Gilead, Part 6, Memory and Death

Part 6, Memory in Death

I do enjoy remembering that morning. I was sixty-seven, to be exact, which did not seem old to me. I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.

(Robinson, Gilead, p. 162)


This drew my mind to the closing paragraph of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey:

“Even now,” she thought, “almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while but forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

(Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, p. 192)

The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays: Three Minute Plays for Three Persons

I recently finished Thornton Wilder’s sixteen three-minute plays entitled The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays. These are very short plays that just hit the reader with spiritual depth. I enjoyed these plays that were the plays that satisfied Wilder’s “passion for compression.” I will list each play and summarize it in a word or phrase, ask one question, supply my favorite quote, and for some include a scriptural reference.

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Nascuntur Poetae–(which means something along the lines of “may the poets be born again”).–CHOSEN.–What is the response to being chosen?–cf. Romans 8:28-30.–“THE WOMAN IN THE CHLAMYS: And you were chosen…It is enough to know that you were chosen” (p. 10).

Porsepina and the DevilTO THE DEVIL.–Why do we sin?–cf. Romans 7:7-25.–“(…Again the frantic girl runs in the wrong direction and casts herself into the arms of Satan…)” (p. 15).

Fanny OtcottCONFESSION.–What does it mean to love?–cf. 1 Corinthians 13–“MRS. OTCOTT: You do not suppose that that revelation would cast any deeper shadow on the good name of Fanny Otcott, such as it is. Remember, George, the months you call sinful. It  wasn’t love, perhaps, but it was grace and poetry. The heavens rained odors on us. It was childlike and harmless as paintings on fans. I was a girl tragadienne reciting verses endlessly before a mirror and you were a young student who for the first time had seen a young girl braid her hair and sing at her work. Since then you have learned long names from books and heard a great many sneers from woman as old as myself. You have borrowed your ideas from those who have never begun to live and who dare not” (pp. 19-20).

Brother FireIDOLATRY.–What fire are we allowing to consume us?–“ISOLA: I like to play with the fire” (p. 21).

The Penny That Beauty SpentREQUIREMENT.–What is required of man?–cf. Psalm 86:12–“THE JEWELER (Insinuatingly): Your life is only to please the king. He has chosen you. By sending you here he is telling you that. LA GRACILE: You are mistaken…But I am only a poor thin dancer that..that has worked too hard. Besides, this is my husband. THE JEWELER (Smiling): No, mademoiselle, he is not your husband.” (p. 28). (This leads me to ask a different question–Who is La Gracile’s husband? Who is our husband? Christ?).

The Angel on the ShipSELF-JUSTIFICATION.–Can we offer anything to God?–cf. Psalm 30:9–“MINNA: Great God Lily, I’m the captain’s wife that’s sailed behind you for twenty years. Many’s the time, great God Lily, that I shined your face so you’d look spick and span and we sailing into London in the morning, or into heathen lands. You knows everything, and you knows what I did to my husband and that I didn’t let him have none of the secret water that me and Van saved up, and that when he died he knew it and cursed me and Van to hell. But youms forgiven everything and send us some rain or by-and-by we’ll die and there’ll be no one here prayin’ to you. This is the end of my prayin’, great God Lily” (pp. 30-31).

The Message and JehanneEFFECTS.–How do our actions effect ourselves and others?–“CHARLES (Reading around the inside of the ring): ‘As the hermit his twilight, the countryman his holiday, the worshiper his peace, so do I love thee.’ It was the wrong ring that was delivered to you, my lady. JEHANNE: It has broken my will. I am in flight for Padua. My family are truly become nothing but sparrows and God will feed them” (p. 35).

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower CameFAITH.–What does it mean to believe?–cf. Mark 10:13-16–“THE DARK GIRL: And do you believe this?” (p. 39).

CentaursPOTENTIALITY.–What happens when we think of what might be?–“SHELLY: Well, it is not a strange idea, or a new one, that the stuff of which masterpieces are made drifts about the world waiting to be clothed with words. It is a truth that Plato would have understood that the mere language, the words of a masterpiece, are the least of its offerings. Nay, in the world we have come into now, the languages of the planet have no value; but the impulse, the idea of “Comus” is a miracle, even in heaven. Let you remember this when you regret the work that has been lost through this war that has been laid upon your treasurable young men. The work they might have done is still with you, and will yet find its way into your lives and into your children’s lives” (pp. 42-43).

