Easter Monday 2017
BY WALLACE STEVENS
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
Stevens makes his case by denying the reality of the resurrection. Fair enough; the gospel writers were concerned to prove Jesus was dead and the Jesus seen after his death was also the Jesus who died. Mark, in the original, only has the disciples running, afraid, from the empty tomb. An angel tells them not to be afraid, but they are anyway. Matthew keeps Mark's angel, but Jesus appears to the disciples and has some final instructions for them, even as Matthew includes a scene of the elders (scribes and priests, in the usual telling) conspiring to spread a rumor that the disciples stole the body and claimed a resurrection. Probably that tale went around at the time; Matthew is trying to reverse its effect. Luke has the women and the angel, and then the road to Emmaus, and then Jesus meets his disciples and ascends into heaven, a story Luke liked so much he repeated it as the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. In John, Jesus appears behind closed doors, but Thomas touches the wounds in his hands, and later Jesus grills fish for Peter and eats some himself. He is not a ghost, John wants to insist; but neither is he a zombie.
Stevens gets that much right; the tomb in Palestine is the grave of Jesus, where he lay; but not where he lies anymore. The conclusions he draws sound clever, but they aren't that clever. They are his conclusions, and he is welcome to them; but oddly, such conclusions aren't nearly as persuasive as the resurrection stories. Maybe the world he praises in his poem is good enough for him; but that isn't a gospel anyone has taken up after him. Which is not an apologia of Christianity, just an observation.
The gospel stories themselves tell disparate tales of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. He gets more human as time passes (from Mark's almost ghost story ending to Luke's road to Emmaus to John's Jesus squatting by a fire roasting and then eating fish). He's never a ghost, but he disappears at Emmaus, and enters a locked room among the disciples; so he's never flesh-and-blood, either. It's interesting that those tales are still persuasive to so many people in this "modern age." "Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail/Whistle about us their spontaneous cries," too; but still the tomb in Palestine is not the porch of spirits lingering, and if the dominion of the blood and sepulcher is not among us always, not right in the midst of those casual flocks of pigeons, then they are not being observed by human eyes; and what a sad loss that would be.
No skin off Stevens' nose to notice; just a starting point for a meditation. If the culture is so saturated with the story that poets can take it as their starting point, we can take their poetry as the starting point for our own observations. I have pulled a few stanzas from Stevens' longer poem for my own purposes; but that's left out is just a paen to a "spiritual" view of the world that is peculiar to Stevens' observations of nature. It is an oddly inhuman world, except for the men in a ring chanting to the sun, and the woman in her peignoir imagining all this. People, in Stevens' vision, exist only to venerate nature; their purpose is only to be aware of nature (consciousness) and to praise it for its existence. It's not only a bloodless (as in "uninspiring") vision, it's a de-humanized one. The women in her peignoir is alone on Sunday morning, with only a cockatoo for company; and she seems to like it that way. Human beings are messy, demanding, uncooperative, contrary, balky, obstreperous; all the things her vision of nature are not. Stevens doesn't offer an alternative to his dry husk version of Christianity, because he doesn't offer anything for human beings. He reduces religion to dancing naked in the sun with other people whose attention is turned away from humanity, and to appreciating the fact that birds sing. Nature exists to be appreciated, human beings exist to appreciate it: that is the sum total of Stevens' argument. It's not exactly "The child is father to the man," or even wishing to be a pagan suckled on a creed outworn.
