The birds

With spring come disputes. Animals reestablishing territory. Last fall’s frisky grown-ups spawning this spring’s sibling rivalries. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny. Wintry litigation outlasting life.

“A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.” – Prov. 18 (KJV)

(To turn the sound off and on, mouse over the pic and click the resulting icon in the upper-left corner. Or just scroll: out of sight, out of hearing. I’ll turn the default to mute in a day or two.)

Speak of the Devil: an Easter homily

3PictureThreeBearsThree bears talk about someone over three bowls, three chairs, and three beds, and the perpetrator herself shows up in the last bed. This dramatic irony, along with the literary rule of three, seems to hold the many iterations of the famous fairy tale together. So far, so good. But after the bears discover the girl (or in some versions, the old woman) in the third bed, the iterations go their separate ways. She runs through the woods, gets rescued by her mom, or gets impaled on a steeple. She could fly to the moon, for all we care. Ultimately, it’s the irony that counts – the discovery of the anecdote’s subject in bed mid-anecdote. The Three Bears demonstrates that reality intrudes on anecdote or, conversely, that anecdote invokes reality.

The idiom “speak of the Devil” speaks of the former, I think. A friend walks in while we’re talking about him: reality intrudes on anecdote. It’s one of life’s stock ironies. But in the past, “speak of the Devil” spoke of the latter. Our current idiom is short for the medieval adage “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear.” Because anecdote can invoke reality, adherents of this superstition tried not to mention you-know-who.

Three witches, courtesy of you-know-who, invoke Macbeth much as the bears’ conversation invokes Goldilocks. They even employ the three bears’ three-times-three:

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace, the charm’s wound up. (1.3.33 – 35)

This “wound up,” or fully prepared, charm bears out our adage more than our idiom since the charm purports to summon its object. As soon as the witches say it, in walks Macbeth for the first time. The witches seem to have anticipated even Macbeth’s first words, which reflect the witches’ earlier “foul is fair” irony: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.36).

At least three Bible stories feature someone walking in on an anecdote about him or her. (I’m using “anecdote” not only in the sense of a story but also in the sense of a story in a story, such as Pilar’s anecdotes in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov.) The least complicated of the three may be the first in time: Elisha’s servant is regaling the king with stories about his master’s exploits, one of which involves a woman whose young son the prophet has raised from the dead. In the middle of his anecdote, she and her son walk in. Speak of the Devil. Based on this irony, presumably, the king grants the woman’s request to have her land restored (2 Kings 8:1 – 8). Even a king will honor irony’s authority.

The second story, from the book of Esther, is juicier because the irony’s doubled, maybe tripled. Haman walks in on a conversation between the king and his attendant, who have been discussing whether any honor has been done to Mordecai, the Jew, who stopped an assassination attempt on the king. None, O king.

The king asks Haman what should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor. Haman, thinking he has interrupted a conversation about himself, suggests that the king have a high official lead the honoree over the capital’s streets. Haman has come to the king for permission to hang Mordecai, but he ends up lugging Mordecai around the city instead. And that rule of three again: Mordecai is wearing the king’s robe, riding the king’s horse, and is crowned with the king’s diadem (Esther 6:1 – 11).

From Haman’s perspective, fair is foul and foul is fair.

Anecdotes, then, can turn out to be examinations of how they may involve the reader or hearer. Haman’s ironic misreading reminds one of Carly Simon’s telescoping refrain: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” The subject of You’re So Vain is, and is not, its subject. A story about reality intruding on a story can, perhaps, have it both ways. Certainly a story about reality intruding on a story suggests that a “real reality” may come tearing through the paper at any moment.

And maybe the invocatory power of narrative explains the universality of the “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear” adage. Heinz-like, Wikipedia lists fifty-seven varieties of the adage. Each variety is from a different culture and in a different language or dialect. In these adages, the Devil isn’t always the Devil; he might be a donkey or a wolf or even a child, acknowledged now to be legitimate thanks to her incursion into her own story’s telling.

My favorite’s the Yiddish, the last language of this alphabetized list. I like how the Yiddish version combines irony with Esther-like disparagement. It’s best introduced here with a phony anecdote about an anecdote. Imagine Ida and Martin Morgenstern of The Mary Tyler Moore Show fame discussing their daughter Rhoda. In walks Rhoda. Her parents, seated, turn their heads to her, and then back to each other. Ida says, “Eh, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.”

Which brings me to my third, and last, subject-bites-story Bible story. On the day Jesus rose from the dead, two men walk seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are Jesus’ disciples, and they are sad. He was crucified. He failed to liberate Israel. Their women said they saw a vision of angels, who had said he was alive.