LeviathanSOUL.–What is the soul?–“BRIGOMEIDE: It’s breathing. He has not lost-what they call-the soul. I wonder where he keeps it. It is the greatest difference between us; we sea-people have no soul. I wonder where he keeps it! I have heard that  it can be seen at times, in the eyes. Perhaps if I borrowed it from him while he slept he would never miss it. No-I will ask him for it” (p. 45).

And the Sea Shall Give Up Its DeadIDENTITY.–Where is our identity?–cf. Mark 8:34-38–“HORATIO NISSEM (In mounting terror): I am afraid. I refuse to give myself up. THE EMPRESS: Do not cry out, fool. You have awakened all my rebellious nature. O God, do not take away my identity! I do not ask for my title or my features; do not take away my myself! HORATIO NISSEM: Do you hear? I refuse to give myself up. O god, let me not be mistaken for a Gentile. FATHER CRUSOE: Your screaming has aroused my madness. Let me keep my particular mind, O God, my own curious mind, with all I have put into it!” (p. 52).

Now the Servant’s Nam Was MalchusUNBELIEVABLE.–What are we to make of the story of Christ?–“OUR LORD: And that my mind lay under a malady that many a doctor could cure. And that I have deceived and cheated millions and millions of souls who in their extremity called on me for the aid I had promised. They did not know that I died like any other man and their prayers mounted into vain air, for I no longer exist. My promises were so vast that I am either divine or ridiculous” (p. 56).

Mozart and the Gray StewardLOVE.–How does one love truly?–cf. Matthew 28:16-20–“THE GRAY STEWARD: It is Death itself that commands you this Requiem. You are to give a voice to all those millions sleeping, who have no one but you to speak for them. There lie the captains and the thieves, the queens and the drudges, while the evening of their earthly remembrance shuts in, and from that great field rises an eternal miserere nobis. Only through the intercession of great love, and fo great art, which is love, can that despairing cry be eased. Was that not sufficient cause for this commission to be anonymous?” (p. 62).

Hast Thou considered My Servant Job?COMFORT.–What is it that can comfort and satisfy?–cf. The Book of Job–“SATAN: What have they done to you, my beloved son [Judas]? What last poor revenge have they attempted upon you? come to me. Here there is comfort. Here all this violence can be repaired. The futile spite of Heaven cannot reach you here. But why do you not speak to me? My son, my treasure!” (p. 66).

The Flight into EgyptDOUBT.–What are we to do with our doubt?–cf. Psalm 119–“HEPZIBAH: It’s this matter of faith and reason, madam. I’d love to carry back to our group of girls whatever you might say about it… OUR LADY: Dear Hepzibah, perhaps someday. For the present just do as I do and bear your master on” (p. 70).

The Angel That Troubled the WatersHEAL.–Who can heal the broken?–cf. John 5:1-9–“THE ANGEL (Stands a moment in silence): Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of the living. In love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve. Draw back” (p. 74).

 

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Our Town is Thornton Wilder’s first full play. It is about a small town in New Hampshire called Grover’s Corners. With seemingly everyday matters, Wilder narrows down efficiently and beautifully to the meaning of life and death and love.

Every action which has ever taken place–every thought, every emotion–has taken place only once, at one moment in time and place. “I love you,” “I rejoice,” “I suffer,” have been said and felt many billions of times, and never twice the same. Every person who has ever lived has lived an unbroken succession of unique occasions. Yet the more one is aware of this individuality of experience (innumerable! innumerable!) the more one becomes attentive to what these disparate moments have in common to repetitive patterns. As an artist (or listener or beholder) which  “truth” do you prefer–that of the isolated occasion, or that which includes and resumes the innumerable? Which truth is more worth telling? Every age differs in this. Is the Venus de Milo “one woman”? Is the play Macbeth the story of “one destiny”? The theatre is admirably fitted to tell both truths.

–Thornton Wilder, Preface to Three Plays (XXVIII-XXIX)

In this passage from his preface for Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Matchmaker, two themes stand out: The Particular vs. The General, and noticing the uniqueness of the every day.

The Particular vs. The General

STAGE MANAGER: Y’know–Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts…and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney,–same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then.

So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone and the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us–more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight.

See what I mean?

So–people a thousand years from now–this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning o the twentieth century.–This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying. (p. 35)

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REBECCA: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.

GEORGE: What’s funny about that?

REBECCA: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope. (p. 48)

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STAGE MANAGER: Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being. (p. 90)

These scenes are examples of when Wilder, through his characters, attempts to show us the patterns of our unique occasions. While each moment of our lives is peculiar to us, to that specific moment, it reaches to a general, a universal pattern, or better yet an archetype. There are people, males, Christians, adolescents, readers, English majors, etc…

Noticing the Unique Occasion

EMILY: Live people don’t understand, do they?