The resurrection story bristles with people. Women go to the tomb, are told by an angel why it is empty, run away terrified or to tell the story to others. Jesus meets a group of comparative strangers (none are identified as one of the 12 apostles, now 11) on the road to Emmaus. A crowd gathers in a locked room where Thomas, who appears for the first time, has to touch the risen Jesus' hands. Still later Jesus grills fish to feed his friends. Matthew's Jesus gives his disciples final instructions for how to live in the world as his evangelists; Luke's Jesus gathers his disciples and then rejoins them, as the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, sending them out into the world speaking every language known in the region. The resurrection is directed back at us, not toward the glory of God. We worship in order to serve each other, not to praise the sun for shining (as if the sun cares). Christianity is meant to lead us to care for each other, not to fit some strange aesthetic concerning the presence of nature. For Stevens, nature is the ultimate reality; for Christians, other people are. But other people are real insofar as they are exactly that: other people. What else does "love your enemy" mean, except to love them even though they are your enemy? It may be pleasant for a New Englander to imagine being naked in the sun on an early morning in summer, but to a Texan that's just a recipe for suffering. Does Stevens advocating loving the sun despite the heat of a Texas summer?
Writing this, I came across this:
I will end with a long quote from Bertrand Russell's Last Philosophical Testament.
Let us consider two theories of the good. One says, like Christianity, Kant, and democracy: whatever the good may be, any one man's enjoyment of it has the same value as any other man's. The other says: there is a certain sub-class of mankind – white men, Germans, gentiles, or what not – who we good or evil alone counts in an estimation of ends; other men are only to be considered as means. I shall suppose that A takes the first view, and B the second. What can either say to convict the other of error? I can only imagine arguments that would be strictly irrelevant. A might say: If you ignore the interests of a large part of mankind, they will rebel and murder you. B might say: The portion of mankind that I favour is so much superior to the rest in skill and courage that it is sure to rule in any case, so why not frankly acknowledged the true state of affairs? Each of these is an argument as to means, not as to ends. When such arguments are swept away, there remains, so far as I can see, nothing to be said except for each party to express moral disapproval of the other. Those who reject this conclusion advance no argument against it except it is unpleasant.
The question arises: What am I to mean when I say that this or that is good as an end? To make the argument definite, let us take pleasure as the thing to be discussed. If one man affirms and other denies that pleasure is good per se, what is the difference between them? My contention is tha the two men differ as to what they desire, but not as to what they assert since they assert nothing. I maintain that neither asserts anything except…
He goes on like that for a while more before he says:
I do not think that an ethical judgement merely expresses a desire; I agree with Kant that it must have an element of universality. I should interpret “A is good” as “Would that all men desired A”…..
Russell makes the same error Stevens makes: he reduces ethics (or Christianity, in Stevens' poem) to a utilitarian concept, and then searches for a model more suited to his predilections. The vision of both men is a vision of accord achieved through a denial of the complexity of humanity. Stevens wipes away everything about human beings that isn't in accord with his narrator and her late coffee rumination; Russell reduces the question to an either/or. But the vision of the Hebrew prophets, the vision of the God of Abraham, is an inclusive vision attractive precisely because it is available, but not required; it is offered, not demanded:
"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk,
not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land."--Isaish 55:1-2, REB)
2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2:2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
The invitation to the mountain is open to all. The reason to go to the mountain is to learn; not to be compelled, not to be ruled, not to be conformed to a rule you must accept. The people coming to the holy mountain don't say "We have no choice," they say: "Come, let us go to the mountain of the LORD....that [God] may teach us [God's] ways and that we may walk in [God's] paths." This is a vision so far beyond Russell's "Would that all men desired A...." I don't think he could ever see it; it's premise is so different from the Aristotelian premise Russell sticks with that he can never get here from there. In the vision of Isaiah people will desire what God has to offer, because they see it in the world; but it isn't a vision that depends on all people desiring it. Isaiah is shrewd, and knows human nature; "many people" will be enough, "all people" would be, frankly, a form of slavery.
Stevens thinks the good is to acknowledge only the reality of the natural world, and to deny the value of anything else, including other human beings. But the vision of the prophets just before and just after the Exile, was of a life lived so much as an example of what human life could and should be, that it would be like a mountain rising above all else, a mountain people would want to come to, and learn this way of living from.
Like the resurrection it is aimed, not at God, but back at us. It is what God is doing for us in this world, and the world we can live in; if we only would.