THE DEATH OF A MOUNTAIN

For this winter’s early February night, as snow closes in again on my old home turf in New England and I sit in the surprisingly cold bluster of a Florida night that resembles a chill — if milder — winter night in the north…on this night, I say, I offer the Russian master Boris Pasternak’s recollections of his life, from a little volume I’ve been toting about in move after move for perhaps two decades. I finally read it and found within the poet/novelist’s account of the wake, if that is how they thought of it, for that mountain of a man that was Leo Tolstoy. He gave us, among many other things, War and Peace. What literate soul doesn’t aspire to read it? I read some version of it around high school age, probably an abridged version. I own an unabridged version and dip into it now and then. It remains a mountain I mean to climb. It defines that long, unread novel on every serious reader’s bookstore and library ‘to do’ list. It also continues to define epic literary greatness. Few have disagreed.

Yes, a mountain of a man and artist was Tolstoy — but Pasternak, in a room in a Russian trains station where Tolstoy’s body was taken before its journey home, writes…

“It was not…a mountain that lay in the corner of the room, but a little, wizened old man, one of the old men created by Tolstoy, one of those he had described and scattered over his pages by the dozen. Little Christmas trees stood all around the place. The setting sun cut across the room with four slanting shafts of light and formed a cross over the corner where the body was lying with the thick shadow of winter-bars and other little baby crosses with traceries of the young Christmas trees.

“The railway hamlet of Astapovo was transformed that day into a discordantly noisy encampment of world journalism.”

I guess some things never change: the media gaggle descending with all its collective feet. I used to be a member of that gaggle — and would love to have covered the wake and funeral of the Russian literary giant; the Russian “mountain.”

And, Pasternak writes on….

“The station buffet did a roaring trade, the waiters were run off their feet, too busy to carry out all the orders of their customers and serving underdone beefsteak at a run. Rivers of beer were consumed.”

Sounds like an Irish wake! We’ll call it a Russian wake. Well, it was fitting that the literary giant — the mountain — should be grandly observed and celebrated upon his passing.

Pasternak continues:

“To the chanting of a requiem, the students and the young people carried the coffin across the little yard and the garden of the stationmaster’s house to the railway platform and put it in the freight care, and to the accompaniment of the resumed singing, the train slowly moved of in the direction of Tula.”

Tolstoy had died at 82 of pneumonia. It was 1910. He was buried at his home estate, Yasnaya Polyana near Tula, Russia. The estate operates today as a Tolstoy museum and park the master’s unadorned grave can be found on the property.  

Russia is not a congenial place for many, especially merchants of truth, including artists. But it’s good to know the remains of Leo Tolstoy lie there peacefully in the country he loved and that his memory is treasured, even if disingenuously, by Russia’s indigenous enemies of a free society and free speech who, in bygone days, made life so difficult for that other Russian master and writer of epic novels, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Pasternak offers here his own assessment of Tolstoy as a man and and artist who “all his life and at any given moment… possessed the faculty of seeing things in the detached finality of each separate moment, in sharp relief, as we see things only on rare occasions, in childhood, or on the crest of an all-embracing happiness, or in the triumph of a great spiritual victory.

“To see things like that it is necessary that one’s eye should be directed by passion. For it is passion that by its flash illuminates an object, intensifying its appearance

“Such passion…Tolstoy constantly carried about within himself, ” Pasternak concludes.

The memoir from which I drew this recollection is called, simply, I Remember.

I’m glad the poet and author of the novel Dr. Zhivago recorded these moments, both solemn and festive. Indeed, how could he have forgotten being present the moment a “mountain” was borne away — into posterity.

THE END OF THE MODERN WORLD

It was about 1955 that Theologian Romano Guardini wrote his THIN volume entitled, The End of the Modern World. He was born in Verona in 1885, grew up in Mainz and became a Catholic priest and monsignor. He taught theology at the universities of Berlin, Tubingen and Munich. He was a brilliant teacher, wrote many books outside the classroom and was regarded to be a master of intuitive psychology and a deep thinker who nonetheless managed an extraordinary clarity of expression.

Most, though perhaps not all of his books have been translated for the English-speaking world.

Writing in and around the mid-fifties, he expressed fears that our culture would one day come to idolize technology, all the while doubting or outright dismissing the truth-claims of religion and, especially, of Revelation. He observed powerful forces in contemporary life working to de-Christianize society and cast doubt on all fundamental supernatural beliefs that had guided us and much of the planet, especially Europe and the West, for centuries.

“As an absolute standard claiming the right to measure the direction and conduct of human life, Revelation was enduring more and more vicious attacks,” he wrote of the temper of in the first half of the 20th Century. “The new culture taking shape in Europe bred an outlook which thrust into prominence the increasing opposition to the Church.”

This prophetic, somewhat chilling diagnosis — at least from the point of view of believers — gets fully fleshed out in The End of the Modern World.

But it is also given a peculiar and paradoxical twist.

Guardini writes (and I’ve compressed)….We know now that the modern world is coming to an end….at the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies…Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another…the world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.

Dangerous, lonely — yet open and clean. How strange. Is it perhaps true of this moment in the 21st Century? Is Guardini’s “world to come” upon us? Was he right?

He was writing this around 1955. He died at 70 in the darkly eventful year of 1968.

A COLD EYE ON BROADWAY

David Mamet is among America’s most gifted playwrights. His work can, at times, be raw and obscenity-laden, as anyone who has seen his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play GlenGarry Glen Ross can attest. That goes for the movie version as well, which features powerful perfomances by Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon. It was close to Jack’s last work on film.