MRS. GIBBS: No, dear–not very much. (p. 98)

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EMILY: Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it–don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let us look at one another. (p. 109)

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EMILY: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.

I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back–up the hill–to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?– every, every minute? (p. 110)

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EMILY: No…I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people.

SIMON STIMSON: Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those…of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know–that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness. (p. 111)

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EMILY: They don’t understand, do they?

MRS. GIBBS: No, dear. They don’t understand. (p. 113)

Those who are alive never notice life while living. We never notice all that surrounds us. This following excerpt is from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Oh what are my grief and my trouble, if I am able to be happy? You know, I don’t understand how it’s possible to pass by a tree and not be happy to see it. To talk with a man and not be happy that you love him!… there are so many things at every step that are so beautiful, that even the most confused person finds beautiful. Look at a child, look at God’s sunrise, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that are looking at you and love you… (p. 553)

NOTICE!

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This play goes among my favorite works.

With novels, these have stood out: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

With plays, these have stood out: Othello by Shakespeare and Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

With short stories and novellas, these have stood out: The Fall by Albert Camus, The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

With poetry, these have stood out: In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Reluctance by Robert Frost, The Pulley by George Herbert, The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot, and Inferno by Dante.

With works of non-fiction, theology, and Christian living, these have stood out: Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner, Confessions by St. Augustine, An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and Good News for Anxious Christians by Philip Cary.

Quoting The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder

The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder

The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder

I have just finished this American epic and I am in awe of Wilder’s writing. I am going to record passages from this novel that have resonated with me.

