Wednesday, August 20, 2014

C is for Construction

Construction sign south of Fergus, Ontario, Canada
August 2014
©Kristin Lord 2014

Cynical or merely realistic, I allow extra time for road travel in July and August because it is construction season in the northern hemisphere. This year there is more of it than usual because the northeastern quadrant of US states and Canadian provinces had such a brutal winter. Then add issues of population growth and aging infrastructure. Finally, as is apparent from a recent article in the Toronto Star, going into what the locals call Hogtown (although there are no longer any hog processing plants within the city limits) is asking for trouble due to refurbishment of one downtown artery and preparations for next year’s Pan Am games. We could be forgiven for mistaking the lines of SUV’s and articulated delivery vehicles extending from Pearson (the main Toronto airport) to Guelph Line for the snorting sows and boars of a century ago. The advice for enduring southern Ontario traffic is to be centered and keep one’s temper for the inevitable.

Expecting problems to arise is not always the advice that springs to mind from either the Bible or the writings of early Friends. Admittedly, the Apostle Paul speaks of looking “through a glass, darkly” in I Corinthians 13:12 (perhaps in part because of the imperfections of mirrors in his day), but our eyes may light more often upon the summation of the commands in the Sermon on the Mount at Matthew 5:48. The King James version is elegant and succinct: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” It is also a literal translation of both the Greek New Testament (ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνοις τέλειός ἐστιν) and the Latin Vulgate (Estote ergo vos perfecti, sicut et Pater vester cælestis perfectus est).

Every translation is by its nature an adaptation, and modern scholars, before attempting an up-to-date rendering of this passage, have tried to clarify its context. First and perhaps foremost, the very fact that the line begins with an imperative (“Be”) and is followed by a comparison (“as” or “just as”) reminds us that as human beings we are not perfect. God is the example for us to emulate. Nevertheless, for those worrying about the potential psychological impact of perfectionism, parsing the syntax in this way may not offer much consolation. Drilling into the Greek can be equally uncomfortable: the word τέλειος (teleios) in the King James as “perfect,” means either “perfect” or “complete,” as does the perfecti of the Vulgate. For similar ideas expressed elsewhere in the Bible, commentaries direct us to Leviticus 19.2: “You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (REB).

Scholars are left to consider in what way we should drive for the ideal. Since Matthew 5:48 is the summation of Jesus’s commandments about love and moral behavior, the Revised English Bible translates it as “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.”

We are left with the question of how to square the emphasis on striving for perfection or completeness with the message of Christianity as a religion of hope and forgiveness —indeed, of the idea that humans are prone to lapses in judgment and morality and need to be able to pick themselves up and go on. Here chapter 13 of Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians, which contains the related word τὸ τέλειον (to teleion), best translated as the English abstract noun “perfection,” is illustrative. This is the familiar passage often read at weddings, and the same one read by British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the funeral of Princess Diana.

1 Corinthians 13 is subject to much interpretation. In this case, the King James Version, redolent as it is for the culture of English-speaking countries, does not do modern readers a favor. Nowadays we may speak darkly, in the sense of enigmatically (“After hearing of the murder, she spoke darkly about a strange vehicle having been left in the gully overnight the preceding week”) but we do not use that expression for sight.

The general outline of the passage, however, is clear if we consider the geographical and social context and the Greek. Corinth in Paul’s day was, as it is now, a seafaring town, located on a narrow isthmus between the Aegean Sea and the Gulf of Corinth. People who drive through the Isthmus of Corinth on the modern superhighway between Athens and the Peloponnese, where Sparta is located, can see from one side to the other. In the heyday of the Greek city-states, Corinth was a wealthy community, chock-full of artistic masterpieces; it was also caught in the middle of every war that hit the eastern Mediterranean. Not surprisingly, given its strategic location, Corinth was sacked by the Romans in their conquest of Greece about two centuries before Paul preached in the area. The Romans looted every piece of art they could carry and smashed the city. To Roman writers of a later generation, the destruction of Corinth stood in the place that people of the post-World War II generation speak of the destruction of Dresden in Germany in February of 1945. Cicero, in discussing his theory of the “just” war in his book de Officiis (On Duties), more or less holds his nose when justifying its destruction. He writes, “I wish they had not destroyed Corinth; but I believe they had some special reason for what they did—its convenient situation, probably—and feared that its very location might some day furnish a temptation to renew the war” (de Officiis 1.11.35, translation by Walter Miller).

By Paul’s time Corinth was once again a thriving seaport. Like other communities of its sort, it attracted people from other places wishing to better themselves. Some succeeded; others did not. Many were lonely; there were tax-collectors, sinners, and prostitutes. The church itself was subject to growing pains and quarrels about belief and, so it seems from the letter, about much more mundane matters. The more sophisticated among them would have been well aware of the history of the town and its losses at the beginning of Roman rule. No wonder Paul speaks about the primacy of faith, hope, and love, and emphasizes human growth and maturity from childhood to adulthood. The metaphor of growth from childhood to adulthood (“when I was a child...”) at 1:13.11 shows that this process is normal.

