The Remains of the Day
Vintage Int’l, 1989
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, as the Amazon product page calls it, “universally acclaimed”. It won the Booker prize the year of its release, and no less a pedigree than Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson graced the screen in its film adaptation. I personally received recommendations for this book from people that both know me well and whom I greatly respect for their taste in literature.
Imagine my surprise, and the depth of my self-doubt and questioning of my own aesthetic inventory, when I read this book and really, really despised it.
This Summer, some friends of mine and I will be reading through James Joyce’s Ulysses–a mid-century modernist juggernaut that’s considered by many to be the greatest novel in the English language–and I want to invite all of you to join us. Feel free to pass this post (and its accompanying Google Doc) to anyone and everyone you think might be interested. You can purchase the book here.
The Bloomsday 2019 Kick-Off
Ulysses is at it most basic level, about one 24-hour period on June 16th, 1904 in the life of Leopold Bloom. For book nerds, that calendar day has subsequently been dubbed “Bloomsday”. Here in Philadelphia, there is a library and museum called The Rosenbach which has one of the only complete manuscripts ofUlysses, handwritten by Joyce. Every June 16th they throw a massive day-long block party celebrating Irish culture and James Joyce.
Our little reading group will begin on Bloomsday 2019, and we invite anyone in or near Philadelphia to come to The Rosenbach to party. We’ll then read through the book and, for those interested and able, we’ll occasionally meet in various Irish cafes and pubs around Philly to talk about the book. I’ll also try and blog a bit through the book here.
If you want to be added to an email list for info on the readings and meetings, you can do that on this form. You need not be in the Philadelphia area to join us.
And my person
But it is.
Take your shoes off
Set down your suitcase
And hang your jacket
Enjoy the fire; enjoy the tea
Rock the chair, back and forth
That’s all you can do right now.
Your items will still be there when it’s done.
the mud will be dry, they’ll feel like new
to aid you on your way
is not all that important, frankly
take it or leave it
it doesn’t do much
Not of flesh nor will of man
But of heart by will of Him.
Deep within a shot was cast and burrowed in the bow
The fine line of ecstasy and horror homoousion‘d among
Obedience was found on worthy lips, blessing bestowed for ages come.
Yet the blessing’s joy was found as a bell in the mist,
Meaning: it was not.
Until the rocks came.
it is time
to think about Christ
I keep putting it off.”
Longing and lusting
Raging and seizing
I feel far, Lord.
But I know you’re here. I know it.
It’s the nature of the matter; a matter of nature, I suppose.
Perhaps only now I feel at the deepest existential depths:
“I believe! Help my unbelief!”
We all have those pieces of art–be they movies, books, music, what have you–that upon first exposure we fall in love. We turn the last page or exit the theater or concert hall certain that this will surely be added to our list of favorites and long-held companions. Yet, how many times do we say this and a year or two down the road someone mentions that very piece of art and we find ourselves thinking, “oh yeah, I did read that, didn’t I?” or “I had forgotten how much I loved that album!”
So often we get swept away in the immediate experience of something skipping upon the waters of our soul, leaving little ripples and echoes dancing in its wake. But these dimples and dapples merely play on the surface for a time, returning once more to their source, leaving the waters ultimately undisturbed–the liquid plane unbroken; the deepest depths untouched.
There are other times, however, that we encounter a piece of art–or rather, it encounters us–and we are changed. It transcends mere rankings of “favorites” and “Top 10s” and weaves itself into our fibers. We do not critique and assess it, so much as it sizes and weighs us. The surface tension is broken and we are plunged beneath, staring humanity’s unvarnished truths in the face. And in so doing our own humanity is enlarged, a spaciousness expands in our souls, and we feel more human–even as our foundations are shaken.
John Steinbeck’s 1952 magnum opus, East of Eden, is just this kind of piece of art. It’s the kind of book people say they will read “someday”, only to read it and wish “someday” had come a lot sooner. So if you haven’t read it. Do so. Start today.
