Monday, June 22, 2009

A Wreath of Roses

This week's lectionary contains text from Chapter 38 of the Book of Job. When I read and then heard it, I thought what an amazing mishmash of images it contains. In the New American Standard version of the Bible it reads thus:
Job Chapter 38, Verse 1, Lines 8-11

Then the Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said:
And who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb;
When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!*
In Chapter 38 as a whole Yahweh gives Job a thorough tongue-lashing, using rhetorical questions to put him in his place. YHWH says in effect that YHWH's knowledge, power, and authority are beyond question. This God has no compulsion to behave consistently, predictably. This God need answer no question, respond to no petition, observe no moral code. In the part of the chapter that is given in the lectionary YHWH's voice tells Job that this God can domesticate the most frightening and destructive forces of nature: YHWH speaks out of a waterspout in an ocean storm; the storm escapes from the confines of a womb; YHWH shuts the storm within doors, clothes and confines it in swaddling, keeps it safely locked up, and finally commands it to stop, calming it, removing its threat.

This is a loony juxtaposition of — on the one hand — nature at its most frightening extreme and — on the other — the reassuring protection and comfort of womb, home, and, ultimately, though not expressed, the reassurance of parental love. It brings to mind a sermon on creative unreason by my cousin Alice who says "while most of the daily work of our lives is done by the left hemisphere of our brain — language, logic, order — the right brain has enormous gifts to give to us. The left brain will tell us that its logic is the whole story of the world; but the right brain tells us that there is something else underneath that logic."

To my way of thinking this mixture of metaphors in YHWH's rant is a right-brain masterpiece.

These lines from the Book of Job and the whole book also raise a conundrum: This God presents as a powerful autocrat whom mankind are permitted to worship, but whom they are not permitted to question. Logically, it makes no sense to expect the execution of impartial justice from this God, to expect reward for right behavior, to expect that humble requests will be granted. It makes no difference whether mankind praises or curses this God; why then does the world contain religions devoted to encouraging worship of this God? What gives people a sense of purpose; what gives their lives meaning? How do they survive in a universe that appears to be unfeeling, uncaring, and unpredictably sown with good and evil?

They're never asked, but these questions seems — to me — to permeate a novel I recently read: Elizabeth Taylor's A Wreath of Roses.

Here's a lengthy extract in which one of her main characters has an epiphany which elucidates them to some extent:
Frances stood in the dark garden while Hotchkiss [a large and clumsy dog] crashed among the creaking cabbage-leaves after some small scuttling thing too quick for him. When he had plunged away through the gap in the hedge, there was silence. She imagined him going over the harsh stubble of the field, his belly grazed by hollow stalks, his nostrils teased by drifting scents of fur and flesh; but he was a great blundering Caliban, unused to the traffic of the night, the maze of crossed and crossing scents, evaded always by the quick and feat.

The moonlight was enough to read by, the air humid as the inside of a Bower. Orion seemed to hang and swing out across the sky like a man on a trapeze and, lifting her head, she thought: 'One glance at the sky finishes religion for me. I know then that we and all the clutter we have made upon the face of the earth — our fantasies and our myths — count for nothing. The scum of little houses, the Parthenon itself, all of our frail properties will fly like dust into the abyss. All civilizations are like elaborate campings-out, a complicated picnic in the face of nature's discomforts. And it is upon this impermanence that we set up our easels and paint our pictures. What goes onto the canvas is the very ticking of our hearts. Yet when we die, what will happen? Other men and women will paint over our heart's pulse; or those manifestoes of ours against the indifference of the world will lie, face down, among old books and ornaments in junk-shops, in attics. And even if they hang in a gallery, framed and catalogued, respected and remarked upon, soon brown gravy will cover them, cracks and whorls will appear, the once radiant light will pour upon the scene like a sepia fog, the transparent petal will be dipped in glue; so that soon only a pale face, a pale hand, will show in the darkness, and that face, that hand cracked over like mosaic. And in the end my heart-beats, my life's work, 'will fade away along with the rest, the Parthenon will go down oh its knees like an aged elephant, and the embalmed words of the great will count for no more than Liz and Camilla chattering up there in the lighted bedroom.'

The garden was so quiet that when an apple fell into the flower-border, she started. Then the silence seemed more intense than ever. 'When the rottenness has begun in it, it drops,' she told herself. 'It is either better or worse with people. For here am I, an old woman, but still hanging on the tree. In both compassion and in cruelty we outstripped nature long ago.'
Later in the novel, Taylor gives this character, Frances, a second epiphany. (Morland is a male friend who is devoting his life to the nurturing of creativity in others and to compassion, "saying the right word at the right time.")
Frances put aside her brush with a feeling of great weariness. She sat down and darkened her eyes with her hands, tired, but not as dejected as she looked. She looked up at her unfinished picture, trying to take it unawares, as painters do, and failed, as they must always fail.

As she looked at it panic beat about in her. She had no way to turn. There is no past for an artist. What is done is cast away, good only for the time of its creation. Work is the present and the immediate future; but her immediate future was a blank; the present, this half-­finished painting.

