A New Year’s Reflection
by Peter Marin
A few weeks ago, after Nelson Mandela’s death, I sent this to a friend:
are chosen, the few
who remember their names, who have
faces in the mirror, for whom
time stops, allowing them
to breathe. We need
no words. Nothing suffices.
Let the waves break
silently on the shore
of each solitude, each life
wasted or thrown away.
His heart did not break.
His will was not broken.
This shames us. We
must change our lives.
My friend wrote back asking whether I was aware that my words echoed those of Rainer Maria Rilke in the closing lines of his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” describing the torso’s beauty: “there is no place/that does not see you. You must change your life.” (MacIntyre translation)
I said yes, I’d done that on purpose, and perhaps the reasons I gave him will suffice for this New Year’s message.
I think Rilke may have been mistaken in one important way: it is not aesthetic beauty (as powerful as it can be) that calls us most strongly to account or changes how we see ourselves. It is, instead, what I will call here “moral beauty” — that is, human acts of courage, generosity, love, solidarity, sacrifice or rebellion and resistance, which by their nature remind us of what is humanly possible and require us to re-examine our lives.
Years go, I worked on a piece for Harper’s about the Getty museum, where concerns like these naturally arise, since many of its valuable holdings had been acquired by Getty from the Gestapo after they had confiscated the possessions of Jews (although this was not mentioned anywhere in the museum).
Moreover, in the “information rooms” of the museum devoted to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, you could find texts, say, on the technique of marquetry, but not a word about the French revolution, just as elsewhere in the museum, in a description of a famous photograph by Steiglitz of arriving immigrants, steerage was described as “the economy class of its time.”
In other words, the Getty, like many other museums, routinely treated the question of morality, history and aesthetics as if these were basically separate realms, just as many of us were taught to separate them in the better class-encapsulating colleges we went to; that is, we were encouraged, via an almost magical and silent transmission, to understand our good fortune, privilege and superiority in terms of both knowledge and taste.
To put it simply, we now knew, as others did not, what it was important to know, and we also knew that, knowing such things, we were superior to those who did not know them — the lesser many who, to use Obama’s unfortunate but revealing words about rural Pennsylvanians, had only “god and guns.”
In short, “culture” (and therefore beauty) came to exist for many of us as a matter of education and taste, as opposed to the deep senses of responsibility, mutuality, connectedness, generosity, solidarity and a shared destiny that necessarily lie close to the heart of any morality or culture and which relate people one to another (sometimes, it is true, in dangerous ways), requiring from them something beyond self-concern, and thereby forming a ground of both individual conscience and “the common good.”
The fact is that when I examine my own experience, I find that I have probably been more deeply moved or changed by certain human acts of courage, goodness, sacrifice and devotion than by literature; and when I have been most moved by literature it has most often, though not always, been by the words and works of those who in some way took the Good (or justice) as their ultimate subject: Tolstoy, for example, or Victor Hugo, or George Eliot, or Shakespeare in King Lear or The Tempest, or (to list them as they come rapidly to mind) Dante, Blake, Wordsworth, Dickens, Twain, Whitman, Melville, Cather, Camus, St. Exupery in Wind, Sand and Stars, Giono in The Joy of Man’s Desiring, or even DH Lawrence (who once said justice was the deepest sensuality of all).
Most of these writers in one way or another paid homage not only to the Good itself, but also to the power of ordinary people to bring it into existence.
In this sense alone, moral beauty, is, I think, more democratic and egalitarian than aesthetic beauty, for it has little to do with levels of education, taste, wealth or even gifts of talent, and it is quite commonly found in unexpected and marginal places and among “ordinary” or “disadvantaged” people, as those lucky enough, in our own time, to serve in the Peace Corps or to participate in the civil rights movement often discovered.
I think as I write (again, in terms of my own experience and in no particular order) of peasants in Peru risking everything for a small patch of land and stubbornly waiting, unarmed, for armed thugs to arrive; or of an impoverished woman in Ecuador who turned down $40 from the governor of the state after her son was killed by soldiers, and who told me, “I did not raise my son to be bought and sold like a pig.”