As they talk about this, Jesus joins them, but they don’t know it’s Jesus. They catch him up on their conversation.

“How dull you are!” he answers. “Was not the Messiah bound to suffer in this way before entering into his glory?” (Luke 24:25 – 26, REB).

So foul and fair a day they have not seen.

For the remaining miles, he talks about the scriptures that refer to him. They reach Emmaus, he makes as if to go on, but they beg him to stick around for supper. He breaks the bread, blesses it, and they finally recognize him. He immediately disappears, and they immediately return to Jerusalem.

But wait: this subject-bites-story story morphs into a subject-bites-the-subject-bites-story story. Back in Jerusalem, the two men tell the other disciples about how Jesus “had made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.” As they do, “there he was, standing among them” (Luke 24:35 – 36). Jesus walks in on a story about Jesus walking in on a story about Jesus.

This kind of insistence on the present is the message of Easter. The gospel’s implied third interruption is always now. Anecdote invokes reality, and reality intrudes on anecdote.

When we break bread together, Jesus walks in on our anecdote. Here’s Jesus’ own version of the “speak of the Devil” adage: “For where two or three meet together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, REB).

Indeed, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.

Easter is many Christians’ second Passover – the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, after all – during which they prepare a place at the table for Elijah, just in case this year he comes.

Who’s at the door?

Couldn’t resist. Happy Easter.

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The illustration is by Peter Newell and is found in Favorite Fairy Tales: The Childhood Choice of Representative Men and Women. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907. The painting is Caravaggio’s Cena in Emmaus.

The children’s apocalypse

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Last month at Kenyon’s Gund Gallery, Victoria and I moved among Bethany’s hundred-and-forty-odd, glowing and pulsing sculptures. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we found that we were becoming part of the installation. It was ourselves, and not the sculptures, that we began to see and understand.

This secret knowledge hid us from later visitors, at least from those who didn’t stay long enough to discover that the sculptures’ lights weren’t static. The lights pulsed neither in unison nor in disregard for one another. I sat under them to see how they got along, much as I spent long stretches on beds of pine needles as a kid wondering how the trees got along.

I’ve been reading G. K. Chesterton this week, particularly his short essay “In Defence of Baby-Worship.” Here’s one excerpt from it; a second I’ve inserted at the end.

The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children are, first, that they are very serious, and, secondly, that they are in consequence very happy. They are jolly with the completeness which is possible only in the absence of humour. The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common sense. The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms, we ought always primarily to remember that within every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea.

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My video below is only from one static point looking at one part of Bethany’s installation, just as a telescope might stand at one place on earth and train on one sector of sky. To walk among the silent shapes was, for a little while, anyway, to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Bethany’s into craft, and she’s learning how to defend it from some art critics. Separated from the crafts’ beauty and utility, a piece of visual art these days too often seems to expire after delivering up its ironic or recondite message. Craft art, on the other hand, “has a special magic created by a union of the beautiful, the spiritual, the conceptual, and the useful through the conjunction of the visual and the tactile,” according to artist and art critic John Perreault.

Bethany’s work sometimes seems like an abstract celebration of craft and, consequently, of life. In the statement outside her installation, she describes how she worked with the translucent polymer clay to form the shapes:

After kneading and flatting the clay, it is pure improvisation. I follow automatic decisions made at the fingertip level, occasional vague ideas, and the clay itself as it tears, droops, or supports itself in various ways. I have begun to think of it as a dance between my fingers and the clay.

Each of her shapes slowly pulsing in the dark room was a joint creation of the creator and the created, much as we are. Walking among Bethany’s stars or microbes or sea creatures reset my spirit, much as another piece she had made about ten years earlier had. For me, wonder is a fresh improvisation with some common, diaphanous material: we’re all both creators and creatures, both apart and a part, both verse and the keenest lacunae.

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More Chesterton:

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that religion teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once understand the common clay of earth we should understand everything. Similarly, we have the sentiment that if we could destroy custom at a blow and see the stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse. This is the great truth which has always lain at the back of baby-worship, and which will support it to the end. Maturity, with its endless energies and aspirations, may easily be convinced that it will find new things to appreciate; but it will never be convinced, at bottom, that it has properly appreciated what it has got. We may scale the heavens and find new stars innumerable, but there is still the new star we have not found — that on which we were born.

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Photos are of Bethany and Warren as children. (I’m still trying to learn how to focus a camera.) The two excerpts from Chesterton’s “In Defence of Baby-Worship,” along with the entire essay and his 1911 book, In Defense of Nonsense, and other Essays, that contains the “Baby-Worship” essay are found here. Bethany’s installation’s web page on the Gund Gallery’s site is here.