In this passage perfection equals completeness. When perfection or completeness (τὸ τέλειον) comes to pass, that which is a part of the whole (τὸ ἐκ μέρους, a phrase which is much more compact in the Greek than the English) shall pass away. There is no time given for such completeness, but it is implicit that the perfection is not of this world.

Now we get to the “glass, darkly” section. The Greek reads, βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, “For now we see through a mirror in a riddle.” The word αἴνιγμα (ainigma in our spelling), whose English derivative is “enigma,” is the standard word for a riddle or a problem that is difficult to solve. We see this word, for instance, in Oedipus’s taunt to the seer Teiresias that he, Oedipus, cannot be the man who killed King Laius (who turns out to be Oedipus’s biological father) in line 392 of Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King.  The word ἔσοπρον (esoptron) is the standard word for a mirror, and it is the most common translation (the word speculum, a hyper-literal rendition of the Latin Vulgate, is occasionally used to convey the idea of moving through various levels of “seeing,” but for women, at least, the word has a connotation that is definitely not what Paul had in mind).

But what does a mirror have to do with a riddle? Isn’t a mirror what we use to see many entities, including ourselves, clearly? It turns out that the answer is yes and no. Yes, we hope for clarity. However, a mirror reverses left and right, and mirrors in antiquity never provided close to the likeness that we see today.

Mirror, Roman period
uploaded by Udimu for public usage
Creative Commons License, Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, the concept of seeing indirectly is an idea that would have been familiar to most people in Paul’s day who had a reasonable reading knowledge of Greek. The passage that would have come to mind is the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic (514a-520a). (In this regard, see, among others, J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction, 20112, p. 23.) In the cave people who have been imprisoned since childhood see only shadows of puppets reflected from a fire; even when they are turned to see the puppets, an activity that  initially hurts their eyes, they have not seen the physical beings that these puppets represent. The prisoners need to go into sunlight in order to see the “real” people, animals, and what-not that the puppets represent. Once again, they are blinded until their eyes adjust and they are able to see clearly. Since Plato is speaking metaphorically, ultimately abstract concepts (for instance, justice, beauty, courage) take the place of physical ones, and the sun comes to represent the idea of the good.

Plato’s Republic is a work of pagan literature, and Paul’s idea of the good is part of a monotheistic mindset. Nevertheless, the progression in types of vision is the same. When Paul describes people “then” seeing “face to face,” they will have the same wholeness of knowledge that Plato described earlier. (The word “to know” is the same in classical and New Testament Greek.) In the interim, we have faith, hope, and love (ἀγάπη, agape, the non-erotic love sometimes translated as “charity”). Also, it happens that this passage is not the only one in the epistle to refer back to Plato; if we substitute ἀγάπη for ἔρως (eros, or erotic love), Paul’s description of love is reminiscent of that of Agathon in Plato’s Symposium 174a-d (see Thomas L. Cooksey, Plato’s Symposium: A Reader’s Guide, 2010, p. 55).

As we know, the path to perfection can lead to despair, and Jesus himself was no stranger to it. For Quakers, George Fox provides a detailed description of both the ideal and the less-than-perfect reality. When considering what Fox asks his followers to do, people often refer to the letter to ministers which he dictated to Ann Downer in Launceston jail in 1656. The main portion of this letter ends with the famous command, “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that answering that of God in everyone.” This passage is sufficiently important in the development of Quaker thought that it is cited without the surrounding context at the end of  the Advices and Queries of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Quaker Faith and Practice. However, Fox’s command is part of a longer discussion of how to build the church; this discussion showcases a metaphor of the back-breaking work —especially with seventeenth-century technology!— of making the soul into fertile ground. He advises us that “none are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in whim which he has transgressed.” (Journal, Nickalls ed., p. 263; see citations in Britain Yearly Quaker Meeting Faith and Practice 2013 for sources for the complete document)

George Fox himself was known to suffer from periods of disillusionment; today we might be likely to say that he suffered from episodes of depression, which is now considered to be as much of an illness in its own right as heart disease or diabetes. In 1647, after leaving both the priests of the Church of England and the dissenting preachers, he felt that “there was none among them all that could speak to my condition.” He came to find that “all my hopes in them and in all men were gone.” The culmination of this period is hearing the voice which said, “‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”  
Understandably, George Fox wonders why God tormented him for so long, not only with isolation but with all sorts of temptation. Fox writes that the Lord answered that “it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite Love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” (passages in the last two paragraphs from George Fox, Journal, Nickalls edition, p. 19 and 33; sections 19.01 and 19.03 in most recent Britain YM Quaker Faith and Practice)

I was mulling over these passages and what they might mean for me personally a couple of weeks ago, as I was attending the Festival of the Sound, which features primarily chamber music in the village of Parry Sound, about two hours north of Toronto on Georgian Bay. James Campbell, the director of the festival, asked all of us in attendance to list ten pieces for instrumental solo or chamber ensemble we would like to hear next year; slips were available in the foyer. I asked a staffer for elaboration as to whether he was going to count up the ten answers seen most often (e.g., five thousand requests for Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata), or whether we should include ten pieces that were perhaps not heard as often. She suggested making more than one list and including both types of suggestions. In the end, I wrote two lists.

