Measured Extravagance

2001-05-17 - 1:50 a.m.

Ampersand Project, May: I beseech you to look

Topic: "The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst/ are no worse, if imagination amend them." - A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare. (This can be interpreted any way you like.)

It's been one of those weeks where I wish I had a copy of Brideshead Revisited on hand, because there's a phrase in there about the past and future pressing together so tightly that there's no room for the present, and that's how I've been feeling, floundering and plodding through certain tasks and obligations, gingerly picking my way through others, and all the while feeling besieged with ineradicable regret and ambition. There's so much to love in the here and now, and I know it, but some days I feel like a reed mown down by the wind instead of its instrument - that I have it in me to sound a note clear and true could I but insist on standing tall.

And then I feel like I ought to mock myself for conceiving of myself as a vessel. How utterly, absurdly grandiose. Why not simply describe myself as feeling hollow and have done with it?

I salute you. I am your friend and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not got; but there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take.

With these words, Fra Giovanni Giocondo began a Christmas letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi in 1513. The author we believe to be William Shakespeare was born in 1564. I wonder if he ever came across this letter. I wonder who translated the version that appears in my copy of One Thousand Beautiful Things, an anthology compiled by Marjorie Barrows (Chicago: Peoples [sic] Book Club, Inc., 1948), sandwiched in-between Fitzgerald's "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" and a quotation from Rabelais. The letter isn't Shakespearean in meter or style, of course (and I imagine it to be even less so in Italian), but still, the cadence of the language - the way it veers towards magniloquence without wallowing in it, the delicate balance of the personal and the general - there's a quality to Fra Giovanni's words that does indeed remind me of the Bard's speeches.

No Heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take Heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instance. Take Peace! The gloom of this world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is Joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see -- and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look.

I first read this passage in when I was ten or eleven, in a Reader's Digest feature on the favorite prayers of a prominent bishop. I've long forgotten his name, his denomination, and the other five or six prayers that were printed in that issue, but I copied the excerpt from Fra Giovanni into my journal and translated it into Spanish in eighth grade.

The peculiar thing is that I didn't really understand the implications of the passage back then, and I don't entirely accept them now - I regard the gloom of the world as a presence of significant heft, and I would consider it presumptuous to demand that people suffering from illness or loss or persecution view the proverbial glass as half-full instead of half-empty. Sometimes there is a crack in the glass. Sometimes the glass is knocked over. Try to pack seven wineglasses in a box intended for only six, and something will shatter.

But -- yet -- I also think that for many of us, myself included, choosing how we gaze at the darkness does indeed alter its shape and its hue. In calligraphy, there is a technique we use to make colored letters stand out on dark paper: we first write out the text in white, and then we re-ink each letter with the final color (be it blue or crimson or emerald green...), on top of the white. The white base is invisible to the viewer of the completed artwork, but it makes the difference between letters that fade into the background and letters that glow out from it. I think there are many ways to amend the darkness, when we know to look - and know how to look.

...Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the Angel's hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial or a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that Angel's hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Our joys too: be not content with them as joys. They too conceal diviner gifts.

I tend to recoil from angels - and from people who use the word "everything" to generalize about anguish or pain. That said, I love the balance of opposing forces in this passage - burdens as gifts, the obligations that accompany joy - just as the scene in which Duke Theseus speaks his words can be simultaneously one of the funniest and the saddest scenes in the play. I remember reading it aloud with some of my college classmates, howling with laughter - and yet, I've been there: I've been both the put-upon aristocrat - "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard" - and the utterly clueless performer, unaware of the sheer, wretched absurdity of my efforts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty -- beneath its covering -- that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage to claim it, that is all!

Oh, but it isn't. If your heaven is defined solely by how other people perceive you, sure, chutzpah and cojones can get you closer to the brass ring. But if the accounting lies amongst you, yourself and thee (or you, yourself and (S)He, if you subscribe to a God that participates in reckoning), then I question the word "courage." It's true, I think, that in many activities worth pursuing, obstacles are inevitable; be it poetry, love, acts of charity, getting fit - that it does indeed take courage to venture beyond the limits and boundaries that people are so appallingly eager to impose upon each other. But courage is not all -- it cannot compensate for misplaced priorities or for non-existent resources -- and courage is not always the answer. Sometimes it's simply thrusting one foot in front of another, and sometimes it's choosing to ignore a battle instead of wasting time in the fray. These I consider matters of perspective rather than of courage - sometimes the darkness is simply the darkness, and the only acceptable approach to it is to hunker down and trudge through it until it lifts. I've found it that I wear it more lightly and shed it faster, now that I recognize it more readily - I don't welcome it, ever, but I can at least believe that it will eventually dissolve: Oh, it's you again. Gosh, it's amazing - you're smashing illusions I didn't even realize I cherished. How long are you going to hang around this time? Or, as Joseph Brodsky put it: matter how unpalatable this or that station may turn out to be, the train doesn't stop there for good. Therefore, you are never stuck, not even when you feel you are.

From now on, this day will only be receding for you, for that train is in a constant motion. It will be receding for you even when you feel that you are stuck.....So take one last look at it, while it is still its normal size, while it is not yet a photograph. Look at it with all the tenderness you can muster, for you are looking at your past. Exact, as it were, the full look at the best.

<< | >>
My book!




Copyright 2000-2016 by mechaieh / pld. This blog has migrated to

Hosted by DiaryLand.