But music does change a man’s nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as blackness:
Let no such man be trusted.
William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, V.1
A troubled heart troubled still as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death but Im the shadow of that valley as I strike them with one rod while another comforts them why wont they die as I strike them with My Left as your right upholds them all Ill kill them inhale Ill kill them exhale Ill kill them inhale so on and so forth I walk as the dust of My sandals covers their face while Mine is clean Mine is pristine following none but MySelf on this dusty Damascus road and
This is from the Advent portion of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being. The full text is under copyright, but it’s in this book, if you’re interested.
From Part I:
[T]ime never moves and nothing can ever happen:
I mean that although there’s a person we know all about
Still bearing our name and loving himself as before,
That person has become a fiction; our true existence
Is decided by no one and has no importance to love.
That is why we despair; that is why we would welcome
The nursery bogey or the winecellar ghost, why even
The violent howling of winter and war has become
Like a juke-box tune that we dare not stop. We are afraid
Of pain but more afraid of silence; for no nightmare
Of hostile objects could be as terrible as this Void.
This is the Abomination. This is the wrath of God.
Part II, Chorus:
Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
I’ll be honest, one of the reasons why I love Lent and the Church Calendar is because it is a helpful corrective for my own personal lack of personal discipline. I’m not especially skilled at putting together my own structure, and so I really flourish when structure and pattern is placed on me from the outside.
This is especially true with spiritual practices. To engage with a Church season like Lent, I often need to give myself a blog series to keep me thinking on a theme for the season (see above, under “Lenten Posts“). I really do well with reading plans, prayerbooks, music albums, etc. If you find yourself in the same boat, here are some resources for this year’s Lent that some of you may find helpful.
For my Hebrew class last year, I was asked to write up a super literal translation of Psalm 23 (below), and then build off of that to create a much more dynamic, creative, contemporary translation. This was the result.
A Psalm in the spirit of David.
The LORD is tending to me
I want for nothing
He has me lie down in pastures of fresh, new grass
Beside the waters of rest
He gently guides me
He brings the life back to my soul
He leads me into the grooves of life well-lived because of who he is.
Though I truly die in the depth of darkness,
there is no evil that I fear,
You are truly there with me
Your staff and your support: they comfort me
You host before my face a table opposite all that stands against me.
You clean me with oil over top of my head.
Overflowing abundance is my cup.
Surely, goodness and steadfast faithfulness will chase me down
for the whole of my life’s days
This will be my story:
I will return into the dwelling place of the Lord and stay—
for lifetimes upon lifetimes.
Today is International Women’s Day, and to honor it, National Geographic has a powerful photo spread of women from around the world, called “Portraits of Strength”. While looking through some of the comments, I saw this beautiful poem posted by the poet herself. Read the poem, see the pictures, and listen to the stories of a woman today.
I am a tree
Did you think I was a woman?
Oh no, I am a tree
rooted and immovable
impossible to conceive
that I have seen
Now gnarled and warped
weathered and aged
wrinkled and withered
bent to the ends of recognition
too rigid to give in
to the whim of man
I stand true to the tune
of the wind echoing
my own inner rhythm
persistent, consistent, constant
Perhaps every tree
was once a woman –
only a woman could stand so strong
fall so proud
when the axe of age claims her
and earth sets a bed for her
© 10.2006 Helen Bar-Lev
[image credit: “Kalfonarium” by Istvan Sandorfi]
On the 1st Day: God created Palm Trees and Donkeys
On the 2nd Day: He created Fig Trees and Temples
On the 3rd Day: He created Scribes and Pharisees
On the 4th Day: He created Silver and Kisses
On the 5th Day: He created Bread, Wine, and Gardens
On the 6th Day: He created a Tree, Nails, and Thorns
And on the 7th Day: God rested from His labor.
And there was evening
And there was mourning…
[read my other Holy Day poetry here]
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