The Limits of Tragedy

(As a preamble, I find it very difficult to chose which thoughts to turn into blog entries and which to discard. I could write 3 entries per day, but they would probably be lazy rants or shallow opinion pieces at best. The opposite error of writing virtually nothing is that into which I tend to end up falling.)

I’ve been thinking about my last entry on the Hardy poem. When I published it I wasn’t satisfied with it. There were two problems. The first is that I was trying to do an analysis of a particular poem and also introduce my general feelings on sad media at the same time. The second was that I know that the position has limitations that I wanted to address but couldn’t find a concise way to.

To recap, I love sad media because I find that analyzing and interpreting it gives the reader a sort of upper hand against there own sadness. It’s also a sort of celebratory indulgence; I have suffered from depression and now being able to go back to sad material gives me a way of mocking it. “Ha ha! I beat you! Now what are you going to do?”

So I read a poem about the suicide of a church-builder and I think “This is great! This is rich material! This is a challenge both to my faith and to my general optimism and it will only make my faith and optimism stronger!” And I was right. I think my analysis of the church-builder’s actual sin stands and the lesson is surely important, but I want to address my own sin in this.

I celebrate a battle that I have (mostly) won, but what of those who still suffer? If someone is in the midst of contemplating suicide, or else just otherwise dissatisfied with life, what does it do to them to see someone mocking their predicament? I find an eerie comfort in the face of material that would once give me nightmares (if I were lucky, otherwise I wouldn’t sleep at all.) Others don’t.

Suicide, depression, loneliness, heartbreak – these are all things that once scared me, some still scar me, but now none subjugate me. And I know that during my own battles I wouldn’t have overcome had I not explored these feelings through different kinds of media, but I want to offer this caution to people who now stand as I do: Be careful not to make another’s struggle harder. Tough love and frank speech have a place, but we must discern those circumstances with care, err on the side of sensitivity, and never ever mock the struggle.

In Aurelius’ Meditations, he writes “Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.” I’ve taken these words to heart, but I didn’t do so overnight.

Understand the limits of tragedy. For me and you it may be catharsis, but for them it’s a curse.

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Building Churches – A Guide to Self-Destruction

I love sad stuff.

I love sad stuff because I’m happy. I have a basically positive outlook on the nature of the world and of life, largely because of my faith. However, shallow happiness bores me. For this reason, I challenge myself by exploring tragedy and absurdity. In understanding it, I properly overcome it.

Enter Thomas Hardy in my 10th grade English class. In Tenebris should be mandatory reading. However, I enjoy The Church Builder for its more explicit religious commentary.

I here recommend that you read the text as I’ve posted it in its entirety at the bottom of this article, but for those of you having a busy day, a summary in excerpts: A man gives all he has to build a church.

I

The church flings forth a battle shade
Over the moon-blanched sward ;
My church ; my gift ; whereto I paid
My all in hand and hoard ;
Lavished my paints
With stintless pains
To glorify the Lord.

IV

I borrowed deep to carve the screen
And raise the ivoried Rood ;
I parted with my small demesne
To make my owings good
Heir-looms unpriced,
Unsacrificed
Until debt free I stood.

(Sward – think ‘Lawn’ ; stintless – lacking restraint ; demesna – land. Rood – I particularly enjoy this word, a cognate of “Rod”, and a name for the cross. My love for this word comes from the OE poem, The Dream of the Rood.)

Having given all to build this church, the narrators personal life crumbles.

VI

But, as it chanced me, then and there
Did dire misfortunes burst ;
My home went waste for lack of care,
My sons rebelled and curst ;
Till I confessed
That aims the best
Were looking like the worst.

The remedy for this dire misfortune, he reasons: hanging himself in the church.

XII

Well : Here at morn they’ll light on one
Dangling in mockery
Of what he spent his substance on
Blindly and uselessly ! …
“He might,” they’ll say,
“Have built, some way,
A cheaper gallows-tree!”

Thomas Hardy, ladies and gentlemen! We fairly surmise he was no fun at parties.

Now this appears to be an attack on the church. He was the Rich Young Ruler’s faithful twin, wasn’t he? He sold everything he had and followed. His reward: the rebellion of his family, dissolution of his faith, and the termination of his life in an act that this two-faced institution condemns.

Perhaps, but a good Christian optimist can perchance find something of value here. We open our psalters to Nisi Dominus, the 127th, and we read:

Except the Lord build the house, / their labour is lost that build it.
Except the Lord keep the city, / the watch-man keepeth vigil but in vain.
It is but lost labour ye haste to rise up earlier, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness; / for so he giveth his beloved sleep.

Lo, children and the fruit of the womb / are an heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord.
Like as the arrows in the hand of the giant, / even so are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: / they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.

Clear parallels: the building, the labours, the children. Hardy’s narrator, having completed the building,  seems to respond to this psalm in saying:

V

So closed the task. “Deathless the Creed
Here substanced!” Said my soul:
“I heard me bidden to this deed,
And straight obeyed the call.
Illume this fane,
That not in vain
I build it, Lord of all!”

If this poem is to have redemptive value for the optimistic Christian then surely our narrator must at some point have made some error to end up in this peripeteia. What must we do differently than this man who hanged himself? I’m honestly not sure, but I propose that we begin to see it here in stanza V.

Our narrator stands in his creation expecting something. His motive seems right and his intentions seem true but, as he stands here now having completed his work, he expects something in return – that God would “Illume this fane,” perhaps as an act of thanks. And this thanks, this expectation of credit, is the condition “That not in vain I build it.” No illumination, vanity.

