Monday, November 17, 2003

Speaking of Escape

"Let's move to Iceland," has been my traditional escapist request to DK. It began with my plan of what to do if George Bush won the election. DK, not a fan of ice, or even of the idea of ice, begged to differ. Suggested Amsterdam as a better expatriate venue for a jazz musician. My Bjork argument didn't wash.

In the midst of my escapist fantasies, I thought of Philip Larkin's poem:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off

"Poetry of Departures," Philip Larkin

Larkin's poem is about self-loathing, about wanting to escape the heavy, quotidian ennui of one's particular life. The idea of escape is briefly energizing, but the depressive realization comes at the poem's end: what you've escaped into is simply another self-created version of a "reprehensibly perfect" life.

There's an old Latin adage: you change only the sky above your head when you cross the sea.

A part of my attraction to Thomas Merton has taken the form, I think, of identification. The fantasy of becoming him. In the same self-obliterating sense of identifying with a character in a book or in a movie. For a moment, the dense and troubling "I" stops yammering and inhabits a pretty illusion: the contemplative, creative solitary.

It's one of the ways, riddled with bad faith, of chucking up everything and clearing off. Only to find oneself, well, still oneself.

Simone Weil, again: The imagination is constantly filling up the fissures through which grace might pass.

One minute of sitting meditation makes this perfectly clear. At least the "imagination" part. The "grace" is a bigger leap.

There's another poem that refers to escape, psalm 55, a psalm that always astonishes me with its contemporary resonance.

I would hasten to escape
and make my lodging in the wilderness

What is the psalmist escaping ?

violence and strife in the city
trouble and misery in the midst of her
corruption at her heart
oppression and deceit

Circle back, if you will, to my reference to Iceland and George Bush. Misery, corruption, oppression, deceit.

the psalmist goes on to say

For had it been an adversary who had taunted me
then I could have borne it

But it was you, a man after my own heart
my companion, my own familiar friend

And there's the heart of it, where the bitterness of the disappointment lies. How humans, all of us, so capable of selflessness and compassion, bring such violence and strife into the world. Some, of course, more than others.

I read in the paper this morning that Mr Bush had finally commented publically on this last week's carnage in Iraq. He took the opportunity to inform the world that he'd prayed for the dead and their families.

"Today, I spent some time in prayer for our service men and women who are in harm's way,' he said before answering questions. 'I prayed for their families, I prayed for those who are still in harm's way, whether it be American troops or coalition troops."

How can the man who set in motion the chain of events that led to this slaughter now use the carnage as an opportunity to showcase his "Christian" piety ? George, as your first assignment, go read the Sermon on the Mount. Start with this gem from Matthew 6 --

Beware of praticing your piety before others in order to be seen by them...

Then go back and study Chapter 5.

While you're at it, check this prayer out.

No Cliff notes.

And, yes, it will be on the test.

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