I think, too, of black men and women I saw weeping and singing in Alabama as for the first time in their history they elected black officials to a school board; of men I met in hobo jungles quite willing to share with one another and with me their shelter and last bits of food and who cared for each other in a way that those with homes often do not; of Rosa Parks and the freedom riders and countless anonymous local heroes who were never publicly seen or named, but who resisted power and authority at great risk and cost to themselves; of a Jehovah’s Witness I knew in Colombia who went door to door in the countryside, one step ahead of the army, telling the peasants that God had given the earth to them and not to their rulers or rich land-owners.
And I am thinking, too, of a Mexican peasant who literally crawled out of a thatch-roofed hole in the ground to offer, unasked, a plate of beans and rice when a friend and I were stuck for a couple of days trying to hitch-hike along a dirt track in Baja California; of black children, inspired more by the Bible than any of the secular texts most of us prize, who walked into white schools while people screamed at them on all sides; of the firemen on 9/11 entering the burning tower from which they knew they might never emerge; and yes, even of certain Vietnam vets I knew and grew to love who fought in a war I hated, and who did, by their own account, terrible things, but who also, in many instances, learned more (and in turn taught me more) about courage, love of comrades, sacrifice, and especially our universal, yes, universal, human capacity for error and evil than I for one managed to learn in school or from books.
And there are those too — I do not want to scant the intellect — who routinely risk their livelihoods and reputations to put forth unpopular ideas or question received wisdom or tell truths others do not want to hear, and such men and women exist, thank heavens, at every level and in all corners of society, though most persistently, perhaps, on its margins.
What I want to do here, then, is simply to point out that many otherwise “ordinary” people manage, perhaps in lesser ways than did Mandela, but not unlike him, to bring the Good into the world through their courage and their devotion to it — “the word made flesh,” as Christians like to say. It is these people, I think, who remind us, or at least remind me, of the forms the Good can take and where, in fact, it comes from.
Don’t get me wrong. I love many museums; and certain writers have been for me like fathers or brothers pointing a way through the world; I know that Bach, for instance, like Rilke, can take us, especially in the unaccompanied violin sonatas, out past Plato’s Forms and Kant’s antinomies into the upper reaches and outer limits of contemplative silence; and so I do not want here to demean in any way art and its beauty or the theater or jazz or poetry or Sinatra’s crooning or Mississippi John Hurt’s blues and their power to celebrate the transcendent as well as the fully human. Far from it.
I am only suggesting that human acts of goodness or justice do much the same thing and — at least for some of us — do perhaps even more, because in the end I believe Plato was right and that it is the Good (when it is actually done rather than merely described) that crowns and illumines all other values, no matter how often we ignore or forget it.
I think that a recognition of moral beauty and of the capacity of others to bring meaning into existence leads in the end to a necessary kind of both humility and wisdom, for it reminds us that all of us, and I do mean ALL (regardless of class or taste or education or beliefs), can become makers of value, vehicles for and creators of whatever brightens and changes or preserves the world. And it is precisely here, for me, that the word “equality” reveals the deepest of its meanings, because wherever and in whomever we find love, courage, sacrifice, generosity of spirit, resistance to power and injustice, the telling of truth and a faith kept with others — ah, it is there that beauty appears, shining forth.
Morality, said Kropotkin, if I remember right, is “the overflow of vitality.” Said Lawrence, “not I, but the wind that blows through me.” And Dylan Thomas: “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”
Life itself, then, really.
Or, if you will, the originary powers of creation (spelled with a large or small C, depending), still at work, even now.
Now, to shift gears: may you and yours have a good and satisfying new year and may it bring you joy and pleasure or whatever else you need for your journey through life. And for those of you who are my contemporaries, aging perhaps faster than we’d like, well, may you be kept safe from the various crises and trials of age and the power of death to take those we love.
Lastly, I hope that all of us in the coming year can learn in this strange and contentious nation, (a) how to use our freedoms wisely, (b) how to protect or extend those freedoms for ourselves and others, and (c) (perhaps most difficult of all) how to live, on all sides, with those who use their freedoms in ways we dislike or abhor.
Take care (which perhaps says it all).