My husband submitted no list of his own but was curious as to which selections I put on mine. As he is an aficionado of Frédéric Chopin, he was not disappointed to find Chopin’s first Ballade on my list, but he was curious as to why numero uno on my first list was Beethoven’s Sonata no. 21 in C major, opus 53, dedicated to Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein and known by the name of the dedicatee. (For those who wish to hear it, I attach a link to one of the magisterial performances of Daniel Barenboim; as far as I can ascertain, Barenboim has given the requisite permission for a complete set of his Beethoven sonata performances to be uploaded onto YouTube.) My husband prefers Chopin because of the relatively compact range of emotions (strange as this may sound) in each particular piece. I prefer Beethoven precisely because of the kinds of unexpected and abrupt incursions of fear, anguish, and temptation in a piece written at least nominally in the open and optimistic key of C major. In reality, of course, neither of us disparages the preference of the other; it is more a question of who ranks 9.9 and who achieves 9.95 on a scale of 1 to 10 among the pantheon of the immortals of the piano.

Musicians and musicologists have a wide range of opinions about the Waldstein sonata. For intermediate-level pianists like myself, it is a painful reminder of where we stand on the pianistic totem pole, since the Waldstein is fiendishly difficult even for professionals to play. (Indeed, the scales in one section have been adapted because of the changes in the construction of the instrument since Beethoven’s time.) As a Quaker educator, it is a reminder of the Divine message that Fox received of the importance of experiencing all conditions in order to speak to all conditions; if my initial forays into Beethoven’s self-entitled “Sonata facile” (“Easy Sonata”) no. 19 in G minor, opus 49.1, make me feel foolish, it is an important insight into how students who claim to be “not good at languages” might feel when taking a foreign language class. Professional pianists apparently either thrill to its challenges and its musical achievements (e.g., Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel) or dislike the piece. Sviatoslav Richter, the great Soviet pianist who left a magnificent recorded legacy of just about everything else, never performed the Waldstein as far as we know. Anton Kuerti, for his part, has a wonderful recording of the Waldstein in his complete Beethoven cycle, but the liner notes exhibit some concerns about the way the piece is constructed.

Jan Swafford, in his newly released biography of Beethoven, takes a middle road. Although he points to the Waldstein as one of the composer’s major breakthroughs, exceeded in his middle period only by the “Appassionata” sonata a bit later, Swafford notes why the beginning of the Waldstein, in particular, sometimes sets people on edge. Briefly put, it breaks the standard compositional rules about the use of themes. Swafford writes of Beethoven’s pieces of motifs and that the beginning of the first movement of the Waldstein is “an accompaniment in search of a theme.” (Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, 2014, p. 372)

Perhaps only Beethoven can break the rules in this way. The abrupt changes of mood and key signature in the Waldstein sonata, however unexpected, are not random or without purpose. In the first movement of the Waldstein, we may feel that we have foiled a home invasion, only to have the armed robbers chase us down a darkened street, which in turn turns into a blind alley or a construction zone. The hints at redemption are brief and all too often dashes. How can the tension thus created be resolved? Finally, after the brief and meditative Introduzione (introduction) that takes the place of the second movement originally written for the sonata, Beethoven does release the tension, bringing in the short but triumphant theme of the rondo (the third and final movement) which wins its own battle over the forces of darkness.

The music of Beethoven's second perioda time in his life when he was surrounded by, shall we say, an ocean of silence— prefigures both the horrors and the beauty of the world one to two hundred years later, as well as musical innovations by much later composers. As my husband and I were talking about Beethoven and Chopin, we came to the inevitable road construction and considered whether to turn on the hourly news. This year, perhaps more than any since the Cuban missile crisis, when we were both small children, the world seems a foreboding place. There have been wars, police brutality, and bloodshed, whether deliberate or accidental. Diplomats, negotiators, and jurists from various places have set up deliberations with the best of intent, but they have not as yet (August 20, 2014) succeeded. Last week Robin Williams, a brilliant and beloved comic actor, who suffered from depression in the past, succumbed to his personal despair.

The weather, too, has gone awry. In some parts of the North American continent, there is too much sunlight and not enough rain, leading to record-breaking droughts and forest fires. Here in the northeastern states and provinces we have had more than one summer polar vortex after the winter ones, leaving us with the household furnace running on July and August mornings when we are accustomed to heat waves.

Ultimately, construction seasons come to an end (see the linked article by Chris Johnstone from the Guardian website as to how to remain confident about this). In the political sphere those who desire peace and understanding are not willing to give up, and Friends are unstinting in their support of them. Likewise, in the personal realm periods of despair often lead to new growth. If, however, someone is not experiencing gloomy periods as a normal “construction season” but rather as endless red lights, or if one sees ditches (literal or metaphorical) ahead, it is time to call for help.

Darkness and light: sunset on Georgian Bay, Lake Huron
August 2014
photograph taken during intermission at the Festival of the Sound
©Kristin Lord 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment