Monday, 18 June 2012

The Tears of Things (Lacrimae Rerum)


Lacrimae Rerum – The Tears of Things

‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.’ (Job 5:7)

The Aeneid by Virgil is one of the most important literary works of the western world, and probably the most celebrated poem in the Latin language. The poem was completed about 20 years before the birth of Jesus. Its hero is Aeneas, a veteran of the Trojan War, who has escaped the burning ruins of Troy and has been wandering on sea and land for six years in search of a new city for himself and his companions. As the poem opens, his implacable enemy, the goddess Juno, has just engineered a terrific storm, forcing Aeneas to take refuge in Carthage, on the North African coast. The queen of this land is the beautiful Dido, who is fated to fall in love with Aeneas, and who will eventually take her own life when that love goes unrequited.
          Before this fateful meeting, however, Aeneas looks around the huge temple of Juno which is under construction, and he marvels at its size and its magnificence. Suddenly his attention is caught by a series of murals depicting incidents from the Trojan War, the war in which he himself had lately fought.


In one picture he sees a young boy, stripped of his armour, being dragged along, helpless, behind his horse, his neck and hair trailing on the ground. In another, the women of Troy, their hair unbound, are beating their breasts in grief imploring the assistance of the goddess Pallas Athene, but the goddess has turned her face away. A third picture shows Achilles, who has dragged the body of Hector three times round the walls of Troy and is now selling his corpse for gold. 

Achiles Drags Hector Round the Walls of Troy (Matsch)
While viewing these scenes of carnage and grief, Aeneas weeps and utters the famous line, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’, ‘There are tears at the heart of things, and men’s hearts are touched by what human beings have to bear’.  
          The abiding relevance of Virgil’s poem lies in its stark presentation of the human situation. Here we are, all of us, like Aeneas, born into a world we don’t understand, struggling against forces we can’t control, all the while conscious of our transience and our mortality. The 20th century British poet, A.E. Houseman, puts it like this:
         
I a stranger and afraid
          In a world I never made.

Virgil in the 1st century BCE, Houseman in the 20th century CE, and five centuries before Virgil, the biblical Book of Job – another neglected work of genius – asks the same perennial question: why do people suffer? Or, more precisely, why do innocent people suffer?
          Job, we are told, is a man ‘blameless and upright’. He fears God and shuns evil. As the story opens, he has seven sons and three daughters, seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred donkeys. He has numerous servants. He is the greatest man of all the peoples of the East, renowned for his piety, sacrificing burnt offerings to God on behalf of each of his children, just in case they had sinned inadvertently.
          And yet, calamity strikes and he is left bereft. His children are all killed when the house collapses on them; his livestock is plundered by bandits, his servants put to the sword. Job himself is afflicted with painful sores from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. All he can do is sit in the dust and scrape his diseased skin with a piece of broken pottery.
Job's Comforters (Blake)
          Then, his friends arrive: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. ‘Job’s comforters’, we call them, ironically, because, of course, they offer him no comfort. They tell him that it is his own fault. God does not punish the innocent. Job may think that he is blameless, but he can’t be. He may not be aware of his great sins, but he must have committed some. Job knows that his own actions do not merit such reward and that the explanations of his ‘friends’ are worthless, so he cries out to God for answers, but answers there are none. At the end of the book, God speaks to Job, telling him, in effect, that mortals can never fathom the divine mind. ‘Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know,’ says Job humbly. We leave the book profoundly dissatisfied and disappointed. But we get no answer to our question because there is no answer. The innocent suffer. That’s all that can be said. ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’; ‘there are tears at the heart of things’.
          The Buddhists tell the story of Kisogotami, a young woman whose child has died. She is searching frantically for some medicine to restore his life. She goes for advice to Gautama, the Buddha. ‘My son is dead,’ she tells him. ‘Do you know where I can get some medicine?’ ‘Go and bring me some mustard seed and we’ll make some medicine,’ replies Gautama, but just as she is leaving to fulfil this simple task, he adds: ‘But the mustard seed must come from a house in which no one has ever died.’
          Kisogotami goes on her way, asking at this house and at that. All have mustard seed, but there is no house in which no death has occurred. ‘Have you been able to bring me some mustard seed?’ asks Gautama, when Kisagotami returns. ‘I have not,’ she replies. ‘In one house a child has died, in another a husband, in another a wife; in all the houses, parents or grandparents have died. Everyone tells me that the living are few but the dead are many’. 
          Kisogotami has learned the same lesson as Aeneas and Job. There are tears at the heart of things, a sentiment expressed in the first Noble Truth of Buddhism, ‘All life is pain’.
          The biological sciences point us in a similar direction. The celebrated naturalist David Attenborough said this in a recent interview:

......when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that's going to make him blind. And [I ask them], 'Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child's eyeball? Because that doesn't seem to me to coincide with a God who's full of mercy'.

Darwin was plagued by similar observations, as was Tennyson, who wrote:

Man...
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law --
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed.

Robert Fulghum, in our second reading today, (It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It) adds another dimension to our theme. Fate: knowing that what we are going to do will bring calamity, and doing it anyway. ‘When did the bed start to burn?’ ‘I don’t know. It was on fire when I lay down on it,’ says the man. As Fulghum comments, quoting the Roman poet Horace: ‘Why do you laugh? Change the name, and the story is told of you!’ Why do we behave so irrationally, so stupidly? Because, as both Virgil and the author of the Book of Job tell us, employing the conventions of their respective cultures, human behaviour is not determined entirely – if at all – by human choice. The ‘gods’, invisible, intangible forces, play their part; they bring circumstances to us, almost for their own entertainment, and we are powerless to resist. Shakespeare has Gloucester say in King Lear:
         
                   Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
                   They kill us for their sport.

We don’t need to believe in literal supernatural forces to appreciate how perceptively these poetic authors describe human experience. Looking at the situation in Gaza over the past few weeks – and at every other trouble spot I’ve had the misfortune to become aware of over the past half century – I am struck by the utter irrationality of it all. Don’t the Palestinians know that firing rockets at Israel will invite terrible reprisals? Don’t the Israelis appreciate that they are treating their Palestinian neighbours in ways which invite comparison with Hitler’s treatment of their own ancestors? Don’t both sides know that taking revenge simply prolongs the agony, and ensures even more atrocities? Of course they know it. But what can they do? What can they say? They don’t have the benefit of objectivity. We, sitting on the sidelines, know how the problem could be solved easily. We can distinguish the goodies from the baddies. We make the right pious noises, take the right liberal stances, fondly imagine that there are tidy political solutions to problems which seem so far removed from rational appraisal that I almost feel that it is impertinent, blasphemous even, to offer an opinion.
          One of the best loved psalms in the Bible is Psalm 137, which begins, ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion’. (Boney M sang a version of it in the 1960s.) The Jewish people are being taken into exile and their captors have asked them to sing a song. ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ they ask. The verses that we say or sing are moving and beautiful. But there is a final verse, which is always omitted, and which goes like this:
         
          O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
          Happy is he who repays you
          For what you have done to us –
          He who seizes your infants
          And dashes them against the rocks.

Ironically, two weeks ago I saw a Palestinian woman mourning her dead child and screaming for vengeance upon the Jews in similar fashion.
          How rational are we? How long are our memories? How strong is our pride? How all-consuming is our greed, our thirst for revenge and reprisals, no matter what the cost? The Trojan War, remember, was fought over one woman! Ten years of fighting; tens of thousands dead; homes destroyed; crops plundered; women widowed; children left fatherless. And all, so Homer’s story goes, because Paris stole Helen from Menelaus and carried her off to Troy! Homer, I’m sure, doesn’t want us to believe the literal truth of this. He simply wants us to appreciate what the 3000 years between his time and ours have done nothing to dispel: human follies are boundless. On August 2nd 216 BC the Romans faced the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae.  It has been estimated that the Romans lost nearly 50,OOO men on that one day, 600 legionaries slaughtered each minute ‘until darkness put an end to the bloodletting’. Two thousand years later, in the Battle of the Somme, fought from July to November 1916, 1.5 million men lost their lives. On the first day of the battle, July 1st, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, nearly 20, 000 of them fatal. And for what? It defies reason, just as every other battle, every other fight fuelled by fate and testosterone in the history of the human race defies reason. Last week Morag and I went to the Salvador Dali exhibition in Prague. One painting caught my eye: ‘Fighting over a Dandelion’ it’s called, and it just about sums up the 

Dali: Fighting over a Dandelion

pointless cruelty of warfare, past and present. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ says Jesus on the cross. This is not, as some have thought, simply a prayer for the forgiveness of his killers. It is also a prayer of
profound grief at the blindness and ignorance of the whole human race.
          I offer no solutions, and, on this occasion I make no attempt to reconcile these undeniable facts with the concept of a loving God. To suggest that we will overcome these problems by voting for the right person or joining the right religion, would be naive and infantile. The testimony of the great artists and the great scientists is unanimous and overwhelming. In the light of such testimony and of our own experience there can only be one response: pity. Bertrand Russell puts it as well as anyone. In an essay called What I have lived for, he says that three things have dominated his approach to life: Love, Knowledge, and Pity. This is how he ends:

Bertrand Russell
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people, a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.



Sunt lacrimae rerum. There are tears at the heart of things. Awareness of this fact is the beginning of wisdom, and increasing our sensitivity to the suffering of the world is the function of all worthwhile religion. But it is testimony to the indomitable courage and resilience of human beings that for the most part we can struggle on despite fate and despite folly. That we too can say with Bertrand Russell that we have found life worth living, and would gladly live again if we had the chance. Our greatness is our ability to smile through the tears. But that’s a subject for another day.

  

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