Thursday, September 4, 2008

Over the Atlantic 10.1.94: And All Our Yesterdays Have Lighted

On the plane now. I hesitate to write anything. Just no get up and go.

It’s partly utter fatigue. But it’s more than fatigue, the bronchial and sinus infection I seem to have picked up from that horrible night in the Besigheim hotel. It’s the sad, inconsolable weight of things, in which tears are always to be found: Sunt lacrimae rerum.

As Proust knew (Partir, c’est mourir un peu), every ending partakes of death. And death is also judgment. No—hell—I can’t get my mind working these day. I know all I’ve written in the past few days is nonsensical, pretentious but incoherent, crap. What the hell is wrong with me?

There’s always that voice crying inside us, piteously: I want, I want, I want. Karl Rahner might call it the lure of the horizon, or Aquinas the voice of God within our nature reaching to completeness. Someone like Heidegger (or perhaps Sartre) might speak of the irresistible impulse of our need to find meaning in face of death, of the dissolution of our fated existences.

At one level, what I want is so clear, so material, even. These last few days, especially the two in Trier (and at M. and W.’s before that), I’ve realized how wonderful it would be to know a number of languages better than I do, as well as “average” Europeans know them. I had four years of Latin in high school and two in college, three years of Greek in college, three of French. I had to learn German to read in graduate school.

And yet I feel utterly tongue-tied when confronted with the necessity to use the languages I do know—to read Latin or Greek again, to speak French or German in more than rudimentary ways. I’d love to be more than rudimentarily informed about other cultures, art, music, books, history.

This crying out inside—I want, I want—makes me think of going back and studying languages on a regular basis, reading books in French and German, even polishing my Latin and Greek again.

But the voice within the voice, the want I can’t identify—such confusion, pain. Not turbulence, oddly enough, but a fatigue that so captivates my limbs, my will, that I live facing the snake charmer, and no other way. Holy damn—I cannot think or write! Not without resorting to those glib metaphors that mask as much as they disclose.

The ultimate wants—God? Love? Fulfillment? Self-acceptance? Peace with family? Clarity re: my vocation, the meaning of my life? I don’t know, don’t know how to name it, how even to begin to aim. I’m paralyzed.

An unshapen thought that haunted me in Trier, and yesterday as we revisited the little churches in Dockweiler and Dreis and saw the Maria Laach abbey church, is how so many generations of people who had to be diverse (and perhaps as mixed-up as I am) lived within the parameters of Catholic culture.

This is all so unclear: I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wonder how to make my peace with the church, to live in it in such a way that I draw strength and life from it without letting it destroy me. That, or how to leave, nake a clean break, move on to a new life.

Why even try? In part, because—the same tired old answer à la Chesterton, Belloc, etc.—Catholicism is an amazingly attractive religion. If . . . .

The tender sensuality of the mother of Jesus holding her dead son in the Maria Laach pieta; the heart-rending exposure of God’s pain in the statue of the father holding his crucified son in the Dockweiler church: no Christian tradition that truncates itself from the iconographic and liturgical traditions of early Christianity has the power to touch these depths. Not artistically, at least. Not liturgically. Such sensual (and simultaneously spiritual) depths.

The artistic heritage of the communions that have retained living connection to the earliest periods of Christianity—and even the doctrinal heritage, with all its contradictions and complexities—put one in touch with such symbolic transformative power, and one simply does not find power of that sort in some of the more recent Christian traditions.

In a city like Trier, one can’t help but be ineluctably aware of the continuity between European Catholic culture and the Graeco-Roman heritage. It’s everywhere, and perhaps not least in the way people stroll, stare, flirt, celebrate life. And that heritage contains strong gay currents. What else to make of the baths at Trier, the unabashed erections of satyrs in the stone carvings of the Rheinisches Museum?

But if . . . . If that heritage within Catholicism can be protected from the ravages of Enlightenment culture, particularly in the grotesque and bastardized way that culture impacts everyone today—via the American advertising industry with its attendant religious form, televangelism . . . .

And if that heritage can be rescued from the dreadfully—the astonishingly—short-sighted attempts of John Paul II and Ratzinger to freeze it, to puritanize it, to make it the willing servant of Enlightenment even as it believes itself to be critiquing Enlightenment!

All so intellectual. Back to the heart, to my heart. As I make such a move in my head, two things flash before me. One—for reasons I can’t explain—is an Epiphany procession I saw yesterday as we drove through a little Eifel village. Proud, happy children in white robes, gold crowns, black face.

Perhaps the attraction of that Augenblick is that I see in it how the heritage goes on. It’s lived, even if it may not be lived with all the self-conscious, ironic, defiant playfulness I would like it to muster. And where life is, there’s always the possibility of resistance and novel, unexpected adaptation.

The other flash is almost precisely an opposite one. It’s a feeling I have, one that has grown in me on this trip, of the rather sad sameness of human existence everywhere. The hideously ugly furnishings of Steve’s cousin’s house, his boorishness and grasping nature: these can apparently be found anywhere, in any suburb or village. There is no utopia, no pristine peasant/bohemian/intellectual utopia to which I can retire, or which can console me as I think of its existence, while I live in my own nightmare place.

What to do with these contradictory impulses? On the one hand, intellectual curiosity, desire to understand and experience, pushes and pushes me. On the other hand, I have such certainty that all my attempts to find the new will go the way of dusty death.

Is it possible to welcome the new, wherever it meets me, while living in the face of death? I don’t see any other option, if I’m not simply to give up, roll over, and die.

Steve says not to wait for some sign to come, for some miraculous savior, for some door to open. Wise words. But frankly, I often don’t know what else to do.

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