Attitude v. Gratitude
Many will say this is the wrong time of year, but I can never hear the word “thanksgiving” without recalling some lines I heard many a time when young:
On the night he was betrayed, he took bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:
Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.
When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.
That’s the Roman missal, collapsing the Last Supper from the three synoptic Gospels together with Paul in First Corinthians. All the sources agree that Jesus took up the bread and wine having given thanks (εὐχαριστήσας), whence our word “Eucharist.” But in the Bible that thanks is not explicitly directed anywhere. It’s only the missal, itself an address to God the Father, which inserts the “you,” and so takes the position that thanks can’t be given without a recipient.
It’s no mystery to whom the first Thanksgiving was addressed. But for us secularists, the answer is not so obvious. If we distrust homage for the same reason we distrust petitionary prayer, that it seems to evoke a feudal relationship, then any more nebulous expression of gratitude will look much like tribute sent to an empty castle.
Before εὐχάριστος meant “thankful,” it meant simply pleasant. In Herodotus, Solon tells Croesus that no man may be called fortunate till he die happily (τελευτήσῃ εὐχαρίστως τὸν βίον). And that makes sense, if we’re willing to extend gratitude without a recipient to something like the sentiment behind Wittgenstein’s last words, on hearing that his friends were coming: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
But we don’t utter deathbed words every day.
On the other hand, we do eat every day. Communal feasts have no metaphysical ladders to climb, since what we commemorate in sitting around a table is foremost, tautologically, our presence at the table. The Eucharist has to take place in public. St. Paul tasks us with reenacting the supper in order to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” and that would be an unbearable duty were it not shared. So pass the bread and wine, brothers.
Sometimes, too, we have other things than death to proclaim. I’ll let Alex Chilton close out.
Pieter Wispelwey: J.S. Bach, Suites for cello Nos. 1-3, St. Mark’s Church, San Francisco, Nov. 3, 2013.
The venue was white and peaceful, a little unmysterious in the way of modern churches, with stained glass catching a blaze of unseasonal sun. The pews sat hundreds, half of us or more apparently some sort of cellist. Of the three suites he played, the only one I’ve slopped through is the first, and I was surprised by his Baroque take on it: light and fast, with the sixteenth-note runs attenuated to gestures of the wrist. I admired without being sure I was in love; but in the second suite he began to linger and emphasize, and come the minuets and gigue, he and we and the cello dropped into perfect free fall together.
We clapped our hearts out.
“Have you played that piece?” asked the older woman next to me.
“No, no! I’ve only been playing a year.”
“Oh, really? You were moving like perhaps you were used to playing it.”
We admired the performance back and forth, and she asked my teacher’s name. Hearing it, she nodded in approval.
“Good. She’s good.”
David Grossman, To the End of the Land
He’s very talented. But why so frustrating? After reading See Under: Love I thought the problem was a lack of discipline, an unwillingness to bend his flights of fancy toward a single direction; but this book, much more conventional in form, turns out to frustrate in much the same way. So it’s something else.
It might be that storytelling is made a theme too overtly, or in the wrong way. Grossman’s stories are told by precocious children or by adults made to act like precocious children, until they run smack into History, at which point the storytelling impulse gets displaced into something else, a dodge or salve. What grates is that it’s treated as salvation. It may be that there’s nothing else to do against the Holocaust or Israel’s lose-lose politics, but the narrative utopia floats above the surface of the world in the same displeasing way as Salman Rushdie’s magic tricks. The story wants to carry an active force and it can’t. No king nowadays has the patience for Scheherazade; kicked out of the castle, all she can do is keep talking to herself, because that’s all she was made for.
On the other hand, a very good book by Grossman is The Yellow Wind, and curiously, this isn’t the common case of a gifted nonfiction writer being frustrated by fiction. Amid interviews and reportage, the best chapter is a short fiction about an Israeli agent in the occupied territories who can’t share with anyone the new joy in his lifethe birth of his sonbecause it would contradict the lies he’s already told about himself. That seems right about storytelling. It’s like history or the weather; it happens to us more than we to it.
For an inexpert rider on the bicycle of time, stability depends, counterintuitively, on speed. The continuous curve of the autumn road is the same as the curve ten years back, to a first approximation. They only come apart when you solve for the zeros. Why, already so tired on your bicycle, with night already falling, would you solve for the zeros?
R’s first subordinate clause: “I don’t need help cause I don’t need help.”
a pioneer woman after my own heart.
