27 December 2008

The end of the world is near!

Well, maybe not. The end of 2008 is near, but that's not what I'm thinking about, either.

Earlier this school year, several students began a conversation about eschatology and/or the Apocalypse. We talked about the antichrist, various approaches to prophecy, and other end-times topics. While the conversation was brief, it did spark a thought in my mind I've been hoping to pursue. So here it is, with some background thoughts first.

Whenever I read an absolutely unforgettable book -- whenever a work of literature gives me that feeling Emily Dickinson described thus:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

-- whenever I read a work like that, I say (whether it's Dante, Shakespeare, George MacDonald, Ayn Rand; or Wordsworth, Edna St. Vincent Millay; or the young adult fantasy novels of J. K. Rowling and Christopher Paolini; Ray Bradbury's short stories; rare moments in Freud or Jung; or, just this morning, "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath --

here's what I think. I think, "This author has touched on ultimate human realities." These books that move me profoundly are always "about" (such a weak word, about) love, life, death, birth, bodies, souls and so on, and these great realities are set into some stark relief so that they are sharper, colder, brighter, and more inescapable than they usually are in daily thought. "The Small Assassin" by Ray Bradbury, for example (in the short story collection The October Country), takes our deeply hidden sense of strangeness (or alienation) from birth and babies and uses it as a source of horrific terror. Pincher Martin by William Golding does something similar with the human body; alienating the character from his own material existence in a terrifying way. The great modern epics -- Lord of the Rings, Narnia taken as a whole, Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Matrix -- face death with stark, vivid power.

Great works of literature often deal with the cosmic moments in human history. Narnia and Paradise Lost with creation; Dante's Comedy with Heaven and Hell. So I got to thinking about the end of the world and how it figures in literature. And I couldn't come up with many examples of books set at the end of the world. I recall the nauseating, nihilistic Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The Last Man by Mary Shelley recounts the life and death of the last human being (oo, couldn't have guessed that ending, could you!?), but not the end of the planet earth. CSL's The Great Divorce tells about the final choice of heaven or hell, but not the Apocalypse. There's Wagner's Ring Cycle, of course (a true Gesamptkunstwerk)--which really is the death of the gods and the beginning of a new existence for humankind, not the end of the world for humans. Similarly, there's the death of "god" in Philip Pullman's trilogy. There's (sort of) the Paradiso -- although Dante returns to earth at the end.

I found a list of "Christian Apocalyptic Novels" on amazon: besides Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, the only books were a zombie novel by A.P. Fuchs, two novels by John Hagee, and a political thrillers series by Joel C. Rosenberg. They're not exactly on the same footing as Dante, eh?

Here's another list of end-times literature at wikipedia.

What I'm really saying is that I'm surprised there isn't more End-of-the-World literature -- or at least that I haven't come across it. Most fantasies, science fiction adventures, and action films involve some sort of heroic averting of the end of the world; but not many authors, contemporary or classic, seem willing to tackle the end of human, earthly existence. Is it for lack of imaginative ability to depict heaven? What do you think?

25 December 2008

A Poem for Christmas

Natal Astronomy
To Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon in Conjunction
1 December 2008

You have no similitude, ye gods of heaven
in this Advent night:
you are not, nor resemble, eyes
or jewels or flames of intellect:
to my poor senses little more
than holes torn in the dark-night-of-the-soul
upholstered ceiling of the sky
through which the Empyrean peeps.

Yet I see those planets through layers, like a lens:
a thousand pages from a hundred books
between my vision and their light,
papyrus, parchment, vellum, ink and print
between this nighttime glory and my sight.
Colored by association
with the wisdom of the ancient mind,
with a mountain of mythology,
a wider and more devout imagination
that read the heavens—read them to me:
read their personalities
and souse me in their influence!
Gashes of God-light
dousing my open skull.

Peel them back, these chapters of personification,
make thin the mystery.
But I cannot see the source.
Where is the Urtext for the stars?

When did Jove become the king of gods?
How did those little Greeks, untelescoped,
know he went garmented in royal red,
bled from a giant’s wound, the largest of the heavenlies
and heavy with the arbitration of his ring—his crown?

Who told Homer Aphrodite wore a womb-like atmosphere,
was soft for love, was beautiful in mists and sea-foam airs?

The dust-cold Luna, I suppose,
looks barren in her secondary light
and strings her tidal bow
and lets her maddening shafts
at women’s loins and madmen’s eyeballs—
But how did Norsemen measure Saturn’s aged pace?
They could not catch his frost across the light-years.
Or weaponed Gaels see the Martial red when they looked over
Hadrian’s wall at bloody Roman fields?

The pattern, somehow, the star-field dance,
was like a text. Was less than words,
and therefore more: was poetry.
Was story, and had characters.
A seed without a mother, an unfathered thought
conceiving and repeating, painting deities
on the Sistine ceiling of the sky.

And every figurine foreshadows truth.

For how else could they now, and thus, converge?
Majesty, Virginity, and Love:
how fitting, how exact. They close the circle.
For only once in every human life,
this time of year when every leaf is sheathed with glass,
these gods draw near to offer their Noël.

-- Sørina

16 December 2008

Listening to C. S. Lewis

Here are several audio clips of C. S. Lewis on YouTube that you might find interesting.

1. CSL defending Charles Williams' metaphysical thrillers by assigning them a new genre.

2. Part of one of the BBC addresses that later became Mere Christianity.

3. Selections (I think it's the introduction) from The Four Loves. Just a tiny snippet defining the 4 Greek words.


11 December 2008

December poem of the month

photo by Steve Lantz

I have been working on this poem ever since I first saw the amazing conjunction of the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus several weeks ago. I don't know why a simple sonnet gave me so much trouble, except that my mind, time, and energy are completely consumed by work these days. This not even the poem I intended to write, which would have ended with the line:
Maybe that poem is still forthcoming.

But back to the topic of the heavens! This meeting of Luna (or Silva), Jove (or Glund) and Aphrodite (or Perelandra) was a glorious once-in-a-lifetime experience. We sat and looked at it one evening for a long while until it sank below the treeline. My head was, of course, full of thoughts of the potential significance of this union: Beauty meets the King of the Gods while Virginity presides. And then Michael Ward sent me an article he wrote about C. S. Lewis's thoughts on observing this same conjunction in 1953.

Here are some beautiful photographs of the conjunction.

Meanwhile, enjoy this belated sonnet.


Until the still moment of the turn of Time
When Incarnation changed the spin of space,
Devout Angelicals of Heaven turned
About the planet of the human shape.

At the Nativity, the orbs of love
And intellect reversed their centrifuge:
They sang their fierce chant and burnt their wake
Around the solar image of their Liege.

But then creation lost her fixity
About a hill cris-crossed with lamentation;
On Sunday morning, relativity
Danced giddy with acentric adoration.

Now once a year the gods align and sing,
Awaiting their eternal choreography.

photo by Doug Zubenel