But there is a visceral power and moral undertow to Mamet’s work. GGGR is about the outrageously driven and bitter interactions during two days in the life of some crude small-time Chicago real estate salesmen competing, on the upside, for a Cadillac and, on the downside, trying to cling to their vanishing self-respect while desperately fearful of losing their jobs for failing to meet tough new sales goals set by a brutal new district manager. He’s threatened to fire anyone who doesn’t make their quota . Deceit and moral depravity duel with humiliation and degradation. It’s dark, powerful stuff. It’s hard on your ears but I perceive a sharp, cold eye being cast on greed, materialism and human nature.

Mamet has also made movies with far fewer obscenities but just as much penetrating moral content. House of Games is one I’ve seen. I recommend it.

I’m writing about Mamet because, in a theatre and show business universe jam packed with liberals, he’s steadily evolved in his essays into a critical, fearless, verbally stylish and, dare I say, conservative observer of life’s pageant, including the American theater. Speaking of pageants….

The October 5th issue of the National Review — where Mamet’s commentary now appears regularly — contains his rich and cerebral meditation on the state of American theatre. Who could be more familiar with that subject, or more qualified to write about it?

Here is some of what he has to say:

“The theater has long been turning, and, now, on its (potential) revival, will be found to have turned into an arena for the proclamations of right-thinking. The proclamations, that is, of the reign of the goddess Reason, that is, mob rule. …We have seen, on Broadway, the usual forms of comedy, drama, and tragedy supplanted by the pageant. A pageant is a celebration of human accomplishment, intelligence, grace, or luck — finally of human power over nature or circumstance…… But it is the opposite of drama…..We will not leave the pageannt cleansed, calmed, surprise, lauging, weeping, thoughtful or disturbed….And we will not leave having had the burden of our consciousness, momentarily, laid aside.

“The pagaent has long supplanted the drama on Broadway, for the reasons following. Seventy-five per cent of the Broadway audience are tourists. They come legitimately seeking an experience. They come to Broadway exactly the way they come to Disneyland. As in that happiest place, they do not come to risk their hard-earned cash on a problematic event.

The New York Times, our newspaper of record, and the liberal media, in conjunction with the schools and colleges, insist that nothing shall be said or staged that does not express “right-thinking,” that is, statism.

“Outreach, educaton, diveresity, and so on are tools of indocrination. So, for example, are Marine bootcamp and the bar mitzvah.

“But art is the connection between inspiration and the soul of the observer. This insistence on art as indoctrintation is obscenity, denying and indicating the possibility of human connection to truths superior to human understanding, that is, to God.”

I confess I’m not sure what he means by art as indoctrination simultaneously “denying and indicating” this possibility of human connection. Upon reflection, I believe he’s saying he’s saying the very act of denying that possibility makes one come to realize the need for it. But I celebrate the imperative of art leading us to “truths superior to human understanding.” Somehow I know that those vulgar, grasping Chicago real estate salesmen Mamet created four decades ago had no idea there might be such a truth — or that their quest to earn a Cadillac was unconsciously also their beleaguered quest for the grail of self-knowledge. Oddly enough, Al Pacino’s character, in his quasi-soliloquys, senses there’s something more to his miserable life and to himself — before he dips unreflectively back into the muck.

Well done, David Mamet. I’ve long sensed there was something badly awry in our “serious” entertainment.

A VISION OF THE WORLD

Long ago, when the late author John Cheever wound up on the cover of TIME magazine — it was the early 60s, I believe — I decided to read his work and grew especially fond of a fairly short short story called, “A Vision of the World.” It begins, “This is being written in another seaside cottage on another coast. Gin and whisky have bitten rings in the table where I sit.”

Sounds like a rental. Our narrator continues….

“The light is dim. On the wall there is a colored lithograph of a kitten wearing a flowered hat, a silk dress, and white gloves. The air is musty….”

Yes, definitely a rental. Feel like I’ve been there, right down to the cat lithograph. And the story wanders on for six bizarre but pleasant, absurd but bracing pages that I invite you to visit sometime, along with Cheever’s other wonderful stories.

“A Vision of the World” is ultimately the musings of a suburban man wending his way — very comically — toward earthly peace and reconciliation, though you have a clear sense of disorder in his crazy life. He is a momentary refugee from the class conscious upwardly mobile world of American suburbia. One might think he seems a little tipsy but it’s not clear that the gin and whiskey rings on the table of this seaside cottage were made by him. He seems to be alone, and it is in solitude that men and women best commune with the universe, don’t you think?

But then, why is he alone? Did those he loves dispel him, at least briefly, from their midst?

It all ends as our narrator, after a glass of milk and a sleeping pill, finds himself awakened by the sound of rain. “I think of some plumber,” he writes,” who, waked by the rain, will smile at a vision of the world in which all the drains are miraculously cleansed and free….And I know that the sound of the rain will wake some lovers and that its sound will seem to be a part of that force that has thrust them into one another’s arms. Then I sit up in bed and exclaim aloud to myself, ‘Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!’ The words seem to have the colors of the earth, and as I recite them I feel my hopefulness mount until I am contended and at peace with the night.”

I want that vision! I may dispense with the milk and sleeping pill and hope it overtakes me merely at the sound of the rain.

Bravo, John Cheever! And, by the way, my copy of his collected stories is autographed by the author, thanks to a good friend who met him at a book-signing party and thought of me. It pleases me to know that the master held this very volume in his hands. And though I never met him, I’ll always have, in black felt tip on the very first page, his salutation, “to Greg Wayland, with cordial regards,” as I read and re-read “A Vision of the World” and several other stories, enjoying especially a “A Country Husband”, once voted one of the best short stories of the 20th Century. It is every bit as delightfully quirky as everything else Cheever wrote and ends with yet another vision of the world “where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”

No, they were not pink elephants, so far as I know.

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””