Then, and no sooner, as stanza VI begins, “But, as it chanced me, then and there
Did dire misfortunes burst.” And if we doubt the illegitimacy of his expections,

VII

My gift to God seems futile, quite;
The world moves as erstwhile;
And powerful Wrong on feeble Right
Tramples in olden style.
My faith burns down,
I see no crown;
But Cares, and Griefs, and Guile.

The gift is futile by virtue of its inability to reverse the course of evil. Hardy’s narrator has been overcome by the Problem of Evil. Hardy’s narrator has failed to study his theodicy.

His is not the house that the Lord built, his is the house built by a man who had dangerous and misguided expectations. He expected illumined fanes and crowns despite a psalm that affirms the persistence of enemies in its closing words.

Maybe. Maybe I’m reading this all wrong.

But one thing I know. Read the description of the building. See how much attention is put into the physical structure at the expense of people. See when the narrator describes people other than himself. Consider what’s important in your own life and remember the people. Be grateful for them. Better friends than an ivoried rood.

And please do revel in the richness of Hardy’s language.

Thomas Hardy – The Church-Builder

The church flings forth a battled shade
Over the moon-blanched sward:
The church; my gift; whereto I paid
My all in hand and hoard;
Lavished my gains
With stintless pains
To glorify the Lord.

I squared the broad foundations in
Of ashlared masonry;
I moulded mullions thick and thin,
Hewed fillet and ogee;
I circleted
Each sculptured head
With nimb and canopy.

I called in many a craftsmaster
To fix emblazoned glass,
To figure Cross and Sepulchure
On dossal, boss, and brass.
My gold all spent,
My jewels went
To gem the cups of Mass.

I borrowed deep to carve the screen
And raise the ivoried Rood;
I parted with my small demesne
To make my owings good.
Heir-looms unpriced
I sacrificed,
Until debt-free I stood.

So closed the task. “Deathless the Creed
Here substanced!” said my soul:
“I heard me bidden to this deed,
And straight obeyed the call.
Illume this fane,
That not in vain
I build it, Lord of all!”

But, as it chanced me, then and there
Did dire misfortunes burst;
My home went waste for lack of care,
My sons rebelled and curst;
Till I confessed
That aims the best
Were looking like the worst.

Enkindled by my votive work
No burning faith I find;
The deeper thinkers sneer and smirk,
And give my toil no mind;
From nod and wink
I read they think
That I am fool and blind.

My gift to God seems futile, quite;
The world moves as erstwhile;
And powerful Wrong on feeble Right
Tramples in olden style.
My faith burns down,
I see no crown;
But Cares, and Griefs, and Guile.

So now, the remedy? Yea, this:
I gently swing the door
Here, of my fane–no soul to wis–
And cross the patterned floor
To the rood-screen
That stands between
The nave and inner chore.

The rich red windows dim the moon,
But little light need I;
I mount the prie-dieu, lately hewn
From woods of rarest dye;
Then from below
My garment, so,
I draw this cord, and tie

One end thereof around the beam
Midway ‘twixt Cross and truss:
I noose the nethermost extreme,
And in ten seconds thus
I journey hence–
To that land whence
No rumour reaches us.

Well: Here at morn they’ll light on one
Dangling in mockery
Of what he spent his substance on
Blindly and uselessly!…
“He might,” they’ll say,
“Have built, some way,
A cheaper gallows-tree!”

Connection

The greatest writer’s block is fear.

I’ve always felt a great attraction to the ‘elf’ faction of fantasy media. Tolkien elves, Eldar, Protoss – there appears in lots of fiction an archetypal team that is an ancient race, wise and often terse, and with a deep connection to lore. They often stand in the shadow of what they once were. Either they’re dying or their former empire has been reduced.

And with this attraction is a fantastic longing to live as one of them. To join their ranks and sing their songs. When we see something of ourselves in others we feel justified. We experience connection.

For the past four years, I have been a student. I took pride in that identity and although I was never a particularly good student I was invested. Furthermore, I was surrounded by students. In this culture of concentrated intellectual and artistic self-improvement, I found myself through others. Now that I’ve graduated, that world (at least, in it’s intentionality and concentration) has passed.

So I feel a bit lost. A tad banished from myself.

I took to rewatching Sherlock, the BBC series. I don’t have superhuman deductive skills, but I see in the narrative of the show a familiar desire to both soar above the daily drudgery and peer deeper into the truth of things. I’m sure there are many who share that desire, hence the existence of fantasy in general. I imagine there are few that revel in life’s banality.

I took to continuing reading. I sit surrounded by books of poetry, philosophy, theology, mythology, language, lyrics, and plays. I’ve read and reread with rekindled fervour, trying to chase what I fear I had once and now have forever lost.

And I took to silence. I’ve been collecting creative projects that I could do. I’ve been mulling over blogs I could write. I’ve watched world events pass and boiled over with perspective to share, though my audience is limited (mostly by my fear of the platform. The internet isn’t often kind to those who presuppose what they say is worth hearing.)

Where are the scholars? Where are the poets? Where are the seats of the classroom, where are the joys of the lecture hall?

They’re right in front of me, I’m sure. But I must learn to speak to them. What elves, Sherlock, poets, theologians, and youth-of-Athens-corruptors have in common is that in their “arrogance” and in their insight they didn’t keep their mouths shut.

Tomorrow – my thoughts on Thomas Hardy’s “The Church Builder.”