeated two or three times, their place and value reshuffled, before reaching intelligible form.

    It was as if I had to use my own past to coax the story of his past out of him. I didn’t think of it then, but now I believe we needed these evening walks not just for the exercise but to relate to the world around us — which we both felt, though for different reasons, to be cheerless and alien — and to do it in a way that this same world would not be aware of what we were doing.

    (A Book of Memories)


    “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” —Philip Roth (b. 1933)

    4. Philip Roth (United States)

    You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.

    (American Pastoral)


    salman rushdie
    “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” —Salman Rushdie (b. 1947)

    5. Salman Rushdie (Great Britain)

    Why had she married him?—For solace, for children, But at first the insomnia coating her brain got in the way of her first aim; and children don’t always come at once. So Amina had found herself dreaming about an undreamable poet’s face and waking with an unspeakable name on her lips. You ask: what did she do about it? I answer: she gritted her teeth and set about putting herself straight. This is what she told herself: “You big ungrateful goof, can’t you see who is your husband now? Don’t you know what a husband deserves?” To avoid fruitless controversy about the answers to these questions, let me say that, in my mother’s opinion, a husband deserved unquestioning loyalty, and unreserved, full-hearted love. But there was a difficulty: Amina, her mind clogged up with Nadir Khan and his insomnia, found she couldn’t naturally provide Ahmed Sinai with these things. And so, bringing her gift of assiduity to bear, she began to train herself to love him. To do this she divided him, mentally, into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioral, compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes…in short, she fell under the spell of the perforated sheet of her own parents, because she resolved to fall in love with her husband bit by bit.

    (Midnight’s Children)


    The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded soon. Share with us, here at The Shelf: Who do you think will win? (My bets are on Assia Djebar this year.) Who do you think should win?

  • A Parting Gift: Derek Walcott’s “THE SEASON OF PHANTASMAL PEACE”


    A peculiar feeling, I wonder if you’ve had it: I stop at a stoplight not far from our house. I know this light well; ten thousand times it’s turned red on me and always stays red at least three beats too long. On the southeast corner, to my left as I wait, is a homegrown karate studio called Progressive Martial Arts. It’s cracked and fallen whitewash gives the small concrete building all the charm of an oft-washed and tumbled dollar bill. A large single pane of glass frames the gi-clad students who chop, kick and roll through their katas. I watch them. My blue Toyota, which needs hubcaps, idles. I watch, and as I watch it all seems altered, made strange, like a photographic negative of this mundane occurrence of which I and my idling car have ten thousand times been a part. Sam has died.


    The genius of Cezanne was the flattened canvas. Perspective, he saw, was the great illusion. Mt. St. Victoire becomes a blue density as near as the greens, roses and ochers of the abutting valley forest and towns. Everything in a pervasive visual present tense. Beautiful, but imagine living in such a world.




    What settles over me, as surely as the damp florescent light settles over the sweating students inside the studio, is that I will never again stop at this traffic light, watch the karate dance, then continue on the one and a half minutes to my house where Sam waits, where Sam plants the leeks he’s sprouted, where Sam practices Beethoven’s Op. 111., where Sam composes, or arranges American carols for the Symphony’s Christmas concert, where he revolves in the kitchen preparing his special Moroccan lentil soup, where he helps the dog say her prayers over her food bowl, where he will hug me, where we will, all too frequently, fail each others’ tests of patience.


    I’m not, in common parlance, a believer. And yet my love for God, or the idea of God, has so far proved intransigent against all my well-founded protestations. I lay them like dynamite against the stone face of faith and all that blasts forth are chalices and wafers. I’ve learned to accept this. But here’s one thing I cannot accept, that God would pull a stunt like giving someone a long-term, complex, finally terminal illness because it expedites some “divine plan”. Nor do I believe God would do this for some blithe moral imperative, either “for the good” of the sufferer, or, worse, those around him. I could never worship such a self-important busybody. What I believe is that, if there is a God, God inheres somehow in Enormity itself. Death is an enormity. I crumple before it in rage, grief, and terror as before a flaming bush. I want no part of it. But that, to the bush, is neither here nor there. And along with God, or the idea of God, along with the furnace blast, the Holy Danger the meeting of God can sometimes entail, there comes, too, so I am told, the idea of a promised land.


    The light changes. I leave the martial dance to the dancers. I drive across flattened space the no distance at all to my front door. The bush breaks into flame. Can’t very well stay out on the front porch.


    Sam. For you, my love:


    Then all the nations of birds lifted together
    the huge net of the shadows of this earth
    in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
    stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
    the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
    the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
    the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill—
    the net rising soundless as night, the birds’ cries soundless, until
    there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
    only this passage of phantasmal light,
    that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

    And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
    what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
    that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
    battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
    bearing the net higher, covering this world
    like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
    the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
    of a child fluttering to sleep;
    it was the light
    that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
    in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
    what change had brought into the raven’s cawing,
    the killdeer’s screech, the ember-circling chough
    such an immense, soundless, and high concern
    for the fields and cities where birds belong,
    except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
    made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
    something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
    below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
    and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
    above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
    and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
    between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
    but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

    — Derek Walcott

     Sam and the little girl

     SAMUEL B. LANCASTER, July 9, 1944 – May 11, 2013

  • Gabriela Mistral’s “The Christmas Star”

    It can’t be done: after riding through the romantic landscape of Christmas on the rippling back of reassuring cultural signifiers and emotional triggers, one cannot dismount without one’s foot sinking into a steaming pile of religion. Best to know where one stands.