'The mistake is listening to others,' she told herself. 'One has little enough of one's own, but they will strip It away with their kindness and their good advice. It is best to turn to no one, to seek to please no one, to paint as if there were only oneself in the world. The pleasure of others is a by-product after all, and if ever the whispering voices are allowed to crowd out the one voice, the result is this —' she took the picture roughly in her hands, the paint tacky against her palms '— a sort of high-pitched silliness, a terrible silliness.' She stared down at the creamy-pink-and-yellow picture, half a mirror with reflected hands lifting a wreath of roses, a flash of golden hair. 'It is like Ophelia handing out her Bowers,' she thought. 'The last terrible gesture but one.'

As if to rid herself of the sight of it, she took the canvas and leant it with its wet paint to the wall. She would never finish it.

'Yes. Ophelia!' she thought, wiping her fingers on a rag. On the bench lay the wreath of roses she had twisted together the day before. She picked it up, and the petals were soft and dead to touch and warm from the sunlight. 'I shan't paint again,' she thought. 'It is time to finish.'

She heard footsteps along the gravel, and when Morland tapped at the door, she crossed the shed quickly to unlock it.

"Are you still working?"

He looked at her with love and concern as she stood in the doorway still holding the wreath of flowers. Then she smiled and shook her head.

"Liz says your coffee will be cold."

"I'm coming." She turned the key in the lock and dropped it into her pocket.

"What is that for?" he asked, touching the faded garland.

"Oh, it is dead."

He put his arm through hers, and they walked up the garden towards the cottage. A large drop of rain fell on the path before them, and the poplar trees by the hedge clattered their leaves in a sudden gust of wind.
The epigraph Taylor gave this novel, from Virginia Woolf's The Waves, has the same poetic force as does the passage just quoted. Here it is:
So terrible was life that I held up shade after shade. Look at life through this, look at life through that; let there be rose leaves, let there be vine leaves - I covered the whole street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, with the blaze and ripple of my mind, with vine leaves and rose leaves.
Taylor does not tell us what she thinks of this situation, these images, nor try to tell us how we should react to them. They are just there. For me they say, in part, what Beckett says in a famous line from The Unnamable:
Perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on [emphasis added].
They say, too, what MacLeish tells us in J.B., his reading of the Book of Job. J.B. addresses his wife, Sarah, who has, in the end, returned to him:
J.B.: Curse God and die, you said to me.

Sarah: Yes.

She looks up at him for the first time, then down again.
      You wanted justice, didn't you?
There isn't any. There's the world ...
She begins to rock on the doorsill, the little branch [of forsythia] in her arms.
Cry for justice and the stars
Will stare until your eyes sting. Weep,
Enormous winds will thrash the water.
Cry in sleep for your lost children,
Snow will fall ...
       snow will fall ...
J.B.: Why did you leave me alone?

                     I loved you.
I couldn't help you any more.
You wanted justice and there was none ­
Only love.
J.B.: He does not love. He

Sarah: But we do. That's the wonder.
There is no sure meaning we can attach to life. It is what we feel it be — what our right-brain perceptions lead us to believe it is from moment to moment. Neither our intellects nor our power of will can force authentic and fulfilling lives into existence. The abstractions that we value most — liberty, justice, compassion, goodness, and love — are ultimately matters of faith.

People do not worship because they have certain knowledge that worship is right. As the Book of Job tells us, worship is not a logical, rational set of actions. Despite YHWH's indifference and the human fallibility of religious practitioners, people who worship do sometimes believe — with greatly varying degrees of fervor — that life is meaningful and do sometimes have faith in the possibility of experiencing authenticity and fulfillment, if only infrequently and not for long. They share this tentative faith with people who create, like Elizabeth Taylor, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Archibald MacLeish, and with all those of us who nurture loving relationships despite the impediments of our own fickle natures and the fickle natures of those whom we love,

It's as my cousin Alice says, we can all know the interconnectedness of all that exists, if only we open our hearts and quiet, for a time, our clamoring intellects. Despite our knowledge of how terrible life can be, with right-brain insight we are capable of covering the world with the blaze and ripple of our minds. This may not seem like much, but it is enough to go on. We can all, as MacLeish says, "blow on the coal of the heart." At the close of the play, J.B. and Sarah accomplish a simple and routine task together, lifting and straightening chairs, and she says to him:
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we'll see by and by ... We'll see where we are.
The wit won't burn and the wet soul smoulders.
Blow on the coal of the heart and we'll know ...
We'll know ...


{Waterspout: whirlwind at sea; source:}

{William Blake, 1825; source arthistoryarchive}

{God speaks from the whirlwind. Walter Russell. Job 38:1; source: Grace Communion International}


*I have reproduced this and other text in this post for purposes of research and explication under fair use provisions of the copyright act.

Here are two alternative translations of the text:

Young's Literal Translation Job 38:1, 8-11:
And He shutteth up with doors the sea, In its coming forth, from the womb it goeth out. In My making a cloud its clothing, And thick darkness its swaddling band, And I measure over it My statute, And place bar and doors, And say, 'Hitherto come thou, and add not, And a command is placed On the pride of thy billows.'
The Book of Job 38, 1, 8-11
Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it, And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors, And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?

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