Friday, July 24, 2015

Wooing the world -- a reprise from long ago


...Thisby knows

so little of the world
as yet: the bit

she can see through the
chink in the wall

has made her heart beat
faster in its cage...
A few lines from a poem of Linda Gregerson. Never mind the context; the image is arresting. Beautiful Thisbe is confined by her parents' to her high-walled house in Babylon, with only a crack in the wall through which to communicate with her forbidden lover. And, of course -- as so many parents discover -- the restriction makes her passion all the more intense.

We look out at the universe through a metaphorical chink in the wall. We are prisoners of our limited sensory apparatus, our finite brains. Slowly we have widened the chink -- just think of the Hubble photographs compared to what Ovid, say, knew of the world. But the wider chink has only made us more aware of the limits of our knowing, heightened our curiosity, excited our passion -- made our hearts beat faster in their cages.

We put our lips to the chink, we whisper prayers, not knowing to whom or what we pray, imagining a lover whose remembered image grows ever more indistinct even as our passion grows.

If it were possible, would we want to have the walls down, to have full access to what the physicist Stephen Hawking whimsically called "the mind of God" -- a full and complete knowledge of everything that is? Not me. Woo prolonged is woo sustained. Remember what happened to Thisbe and Pyramus, and for that matter to Eve and Adam when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge. The ancient myths tell a great truth: the tease is more exciting than the consummation.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 6 (August 2008)



I walked the other day, as is my habit, to the far end of the beach, where the beach comes near to the public road. About twenty American college students, guys and gals, presumably on interterm break, had taken up residence on the sand. The young men played frisbee, tan and trim in their long, baggy trunks, heartbreakingly handsome. The women stood by in an appreciative row, posing seductively in their bikinis; "a bevy of beauties," my father would have said. The scene might have been out of Bosch's central panel, the Garden of Earthly Delights -- pure hedonism, pure innocence.

In the course of the week I had been reading about life in the 16th century, Bosch's century. How different, I thought, is life for these 21st-century college kids. With only a little bit of luck, they will live out their lives without the direct experience of war, without epidemic disease -- plague, smallpox, typhoid, cholera, etc. -- without grinding poverty or famine. They can have sex without fear of sexually transmitted disease, and give birth without fear of dying. They will not spend half their lives with toothache, and they will keep their teeth till the day they die. They will live longer, healthier lives than even my generation, three or four times longer than the contemporaries of Bosch. All of this because of the empirical way of knowing.

The circumstances of human life have dramatically changed for those of us who live in the science-based, secular democracies. But, of course, human nature has not changed. We are still prey to pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. The worm is still in the apple. (Who is that gloomy fellow with his head in his hands, on the back of the goldfinch?) The apparently carefree college kids on the beach will -- like humans everywhere, at all times -- struggle to find and keep love, to sleep soundly in the darkest hours of the night, to wake with joy each day to a world made fresh with innocence. They will strive to choose the good and resist evil. Science won't help them with any of that.

I reach the rocks, turn around, and head back up the beach. As I pass the frolicking youngsters again I give them a thumbs up. They will need all the luck they can get.