    As far as belief goes, I am agnostic. Don’t grin. What other position is there for the befuddled, the timid, those of us unable, or unwilling to take a bold and heartening leap of faith in either direction? I’m guessing that most of us in this rather weak-kneed tribe strongly suspect the atheists of having the upper hand. Otherwise why not just be a believer and relax? But, however hard I try to defend against the seductions of religion, or even against the impure thoughts a simple belief in God can lead to, I am, at heart, and when it comes down to it, besotted. What my foot sinks into this time of year, especially when dismounting the culture’s sentimental Christmas warhorse, smells good to me.

    I could go on about my lifelong slow dance with Christianity, from the flinty Calvinism in which I was raised, through the mystical traditions and Liberation Theology which spoke loudly to me in college, to my current, and most homelike, resting spot in a “high church” episcopalian congregation. I cannot deny my roving eye; other religions have always enthralled. So-called “Eastern religion”, for one, rather predictably perhaps, given my placement in white, educated middle class, post-1960’s America. But more beguiling has been Judaism, especially that of the Hasidim. I’ve always found profoundly affirming their huge, often unhinged desire for God paired with an ultimate despair of ever being able to cozy up to Him. Through it all, no matter how jilted, injured, or lost they may be, they never let go of that great desire, flamelike and pungent. They can’t. Just as, in the end, I can’t let go the great arc of the Christian narrative.

    I think the reason, beyond its cultural cache, the ever-gripping theater of the Eucharist, the art, the music, the poetry, Bach, beyond the reassuring ease with which I recognize Christianity’s outlines and thereby know my wits and whereabouts, or think I do, the reason it continues to compel me is the vocabulary it provides for talking about matters of far greater import than Christianity itself. The story of Christ’s birth alone, beginning with the annunciation, through its gathering of shepherds, beasts, imperial dictates and petty kings, magi, stable, star, and all the rest, delivers into our fumbling hands almost every tool for living, if not always happily or safely, then always beautifully, rightly, and with greatest fullness. Perhaps my favorite verses in Luke’s famous second chapter are 15 and 16: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into Heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which The Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” How I love these ragtags, who, after having the pants scared off of them, refused to brood or cower, but decided then and there to go, and, by making haste, found, found what amazed them, and found what filled with wonder all who heard their account. I am slow, I find, in learning to live like this.

    Add to this the rest, Christ’s life, works, death and resurrection, what Wallace Stevens called “that old catastrophe”, and what emerges is perhaps the most complex and complete portrait of a deity, at once full-throated and dazzlingly nuanced, of any of the world’s religions, not merely a vision of God, but a god who is, godself, visionary. So that when absurdity beyond measure lands on Newtown, Connecticut, the dean of the cathedral I attend can say to us, “We should not be asking ‘How could God let this happen?’ Rather it is God who asks us, ‘How could you let this happen?’ Such is not God’s vision for us.” And hearing him say this, it strikes me that we have, by and large, so far at least, been content to stop at being terrified by the angels, cowering, brooding, and so have yet to hear what they have announced, and have yet to decide to go, and in the going itself, “with haste”, to find. For Christianity this is the heart of the matter, what we are here for. With such a compelling narrative, mere “belief” seems beside the point.

    And now it is Christmas Day. In our part of the world, as the Earth continues to warm, an enervating brown has become the new white against which we pin our glittering hopes. But last night a light, gracious dusting of snow came while we were at church singing Gloria in excelsis deo, and has remained. Late last week the last of the Newtown slaughtered was, as we say, “laid to rest” in a land which, for the living among us, remains rest-free. I’ve just taken a cake out of the oven. It’s a French version of a cheese cake made with chèvre and whipped egg whites. Later I’ll mix honey with Heering cherry liquor for drizzling. We’ll have this after roast chicken and root vegetables. Sam thinks the roasted roots are a bit if a cliche, but I love them. Our friend Terri has joined us. Our friend Mary Louise will soon be arriving with her marvelous dog, Molly. We’ll exchange a few gifts, which will consist primarily of music and books. We will all acknowledge, whether aloud or in our hearts how good it is that Sam is with us restless ones this year. This is how, today at least, we will love. And we will hold, like the Hasidim, our love, our desire, for God or the idea of God, for each other, for living. No agnosticism here, in this I believe with conviction, that this is how, for today at least, we will go, find, and be found.

    The Christmas Star

    by Gabriela Mistral (tr. Maria Giachetti)

    A little girl
    comes running,
    she caught and carries a star.
    She goes flying, making the plants
    and animals she passes
    bend with fire.

