THE UNENDING QUESTION

If there were no eternal conciousness in man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which, writhing with obscure passion produces everything that is great and everything that is insignificant…what then would life be but despair?

–Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him?

–Alexander Solzhenitsyn – Harvard Commencement Address, June 8, 1978

What is man that the electron should be mindful of him! Man is but a foundling in the cosmos, abandoned by the forces that created him. Unparented, unassisted and undireced by omniscient or benevolent authority, he must fend for himself, and with the aid of his own limited intelligence find his way about in an indifferent universe.

Carl Becker, describing a radical humanist point of view in The Heavenly City

But what am I?

An infant crying in the night;

An infant crying for the light

And with no language but a cry.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam”

 

 

 

 

 

A WORLD (STILL) SPLIT APART

“Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.”

–“A World Split Apart”

from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s  Harvard Commencement Address, June 8, 1978

 

 

A DANE FOR OUR TIME

One day in high school, I was wandering through the book section of a downtown Boston Department store. I think it was the late-lamented Jordan Marsh. Or maybe it was Filene’s ( are they also in the “late” category? I’m not even sure. Alas, I’m out of touch with what is memory or what is present reality in that particular hub of the Hub that goes by the name, in Boston, of Downtown Crossing. )

The high schooler then shopping for, maybe, neckties or maybe just enjoying exploring the retail heart of the city, was just beginning to acquire an interest in reading books and, thereafter, keeping the books, read or unread, forever. Such a book was The Journals of Kierkegaard.  I stood there, age 17 or maybe 18 ( Oh Lost Years!!) and recalled that this Soren Kierkegaard had provided the epigraph for a novel I’d just felt grown up enough to read by the (late) Walker Percy. So — I bought this book of 19th Century journal entries and commenced to leaf through it and extract digestible, comprehensible bits of daily life ruminations by this fascinating, brilliant, rebellious and restless, melancholy, uncompromising  Dane who did not live a long life — he was only 42 at his passing, possibly from a form of tuberculosis, after collapsing in the street.

The department store, the book section (those were the days before Barnes & Noble, etc.) are gone. But — I still have my battered, yellowing copy of Kierkegaard’s journals. Not sure if I ever read it cover to cover. But from the underlinings and highlightings it’s clear that I got acqainted with it. In subsequent years I bought a combined volume of Fear and Trembing and  A Sickness Unto Death by Kierkegaard. I gave both an extensive, repeated thumbing through, and, regrettably, gave that two-punch away before moving to Florida. Yes, I do regret that.

At any rate, here is Kierkegaard writing on August 16, 1847: “I now feel the need of approaching nearer to myself in a deeper sense, by approaching nearer to God in the understanding of myself.”  I doubt that my 17 or 18-year-old self saw that particular quote that day in the downtown department store, but I was probably beginning to feel that need Kierkegaard was feeling.

All these years later, I’m still feeling it — and still liking the idea of getting to know Mr. Keirkegaard better. The isolation of a pandemic would be a good time for that. I’ve not known another soul called Soren — and am drawn to a philosopher who also identifies as Christian but who dives deeply inward often to explore that faith. In an undated entry in 1843,  the good Soren wrote, Nulum existit magnum ingenium sina aliqua dementia is the worldly  expression of the religous proposition: whom God blesses in a religious sense he eo ipso curses in a worldy sense. It has to be so, the reason being firstly, the limitation of existence, and secondly the duplicity of existence.”

Wow! (Got to bone up on my Latin, too.)

READING “DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL”

Anne Frank’s story of a fearful isolation in war-time Holland — at a time when so many of us are in isolation — long ago crossed the Globe and became among the most tragically iconic stories of WWII and the Holocaust. Therefore, it is with a bit of shame that I say I am reading it for the first time. You know how it goes; this was one of those books — and movies and plays — you’d heard so much about, it never occurred to you that it should be compulsory reading. Continue reading “READING “DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL””

AN AGEE MOMENT

We lay on our backs about two feet apart in silence, our eyes open, listening. The land that was under us lay down all around us and its continuance was enormous as if we were chips or matches floated, holding their own by their very minuteness, at a great distance out upon the surface of a tenderly laboring sea. The sky was even larger.

–James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

If you ever want to attempt to read a beautiful but prolonged and exasperatingly complex, minutely detailed, verbally rococo work of human sociology — poetically rendered — pick up the above-cited volume by a man who during his brief life was, indeed, a poet, novelist, screenwriter, movie critic and, briefly, a very unusual journalist. This particular book grew out of a Depression-era Fortune magazine assignment to write about poverty-stricken families of Alabama tenant farmers. Agee never really finished the assignment — or, perhaps finished it, but had it rejected by his editors though it would be preserved and enormously expanded by the author. The story of how it came to exist is doubtless told in two Agee biographies that I’ve been totting around and aspiring to read. Continue reading “AN AGEE MOMENT”

OH, LOST!

I’ve lost some books and I’m upset about it. It’s all because of a move. Small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. But every time I move, I lose things. I hope you book lovers will commiserate with me about the lost books, not that you don’t have anything else to read. You’ve got your own books, after all!

But first, about the move. Oh, the move! Continue reading “OH, LOST!”