  • Gossip had solidified into conviction as prejudice solidifies into self-evident truth. (p. 5)
  • Every man, woman, and child believed that he or she lived in the best town in the best state in the best country in the world. (p. 7)
  • Nothing is more interesting than the inquiry as to how creativity operates in anyone, in everyone: mind, propelled by passion, imposing itself, building and unbuilding; mind–the latest-appearing manifestation of life–expressing itself in statesman and criminal, in poet and banker, in street cleaner and housewife, in father and mother–establishing order or spreading havoc; mind–condensing energy in groups and nations, rising to an incandescence and then ebbing away exhausted; mind–enslaving and massacring or diffusing justice and beauty:                                     Pallas Athene’s Athens, like a lighthouse on a hill, sending forth beams that still illuminate men in council;                                                 Palestine, for a thousand years, like a geyser in the sand, producing genius after genius, and soon there will be no one on earth who has not been affected by them.                                                                              Is there more and more of it, or less and less?                                          Is the brain neutral between destruction and beneficence?                  Is it possible that there will someday be a “spiritualization” of the human soul?                                                                                                       It is absurd to compare our children of the Kangaheela Valley to the august examples of good and evil action I have referred to above (already in the middle of this century they are largely forgotten), but:                                                                                                                       They are near,                                                                                                   They are accessible to our indiscreet observation. (pp. 10-11)
  • Life! Why life? What for? To what end? (p. 17)
  • What is education, George? It is the bridge man crosses from the self-enclosed, self-favoring life into a consciousness of the entire community of mankind. (p. 18)
  • The Christian religion, as delivered in Coaltown, established a bracing relation between God’s favor and money. Penury was not only a social misfortune; it was a visible sign of a fall from grace. God had promised that the just would never suffer want. The indigent were in an unhappy relation to both the earthly and heavenly orders. (p. 45)
  • It is doubtful whether hope–or any of the other manifestations of creativity–can sustain itself without an impulse injected by love. So absurd and indefensible is hope. Sophia’s was nourished by love of her mother and sisters, but above all by love of those two distant outcasts, her father and her brother. (p. 57)
  • Some people go forward and some go back. (p. 100)
  • Faith is an ever-widening pool of clarity, fed from springs beyond the margin of consciousness. We all know more than we know we know. (p. 124)
  • When God loves a creature He wants the creature to know the highest happiness and the deepest misery–then he can die. He wants him to know all that being alive can bring. That is His best gift. (p. 135)
  • Red. Red. Look at the red. Men, women, and children love you because of the blue of your eyes. But there is a better love than that. Blue is the color of faith. But red is love–every kind of love. Anybody can see that you have faith. So has Fidel! Faith is not enough. Maybe, if you are lucky, you will be born into love. (p. 136)
  • Suffering is like money, Mr. Tolland. It circulates from hand to hand. We pass on what we take in. (p. 141)
  • It is the diversity of life that renders thinking difficult. Many a beginning philosopher has been on the point of grasping the problem of suffering, but what sage can cope with that of happiness? (pp. 145-146)
  • The root of avarice is the fear of what circumstances may bring. (p. 148)
  • In this history there has been some discussion of hope and faith. It is too early to treat of love. The last appearing of the graces is still emerging from the primal ooze. Its numerous aspects are confusingly intermingled–cruelty with mercy, creativity with havoc. It may be that after many thousands of years we may see it “clarify”–as it is said of turbid wine. (pp. 153-154)
  • I think we’re all bad judges of what goes on in other people’s minds about God, Mr. Smith. It’s a bad thing to force a God on a man who doesn’t want one. It’s worse to stand in the way of a man who wants one badly. I know them! I live there! (p. 171)
  • Only those who have known great joy can know our grief. (p. 186)
  • Every death is a right death. We did not choose the day of our birth; we may not choose the day of leavetaking. They are chosen. (p. 189)
  • Roger was overwhelmed by the crowds of Chicago. He was oppressed by the multiplicity of human beings. On the way to work he would stop and gaze at the throngs on LaSalle Street. (During his first days he thought he was seeing the same persons walking back and forth.) All these men and women had souls, had “selves.” All were as important to themselves as he was to himself. In seventy years everyone he was looking at–and himself–would be dead, except a few old freaks. There’d be a whole new million hurrying and worrying and laughing and talking. “Get out of my way. I don’t know you. I’m busy living.” … In the street people put on a face so that strangers won’t read their souls. A crowd is a sterner judge than a relative or a friend. The crowd is God. LaSalle Street is like hell–your’e being judged all the time..Suicide very logical.” (p. 213)
  • Never ask a man what he believes. Watch what he uses. ‘Believe’ is a dead word and brings death with it. (p. 220)
  • There is no true education save in answer to urgent questioning. (p. 222)
  • Man is cruel to man and even those who are kind to those nearest them are inhuman to others. It’s not kindness that’s important but justice. Kindness is the stammering apology of the unjust. The whole world’s wrong, he saw. There’s something wrong at the heart of the world and he would track it down. (p. 224)
  • Where there’s injustice, there’s fear. Where there’s fear, there’s cowardice. But the chain begins farther back: where there’s money, there’s injustice. (p. 237)
  • Those who ask no questions receive the fullest answers (p. 261)
  • Mr. Frazier, works of art are the only satisfactory products of civilization. History, in itself, has nothing to show. History is the record of man’s repeated failures to extricate himself from his incorrigible nature. Those who see progress in it are as deluded as those who see a gradual degeneration. A few steps forward, a few steps back. Human nature is like the ocean, unchanging, unchangeable. Today’s calm, tomorrow’s tempest–but it’s the same ocean. Man is as he is, as he was, as he always will be. (p. 264)
  • One day, months ago, the Maestro made his youngest daughter–Adriana–leave the table. She’d merely said that she adored her new shoes; she thought they were divine. He said those were religious words and that they had nothing to do with human beings either. He warned me to beware of husbands and wives who adored one another. Such persons haven’t grown up, he said. No human being is adorable. The early Hebrews were quite right to condemn idolatry. Women who adore their husbands throw a thousand little ropes around them. They rob them of their freedom. They lull them to sleep. It’s wonderful to own a god, to put him in you pocket. (p. 272)