Go Ask Alice
I was always looking at her through too close a lens. “Read her,” they told us in workshop, “and if she doesn’t seem like much, wait ten years and then go read her again.” She did perfectly the thing that we were understood to be trying to do, although we never did it right. We weren’t serious enough, or else we were serious but not wise. After seeing it done badly dozens and dozens of times, after doing it so badly ourselves, we stopped reading her. It wasn’t conscious. She was a perfect background, and since no one ever questioned that she was very, very good, we forgot to ask her any questions at all. She was too close to learn from. That was ungenerous, but we weren’t wise, and to get wiser we had to travel. I left Iowa with a library full of North American moderns; over the next ten years that shelf got smaller and smaller. Looking at it now, I’m surprised to find an empty space between Morrison and Nabokov. Where did Open Secrets go? Into the past, into the Iowa River. So if I went looking for it again, it would be like going home after years away: the same snow around the chimneys, clouds off the steam plant and knock of the radiators, but also the surprise of looking in a shop window and seeing over the book spines a disintegrating face without the awkward charm that youth got for free. The best case would be that on meeting her, she would take it all in at once, the ungraceful straddling of years, and say, “What did you think my stories were about?” The best case would be a small house with room to sit.
“You should buy Italian wine! It would cheer me up. I’d think of volcanoes.”
Bins of bits
After careful review we have decided not to use the great and terrible BANCStar at work.
...within a few weeks I was reading and writing the code, with the aid of every BANCStar programmer's favorite tools: a dot-matrix printer, lots and lots of different color highlighters, and a three-ring binder called the Prompt File, stuffed with printouts of the dozens of tables in the system, and religiously updated anytime anyone changed anything of significance. (I wasn't kidding about reusing storage; if you needed a constant integer 1000, and you could find a place where somebody else had once used that same value, you linked your code to his and hoped it never changed.)
“I just really want to do a good job. That’s what I really want. Because … I don’t have a husband or a family or anything—like, well, I fuckin’ married this shit, I’d better go from journeyman to master at some point. Or at least really try. You’d better get into the anti-gravity suit and spend your 26 hours in the lead chamber or whatever the hell you have to do, in your sensory-deprivation pod, and come out the other side fuckin’ Pavarotti, if you’ve jettisoned the rest of your earthly joys”—she laughed—“for music.” (A few extra fucks deleted.)
—Falhámos a vida, menino!
Eça de Queirós, Os Maias
The traditional age to face failure! There were the narrowings—the side roads that led nowhere, or were blocked, or never tried—and then the unexpected widenings, the forking channels that you ended up taking both ways, then five ways, then down into capillaries until you find that you’re taking all paths at once, like Feynman’s electron, and no wonder you’re tired. There is something on the other side, of course, but all you know is the voltage gradient that it generates.
Dante, run to ruin at thirty-five, is plucked up and turned around. But not all the way. He sees the prideful weighed down by stones and knows he’ll see them again. All the sweetness in heaven can’t ease the salt burn of exile.
Du Fu at thirty-five fails his civil service examination for the last time—the prime minister is fearful of rivals and fails everyone that year. He has the consolation of a country garden, but he’s no fool and can see wars coming. He has children anyway.
The battle plan burnt up, the Sicilian defense overturned, the last survivors a rook, two bishops and a pawn on a hobbyhorse pretending to be a knight (very convicing; it knows some phrases in Norman French), thirty-five is brought round to admit that it has been fighting a war of choice. Vanitas! What is called failure is a ground state, a common cup. Vanitas vanitatum!
Youth held its potential very dear. But it had to run that potential through a cheap solid-state amp bought by youth’s parents as a gesture of hope, a month after youth got out of the mental hospital; while age receives from age’s spouse the gift of a grown-up tube amp with steady song.
Meanwhile R. enters the lyric tradition:
How I wonder
And this morning I went over to the Asian Art Museum and saw a lacquer calligraphy box inscribed with a poem:
Like the cloth printed
with ferns in far Shinobu
of the deep north
if not for you for whom would I
dye my heart with tangled love
One room over was an anonymous fifteenth-century death of the Buddha, a very serene Buddha, though everyone around him was torn apart by grief. There were gods and demons mixed in with the human mourners, and at bottom all the other creatures of the world: an elephant, a lion, horses and camels, snakes and small birds and mice, each grieving in its way. The effect was like that last conversation in Büchner’s Lenz where Lenz says that if he were God and could no longer bear the suffering, he would just save everyone—ich würde retten, retten. Across the hall were beautiful paintings by Maruyama Ōkyo and Itō Jakuchū, many of them done when old men.
It’s winter in the persimmon tree, and the mynah bird is cold.
The water on the surface of Basin by Izumi Masatoshi seems not to move. You have to bend very close to see the shaking reflections and hear the trickle.
What surprises me most in all this is the theatricality of renunciation. One can renounce, but it doesn’t switch off the gradient. Renunciation sits perfectly at ease next to the old craving for the Dantean journey, the opening crack. And this remains true even when there seems to be absolutely no surface in which a crack could open, not from morn to eve.