Hore Abbey, Cashel

Hore Abbey, Cashel


Hore Abbey is literally overshadowed by theRock of Cashel. It is well worth taking the path down from the Rock to the considerably less touristed Abbey. There is a relative lack of interpretative material, to say the least, except for this interesting information, especially on what I suspect was a rather convenient dream:

 

The abbey is reached by paths via a field which was populated by cows (and cowpats) aplenty. One doubts a Royal Visit is imminent.
From above on the Rock it appears a somewhat slight structure, an impression quickly corrected closer to. An air of monumentality remains, all the more accentuated for the relative abandonment.

Elegy of Fortinbras, Zbigniew Herbert

Years ago, I read Zbigniew Herbert’s wonderful “Elegy of Fortinbras.” I studied “Hamlet” for the Leaving Cert. Brendan McWilliams somewhere wrote that he had a pet theory that the Shakespearean play one studied for the Leaving had a profound influence; one was immersed at a highly impressionable age in close study of one of the most psychologically and culturally influential dramas of all time.

I had always read “Elegy of Fortinbras” as an expression of fundamental kinship between Fortinbras and Hamlet, especially the closing line of the poem. For me, Fortinbras was the one who lived and now has to make a fist of the boringly pragmatic business of running Denmark. Hamlet was the idealist who has died in a suitably glamorous way, yet their positions could have been reversed.

I am linking to the text of the poem on the Crystal Notion blog. The blogger has her own analysis of the poem, one based on a much closer reading of the poem in many ways than mine. She also reflects on it in the context of her own political activism. It is an interesting analysis and one which makes me read the poem afresh. I have made some comments directly on her blog. Among other things, I reflect there on whether my reaction to the poem may have something to do with my own professional perspective

Sitting on the Fence

I’d like to share a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet who resisted both Nazi occupation and Soviet totalitarianism.  His poem Elegy of Fortinbras draws a contrast between the practical Fortinbras and the introspective Hamlet: the man of action and the man of inaction.

(TW: suicide)

Elegy of Fortinbras

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a…

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Soviet Timelessness – from “Le Testament Francais”, Andrei Makhine.

From the novel also known as Dreams of My Russian Summers:

I almost leaped up from  my stool beside the television. For I understood so perfectly Charlotte’s reasons for being fond of her little provincial town. It would have been easy to explain her choice to the adults gathered in our kitchen. I should have talked of the dry air of the steppe, whose silent transparency distilled the past.  I should have spoken of the dusty streets that led nowhere, as they emerged, all of them, into the same endless plain. Of the town where history, by decapitating churches and tearing down ‘architectural excesses’ had banished all notions of time. A town where living meant endlessly reliving one’s past, while at the same time mechanically performing routine tasks

“become adept at letting things go” First Known When Lost: Milosz, Derek Mahon and Taigi on the passing time

From here at the wonderful blog First Known When Lost. As well as bringing to our attention much outstanding poetry that has the great merit of being unfashionable or forgotten, Stephen Pentz is a consistent source of a kind of reflective wisdom very much contrary to the spirit of our busy, proudly restless age. One may not agree with everything he writes to find him an refreshingly countercultural presence online.

 

Do we grow wiser with age? Well, let’s not get too carried away. Speaking for myself, the only piece of wisdom that I can provisionally claim in my seventh decade above ground (and within hailing distance of a return to the dust) is this: I realize, on a daily basis, that I am profoundly ignorant.

Yet, being aware of, and at peace with, one’s ignorance is a good thing. It is certainly not cause for self-recrimination or despair. It relieves us of the great weight of trying to “figure things out,” of trying to solve the mysteries of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are headed. It frees us up to do what we ought to have been doing from the start: loving, and being unceasingly grateful for, the World and all of its beautiful particulars.

Rather than imagining that we might acquire wisdom with age, perhaps a better approach is to become adept at letting things go. As the years and (alas!) decades speed by (populated by days), we are well-advised to disabuse ourselves of certain notions and to abandon certain conceits. If, by some point in our life (before it is too late), we have not begun to identify and jettison these notions and conceits, all hope is lost. Something along these lines is required:

Learning

To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

While this lifelong project is underway, the days come and go. There’s no stopping them.

Dream Days

‘When you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.’

For the days are long —
From the first milk van
To the last shout in the night,
An eternity. But the weeks go by
Like birds; and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Penguin/The Gallery Press 1991).

As Mahon observes, the days are indeed long — “an eternity.” (Do you remember all of those never-ending afternoons in the schoolroom?) The Japanese haiku poets, whose art is aimed at presenting a vanishing instant of experience that embodies the whole of the World and the whole of a human life, are ever aware that our fate is played out each day, moment-by-moment.

Calm days,
The swift years
Forgotten.

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 42.

“a world that seeks only varieties of comfort and metaphysical appeasement.”

From the April 21 TLS, a review by Cynthia Haven of Andrezj Franaszek’s Czeslaw Miłosz biography and Miłosz’s own previously unpublished science fiction novel “The Mountains of Parnassus”:

At one shattering moment in his life, however, he rejected his vocation: on February 1, 1951 Miłosz, in Paris as a cultural attaché for the Stalinist government of Poland, stepped into a waiting taxi that took him to Maisons-Laffitte in the suburbs. The thirty-nine year old defector spent three and a half months in hiding at the offices of Kultura , an important émigré journal of politics and literature. He wrote: “my decision marks the end of my literary career. He had walked out on more than five years of service to the Communist government, most recently in the grim, barricaded French embassy where insubordinate employees were drugged and delivered to the airport, and where others never left the building for fear of being dismissed. He had longed for “a place on earth where I could wear a face and not a mask”, but still believed he had turned his back on the future by defecting.

Miłosz was the first writer and intellectual of such distinction to defect from the Soviet bloc, and the first to give his reasons publicly, saying that a lie is the source of all crime and that “the paramount duty of a poet is to tell the truth.” For this, he was subjected to vicious slander and attacked from old friends in Poland, the left-wing Parisian intelligentsia, and ever other émigrés. Miłosz became an Orwellian un-person in his native land, and would not see his wife and  two sons again for more than two years.

Haven’s summary of “The Mountains of Parnassus” is also worth quoting:

Cardinal Vallberg in the novel describes his contemporaries, our descendants, whose “imagination had been incapacitated and could no longer hold a Heaven, a Purgatory, or a Hell”. This “second space” would haunt Miłosz’s last poems. What is left after its loss is a world that seeks only varieties of comfort and metaphysical appeasement. As one character explains, “time both terrified and offended us, and thus it had to be destroyed and replaced with intensity of experience in every living moment, so that a great deal could happen before the hands of the clock revealed the passing of even a single minute.”

Sounds pretty contemporary, does it not? This is expanded on by Emma Schneider in her review at Full Stop:

The philosophical strength of The Mountains of Parnassus amplifies as it moves from one story to the next, concluding in an appendix that depicts the dissolution of religion and art and the reformation of ritual. Milosz lingers in this final section; he muses over humanity’s increasing inability to believe in the divine — not for a lack of desire to believe, but for a lack of imagination. Milosz describes the multitudes of artists that proliferate in the postmodern age who print their “100,000 almost identical poems” every day and create a din “like an enormous hall filled with endless rows of pianos. Everybody was playing his own instrument, straining to drown out the others” and unable to hear more than a neighbor, even were he to pause his fingers and try to listen (124). The future Milosz presents is marked by hurried, empty excess. Meaning is ever harder to believe in.

And yet, there remains hope throughout his writing in the option of slowing down and returning to earth, as the Astronaut chooses to do. This choice is one that accepts death as one of the bounds that gives life significance and shape. In his introduction to the text, Milosz accepts the partiality and imperfection of his own production and hopes that “the reader’s imagination will receive no shortage of small stimuli, but also an expansive area in which it can freely glide — which perhaps is better than having everything spelled out and constrained by the twists and turns of the characters’ stories” (11). Indeed, it is a text that presents just enough information to raise questions about this speculative world but answers none of them. Although this sparseness induces confusion, even detachment on first reading the novel, it, like a poem, opens holes to consider upon meandering back through its prose.

The main sections’ hazy tone coupled with minimal world-building threaten to drown the reader in lassitude, but the introductory remarks convey Milosz as playful and personable, a compatriot who derides the “diabolical boredom emanating” from many contemporaries novels ‘tormented by structuralist theories,” which “seems hostile to the very vocation of narrative (6). Although written for its initial (unsuccessful) trip to the publisher in 1972, the introduction’s commentary on the state of the novel remains strikingly accurate. Indeed, perhaps the entire novel proves better suited to the current moment than to the one it was born out of 45 years ago. As life moves ever faster and mysteries are persistently revealed, Milosz’s unusual song amidst the roar of the pianos creates a necessary excuse to pause.

Adam Kirsch on Emmanuel Carrère, faith, and Christianity’s ability to scandalise

From the April 21st TLS:

The decline in churchgoing across Europe over the past two centuries has had the paradoxical result of restoring one of Christianity’s most notable features – the ability to scandalize. When a man like Emmanuel Carrère – an esteemed and successful French writer of fiction, non-fiction and screenplays, a sometime member of the Cannes film jury – suddenly declares himself to be a devout Christian, as he did in the autumn of 1990, the effect on his secular acquaintances brings to mind the effect of a similar announcement by a Roman matron 2,000 years ago. It’s not just shock but a kind of contempt: how could a person like you believe a story like that?

When Carrère was “touched by grace” – “it embarrasses me to put it that way today, but that’s how I put it at the time”, he writes in his new book The Kingdom – he was also undergoing psychoanalysis, and the reaction of his analyst to his declaration of faith was telling. Wasn’t Carrère’s new found belief in God the Father actually just “a crutch that I’m using on the journey toward an understanding of the place occupied in my life by own father?” This widely held secular view echoes the Nietzschean and Freudian assumptions that religion is always an imaginative compensation for suffering.

Carrère understands both faith and unbelief. … For as his reference to “embarrassment” implies, he had long ceased toe be a Christian by the time he began this book … But he is still torn, and fascinated, by the knowledge that his past self would have been devastated by his current self’s scepticism, just as his current self is aghast at his earlier faith.

The whole review is interesting, and while Kirsch is pretty sceptical of the book’s literary merits, the piece is a worthwhile meditation on the “literary shaping of Christianity” as the headline has it.

 

First Known When Lost on Spring and mortality, with Herrick, Wallace Stevens, and Epictetus

Original here

Spring beautifully — and gently — counsels us to be mindful of our mortality. This is sound advice. In fact, we are well-advised to consider our mortality on a daily basis, through all the seasons. I am not suggesting that we should brood over “the strumble/Of the hungry river of death” from morn to eventide. But an awareness of the shortness of our stay here provides a sense of perspective, and reminds us that we ought to be continually grateful for what the World bestows upon us, without our asking, each day.

Spring (like all the other seasons) teaches us gratitude, though the gratitude may at times have a wistful and bittersweet cast.

To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
To blush and gently smile;
And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
An hour or half’s delight;
And so to bid goodnight?
‘Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne’r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you a while: They glide
Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 467, Hesperides (1648).

“Death is the mother of beauty.” (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning.”) What do blossoms do? They “stay yet here a while,/To blush and gently smile;/And go at last.” What do “lovely leaves” do? “They glide/Into the grave.” This is how the World works, and there is no reason to brood or to grieve. Our response should be gratitude. Gratitude and acceptance.

“Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).