  • As I shall have occasion to say when we consider the early years of Eustacia Lansing: all young people secrete idealism as continuously as the Bombyx mori secretes silk. It is as necessary to them as food that life be filled with wonder–that they contemplate heroes. They must admire. The boy in the reformatory (his third conviction for burglary with assault) secretes idealism as a Bombyx mori secretes silk. The girl of fifteen, brutalized into prostitution, secretes idealism–for a while–as a Bombyx mori secretes silk. Life to newcomers presents itself as a brightly lighted stage where they will be called upon to play roles exhibiting courage, fair dealing, magnanimity, wisdom, and helpfulness. Hoping and trembling a little, they feel that they are almost ready for these great demands upon them. (p. 298)
  • There are few things so conducive to despair as seeing the recurrence of weaknesses in those close to you…(p. 322)
  • Slowly she had learned that beautiful things are not for our possession but for our contemplation. (p. 338)
  • The most painful aspect of this phase was the absence of any faint intimation from the realm of the spirit… (p. 365)
  • We are as Providence made us (p. 381)
  • For every person who has enough to eat there are ten persons starving (maybe a hundred). For every girl and lady who goes down the street and their friends say pretty things to them, there’s a dozen girls and women who’ve had no chance. For every good hour that a family has in a home evenings, somebody is paying. Somebody they don’t even know. I don’t mean merely there are a lot of poor people in the world. It’s deeper than that. Look at all the sick and crippled and ugly and damned. It’s the way God made the world. He can’t stop it now or change it. Some people are damned before they are born. You won’t like that, but I know. God doesn’t hate the damned. He needs them. They pay for the rest. Paryas hold up the floors of homes. Enough said. (p. 384)
  • The world is a thousand times more beautiful and mighty than most people can see. (p. 386)
  • But there is only one history. It began with the creation of man and will come to an end when the last human consciousness is extinguished. All other beginnings and endings are arbitrary conventions–makeshift parading as self-sufficient entireties, diffusing petty comfort of petty despair. The cumbrous shears of the historian cut out a few figures and a brief passage of time from that enormous tapestry. Above and below the laceration, to the right and to the left of it, the severed threads protest against the injustice, against the imposture.                                                                                     It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.                           Look about you in all directions–rise higher, rise higher–and see hills beyond hills, plains and rivers. (p. 395)
  • History is one tapestry. No eye can venture to compass a hand’s breadth of it. (p. 396)
  • The first months of our life we are wrapped in white, we are soothed and put to sleep in white. Later, we are told that heaven–which is the memory of infancy–is white. We are lifted and carried about; we float. That is why we are told that angels fly. The first snow reminds us of the only times in our lives when we were without fear. A cemetery under rain is the saddest sight in the world, because the rain reminds of tears; but a cemetery under snow is inviting. We remember that world. In winter the dead are encradled. (p. 400)
  • Mr. Frazier, in every lively healthy family there is one who must pay. (p. 407)
  • A feeling of something portentous and strange in human experience had been gathering within him. He felt as though he had walked all of his life in ignorance of abysses and wonders, of ambushes, of eyes watching him, of writing on clouds. It came to him that surely life is vaster, deeper, and more perilous than we think it is. (p. 427)
  • “You com from such a house. You are marked. The mark is on your forehead. There are billions of births. At one birth out of a vast number a Messiah is born. It has been a mistake of the Jews and Christians to believe that there is only one Messiah. Every man and woman is Messiah-bearing, but some are closer on the tree to a Messiah than others. Have you ever seen the ocean?…”                     “It is said that on the ocean every ninth wave is larger than the others. I do not know if that is true. So on the sea of human lives one wave in many hundreds of thousands rises, gathers together the strength–the power–of many souls to bear a Messiah. At such times the earth groans; its hour approaches. For centuries a house prepares the birth. Look at this picture. Christ descended by more than thirty generations from King David. Think of them–the men and women, the grandfathers and grandmothers of Christ. I have heard a learned preacher say that it is probable that the mother of Christ could not read or write, nor her mother before her. But to them it had been said: ‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”                                                                                                He put his finger on the page and lowered his voice. “There are some names here of whom the Bible tells us discreditable things. Is that not strange? You and I would say in our ignorance that the men and women who were so near to bearing a Messiah would be pure and without fault, but no! God builds in His own way. He can use the stone that the builders rejected. There is an old saying, ‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.’ Have you heard it?”…                                                                                                 “The sign of God’s way is that it is strange. God is strange. There is nothing more childish than to think of God as a man.” He waved his hand towards Coaltown–“As they do. His ways to our eyes are often cruel and laughable.” He turned back a page in the Bible. “Here is the tree of Christ’s descent form Adam to Jesse. When Sarah–here!–was told that she would bear a son she laughed. She was an old woman. She bore Isaac–which means ‘Laughter.’ The Bible is the story of a Messiah-bearing family, but it is only one Bible. There are many such families whose Bibles have not been written.”…                                                                                        “Can it be that your family has been marked? Can it be that your descendants may bring forth a Messiah, tomorrow or in a hundred years? That something is preparing? Your father fired a rifle; a man near him fell dead, but your father did not kill the man. That is strange. Your father did not lift a finger to save himself, but he was saved. That is strange. Your father had no friends, he says; but friends saved him. Your mother never left her house; she had no money; she was dazed. But a child who had never held a dollar in her hand sustained a house. Is that not strange? A great grandmother has reached out of her grave and spoken to you. Your father is right in this letter: there is no happiness equal to that of being aware that one has part in a design. ” Again he pointed to Coaltown: “They walk in despair. If we were to describe what Hell is like it would be the place in which there is no hope or possibility of change: birth, feeding, excreting, propagation, and death–all of some mighty wheel of repetition. There is a fly that lives and lays its eggs and dies–all in one day–and is gone forever.” (pp. 429-431)
  • There is much talk of design in the arras. Some are certain they see it. Some see what they have been told to see. Some remember that they saw it once but have lost it. Some are strengthened by seeing a pattern wherein the oppressed and exploited of the earth are gradually emerging from their bondage. Some find strength in the conviction that there is nothing to see.                                                        Some (p. 435)

On Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day

thornton_wilder_eighth_day_617_347

John Updike says this about The Eighth Day:

The Eighth Day–his one real novel, he said, and much his longest–opens itself to the digression, the sermonette, the stray inspiration that might capture the simultaneous largeness and smallness of the human adventure. Untidy, self-delightingly, it brims with wonder and wisdom, and aspires to prophecy. We marvel at a novel of such spiritual ambition and benign flamboyance.

Wilder says that this novel deals with

how great love causes havoc…how gifts descend in the family lines making for good, making for ill, and demanding victims…

The reviewer at The Christian Science Monitor called Wilder’s novel

a major work of the imagination [in which] he has raised the ultimate questions and sent them whirling their deep spirals with a wit and intelligence no other American novelist of the moment can match.

Wllder wrote his sister, Isabel, after nine months of writing this novel in Douglas, Arizona. He had finished ninety pages so far, saying it was a long family saga, an adventure story

as though Little Women were being mulled over by Dostoevsky

Tappan Wilder, the author’s nephew, says this:

Will The Eighth Day someday join Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey as a classic, “a story for all times?” Worthy of note is that over the years students in this country and abroad, in a symposium here and an essay there, have kept the light on for a novel they celebrate as a work of epic proportions. In fact, Wilder poured everything he knew about human nature and himself and his society into his American epic.

What The Eighth Day meant for Thornton Wilder, author, is no secret. He went to Douglas, Arizona as a playwrite and came home a novelist. He tried his hand at drama once again, but returned quickly to fiction, the form that now satisfied his drive to tell stories.

Other reviews:

  • A work that Dickens or Dostoevsky would have been proud to have written. (Denver Rocky Mountain News)
  • It ends with the most amazing final paragraph of modern literature. (Asheville Citizen Times)
  • He has taken a calculated risk with few parallels in literary history and he has won. (Chicago Tribune)
  • No resemblance to any other novel in the past 100 years. (Washington Post)
  • A well told story is not of an age–but for all times. (Dallas Times Herald)

The Eight Day by Thornton Wilder: VI. Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas 1905

In the final chapter of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Eighth Day, the reader sees Roger return to Coaltown. He speaks with Felicite Lansing, the late Breckenridge’s daughter, learning important information about his father. George Lansing confesses to the murder and flees to Russia. Roger also learns who the rescuers of his father were. The families enjoy the company of each other during this Christmas.

Question:

Throughout this entire novel, from the very beginning, the question of whether man is better or worse than before. Whether the ancients or the moderns are better. Whether man can change or not. Most of these passages that discuss this are either the narrator or Dr. Gillies, or another older character. In this final chapter we have Constance, who is young, but is even more young at heart, ask the following question:

Do people change any–while they’re growing up?” (p. 433)

Obviously there is change in each individual, but is their actually change between the generations? See a post on Bensonian for this.

Favorite Quotation:

The grandfather of Roger’s closest Coaltown friend, Porky, a member of the secluded church, Covenant Church, says this to Roger:

“You come from such a house. You are marked. The mark is on your forehead. There are billions of births. At one birth out of a vast number a Messiah is born. It has been a mistake of the Jews and Christians to believe that there is only one Messiah. Every man and woman is Messiah-bearing, but some are closer on the tree to a Messiah than others. Have you ever seen the ocean?…”

“It is said that on the ocean every ninth wave is larger than the others. I do not know if that is true. So on the sea of human lives one wave in many hundreds of thousands rises, gathers together the strength–the power–of many souls to bear a Messiah. At such times the earth groans; its hour approaches. For centuries a house prepares the birth. Look at this picture. Christ descended by more than thirty generations from King David. Think of them–the men and women, the grandfathers and grandmothers of Christ. I have heard a learned preacher say that it is probable that the mother of Christ could not read or write, nor her mother before her. But to them it had been said: ‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'”

He put his finger on the page and lowered his voice. “There are some names here of whom the Bible tells us discreditable things. Is that not strange? You and I would say in our ignorance that the men and women who were so near to bearing a Messiah would be pure and without fault, but no! God builds in His own way. He can use the stone that the builders rejected. There is an old saying, ‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.’ Have you heard it?”…

“The sign of God’s way is that it is strange. God is strange. There is nothing more childish than to think of God as a man.” He waved his hand towards Coaltown–“As they do. His ways to our eyes are often cruel and laughable.” He turned back a page in the Bible. “Here is the tree of Christ’s descent form Adam to Jesse. When Sarah–here!–was told that she would bear a son she laughed. She was an old woman. She bore Isaac–which means ‘Laughter.’ The Bible is the story of a Messiah-bearing family, but it is only one Bible. There are many such families whose Bibles have not been written.”…

“Can it be that your family has been marked? Can it be that your descendants may bring forth a Messiah, tomorrow or in a hundred years? That something is preparing? Your father fired a rifle; a man near him fell dead, but your father did not kill the man. That is strange. Your father did not lift a finger to save himself, but he was saved. That is strange. Your father had no friends, he says; but friends saved him. Your mother never left her house; she had no money; she was dazed. But a child who had never held a dollar in her hand sustained a house. Is that not strange? A great grandmother has reached out of her grave and spoken to you. Your father is right in this letter: there is no happiness equal to that of being aware that one has part in a design. ” Again he pointed to Coaltown: “They walk in despair. If we were to describe what Hell is like it would be the place in which there is no hope or possibility of change: birth, feeding, excreting, propagation, and death–all of some mighty wheel of repetition. There is a fly that lives and lays its eggs and dies–all in one day–and is gone forever.” (pp. 429-431)

I have qualms about what Deacon says. However, the passage is not without truth. First, I agree that “every man and woman is Messiah-bearing.” I believe that each human being is made in the image of God (Imago Dei) and that each human being presents us with the presence of God, along with the rest of Creation. Deacon seems to mean something a little different, however: that each human being has the potential to become a Messiah themselves–now that I cannot agree with. To put ourselves on the level of Christ, or even the potential to be “Christs” seems blasphemous. We are to be imitators of Christ, but we can never be Christ.

Second, Deacon discusses the strangeness of the gospel narrative, that things are done in “mysterious” ways. I agree. The gospel narrative is comic, even fantastic at times (See Frederick Buechner’s book on this).

Third, Deacon says something that perplexes me: “There is nothing more childish than to think of God as a man.” I agree with this statement, but it seems contradictory to what he is saying. It seems that if it is ignorant to think of God as a man, than isn’t it childish to think of man as a God or a Messiah?

Lastly, Deacon says: “Your father did not lift a finger to save himself, but he was saved. That is strange.” I think this reaches a truth of the gospel narrative. That each of us has not lifted a finger, yet Christ has saved us. That is strange.

Cross-Reference:

Me:

The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder: V. “St. Kitts” 1880-1905

In the fifth chapter of Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day, we experience the biggest shift in the narrative so far. We have moved location, from Coaltown to Chile to Chicago, but we have always been surrounding the Ashley family. Now Wilder explores the Lansing family, whose patriarch was murdered at the beginning of the novel.

Question:

This chapter explores love, like the rest of the novel, but it seems that this chapter seeks to find the nature of love more deeply. We see different aspects of love in several characters in this chapter. What is the nature of love in the Lansing family?

Scripture defines love as follows:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

Eustacia:

She knew her vocation. She knew why she had been born into the world. It was to love; to be a wife and mother… Eustacia Sims intended to give and receivve all the plenitude of the earth by love; to grow seven feet tall by love; to have ten children–Chevalier Bayards, Joséphines–by love; to merit her beauty by love; to live to a hundred, bowed down beneath the crowns of love. (pp. 214-315)

Eustacia Lansing fell consumedly in love with John Ashley. (p. 325)

It seems that Eustacia’s life is “injected by love,” but we are forced to question it by her divided love between her husband and family and John Ashley. How could a woman so filled with love and so devoted to her family be in love with another man?

Félicité:

She was moving towards abstraction. She loved her mother. She loved her brother passionately. But these loves were already imbued with the love of the creature which was enjoined upon her. Through these same disciplines she had found her way to a love for her father and younger sister. (p. 330)

“You know what the deep wish of my life is. I cannot ask to take my vows until my dear brother is–as the Bible says–‘made whole.’ Come to Coaltown.” (p. 391)

In Félicité, we see what might seem as a pure love, but is so abstracted from its objects that it almost doesn’t seem real.