    Her hands already sizzle,
    she tires, wavers, stumbles,
    and falls headlong,
    but she gets right up with it again.

    Her hands don’t burn away,
    nor does the star break apart,
    although her face, arms,
    chest and hair are on fire.

    She burns down to her waist.
    People shout at her
    and she won’t let it go;
    her hands are parboiled,
    but she won’t release the star.

    Oh how she sows its seeds
    as it hums and flies.
    They try to take it away–
    but how can she live
    without her star?

    It didn’t simply fall–it didn’t.
    It remained without her,
    and now she runs without a body,
    changed transformed into ashes.

    The road catches fire
    and our braids burn,
    and now we all receive her
    because the entire Earth is burning.

  • Joseph Brodsky sends his Christmas Greetings: “December 24, 1971”


    Every year the same: Christmas drops like a meteor into our little buckets of banality, displacing whatever has been disconsolate, complacent, poor, bored, boorish or small about our lives. We raise either a cheer or a howl, depending, or, perhaps if we are honest, one of each. Protest is vain – we’ve had ample warning. The Advent season, at least in the United States, long ago burst its liturgical boundaries, so that now we say, “Christmas music is playing in the stores, decorations are on display… Halloween must me coming.” The crassness of it all, its pervasiveness, is one of the ways we attempt to restore a bit of that displaced banality. That is to say, it is one of the ways we try to manage the holy, or the idea of the holy. Because if we simply let Christmas arrive, unmitigated by Rudolph, Santa, or charge cards –  and we’re talking here about the essence of Christmas, quite apart from its Christian specifics, as the birth of That which can Save Us – if we simply let it blaze its tail through our atmosphere and land in our little buckets, then, first of all, there would be nothing left of our buckets. Then what? An end to all our tyrannies, little and large, by which we know our selves. Mostly we won’t have it.

    Twenty years ago today, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union and handed up a defunct superpower for history’s dissection. Twenty years before that, Joseph Brodsky, living in a monolithic Soviet Union that seemed to be going nowhere any time soon, having suffered Soviet cultural and intellectual tyranny, convicted as a “social parasite”, imprisoned in a mental institution, and about to be forced into exile, wrote: “Herod reigns but the stronger he is,/the more sure, the more certain the wonder./In the constancy of this relation/is the basic mechanics of Christmas.”

    Herod reigns, to be sure. Herod reigns in Russia still, in Syria, North Korea. Herod reigns, too – let’s be honest about this – in all our hearts. But Brodsky says “the wonder” will out. That is how it works.



    Christmas morning: Soon the house will smell of the day-long meal.  Sam, who has not been feeling at all well lately, rallied his energy to make a rustic pork terrine and, because our friend Nathan, a vegetarian, will be joining us, a terrine of roasted vegetables and goat cheese custard. These we will eat with crudité and Prosecco. For dinner, I’ve planned a spiced squash, fennel, and pear soup to be eaten with crusty bread, followed by a salad of asparagus, leeks, new potatoes and artichoke hearts with a tomato and hard-boiled egg vinaigrette.  Then, coq au Riesling, garnished with chanterelle mushrooms and glazed baby red onions and served with little corn pancakes. Nathan will eat the corn pancakes with a stir-fry of red, green, yellow bell peppers with red wine vinegar. For dessert, we will have a chocolate polenta pudding cake.

    Books, as always, will  play a staring role in our gift exchange.  I’ve bought Sam, among other titles, a book called Verdi’s Shakespeare, by Garry Wills. Sam is a besotted idolator of both these men, so when I read a review for this book in the New York Times a few weeks ago, I wondered, for one irrational moment, how Gary had gotten to know my partner so well without my finding out about it. Our friend Mary Louise, who loves to know a little bit about a lot of things, will be receiving E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. Sam bought the new Stephen King novel, 11/22/63, for our friend Keith.  If I’m not mistaken, it will be the first time a Stephen King novel has appeared under a Christmas tree I’ve helped decorate. I can’t wait to see Nathan’s face when he opens The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, by the Colombian novelist Alvero Mutis. Along with Sam, he is the most passionate reader I know, and he has a special affection for Latin American novels, especially the ones hardly anyone has heard of. And for me?  I’ll let you know.

    Sam is a passionate poetry lover. At some point during the day, he will insist we read poems aloud. One of them will be this one, by Joseph Brodsky:


    DECEMBER 24, 1971

    When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
    At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
    Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
    is the cause of a human assault-wave
    by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
    each one his own king, his own camel.

    Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
    caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
    Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
    orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
    Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
    toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

    And the bearers of moderate gifts
    leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
    disappear into courtyards that gape,
    though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
    not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
    round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

    Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
    brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
    Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
    the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
    In the constancy of this relation
    is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

    That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
    for its coming push tables together.
    No demand for a star for a while,
    but a sort of good will touched with grace
    can be seen in all men from afar,
    and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

    Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
    chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
    Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
    He who comes is a mystery: features
    are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
    not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

    But when drafts through the doorway disperse
    the thick mist of the hours of darkness
    and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
    both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
    in your self you discover; you stare
    skyward, and it’s right there:

    a star.