Breckenridge:

“Stacey, I love you. Can’t you get that into your thick head: that I love you? I don’t want to be off in some damned hospital where you’d only be allowed in for half an hour a day. Stacey, will you listen–just once–to what I say? I’d rather die with you near me than live forever and ever without you.” (p. 356)

For all the Ivan Ilyich type behavior in Breckenridge’s illness, all of his outbursts and infidelities, all of his harsh treatments of George, he does truly love Eustacia from the bottom of his heart.

Eustacia and Breckenridge:

Maudlin: He loved her. Did she love him? Really love him? When had she loved him least? When had she loved him most? When he met that little girl on the island of St. Kitts he’d foreseen that she’d be the best little wife in the world. Oh, yes, he had. He was no fool.

Aggressive: Had she loved any other man since she left the islands? He didn’t mean misbehaved–merely loved? Answer honestly. Would she swear to it? She didn’t sound as though she meant it. He bet there was somebody. She was hiding something from him. That fellow in Pittsburg–what was his name? Leonard something. He’d thought she was pretty neat and cute. The fellow with the big weeping-willow mustache. Was it him?

Sly (soothing digressions from which he could suddenly stage a surprise attack): The way she ran the store in Basseterre! It beat the dutch! Smartest little head in the Caribbean. Regular little Shylock! All the officers from those foreign ships. Girls go crazy for a uniform…He wouldn’t be surprised…Lot of little back rooms…He’d been blind as a bat. He bet that she’d lied to him all his life. She’d gone to Fort Barry to church. Who’d she seen there? (pp. 363-364)

The most painful aspect of this phase was the absence of any faint intimation from the realm of the spirit (p. 365)

She loved him. Yes, that’s what marriage had brought her to. She loved him as a creature. Like most completely bilingual persons she thought in both languages. About the more superficial machinery in life she thought in English. Her inner life presented itself to her in French. In both languages the word “creature” wears two aspects; in French the two are more drastically contrasted. Her favorite French authors, Pascal and Bossuet, constantly evoked the double sense: a créature is an abject living thing; it is also a living thing–generally a human being–fashioned by God. Her dear uncle in marrying her had predicted that they would become one flesh; he had been right. She loved this créature. She could not imagine him away. Just as she shrank with horror from any desire to have wished her life to have been other. It was these children–and no other imaginable children–that constituted her boundless ineffable thanks to God. That’s what destiny is. Our lives are a seamless robe. All was ordained, as the English language put it. She arrived at a position much like Dr. Gillies’s. We don’t live our lives. God lives us. (pp. 366-367)

While Breckenridge’s love for Eustacia is relatively simple, Eustacia’s love for him is more complex. She loves him as creature, certainly not as an equal partner in God. She could not imagine herself with anybody else, but that doesn’t tell us that she loves Breckenridge as a husband on equal footing with her and others that she loves. Her love for Breckenridge almost seems a condescension. Breckenridge and Eustacia’s spirits lack the intimate relationship of what marriages need. Their spirits are distant from one another.

George:

Maybe I’ll get a letter from you tomorrow. Maybe I’ll never be happy one day in my life, but I don’t care. Other people will be happy. (p. 382)

I guess there’s no hope for me. I’ll have to get used to it. As long as other people are happy…I know that I was born to be a very happy person, but then things happened. Sometimes, I’m so happy I could crush the whole universe in my arms for love. Doesn’t last. You and Maman and Anne–be happy for me, Oneself doesn’t count. (p. 383)

Lew died. I held his hand. Everything I do falls to pieces for me, but I don’t care. I don’t live. I don’t really live. I never will. I don’t care as long as other people live. Lew told me I gave him three happy months. I heard that in India those street cleaners have to wear badges. I’m proud of mine. Don’t you worry about me. (p. 390).

In the rebellious character of George, we surprisingly see the most pure form of other-centeredness in the novel. He doesn’t care for his own happiness, but for others’ happiness.

How do these examples of love compare to 1 Corinthians 13?

Favorite Quotation:

Eustacia quotes Shakespeare in a letter to George:

“Forgive, George. Forgive and understand.”

“You will soon be playing Shylock. Think of your father when you hear Portia saying to you:

‘We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.'” (p. 388)

We all want others to give us mercy, but are we willing to bestow that gift of mercy to others? I know personally that this task is very difficult. I am quick to judge, but it is He who is Judge. Why don’t I love? Why don’t I bestow mercy? I don’t know what lies in my neighbors heart. I don’t have the ability to judge, so why do I try?

Cross Reference:

Me: