Unreal Nature

February 6, 2015

The Two Eternities I Know

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:29 am

… It is something else that pulls away from the earth, wants to leave it behind. And clearly it speaks to a very deep place in the human imagination.

This is from the essay ‘Reflections on the Epistles of John‘ (1990) found in What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass (2012):

… the First Epistle is written in a spirit of some urgency, and it rises to moments of sudden, aphoristic brilliance, when the language seems as alive as the current of a river or the touch of a living body. Still, it is an odd thing that this letter, written from no one is sure where, in a language that the learned are not sure they understand entirely, to a community of people it is hard for us to imagine, has become the text of festivity and bereavement on another continent two thousand years after the fact. At the wedding I noticed that I was aware, because I had also been reading scholarly commentaries, that the lines read on the bright, hot morning, with an air of floral triumph, came from a particularly obscure passage in the Greek of the First Epistle that may very well have meant exactly the opposite of what the English translation seemed to say.

[ … ]

… Thinking about these childhood stories, I realize that they inhabit the two eternities I know: childhood and stories. When I was describing Peter warming himself at the fire, beginning to inhabit whatever place in my imagination those stories dwell in, I started to write that he was warming himself against “the raw cold of early spring,” and noticed the absurdity of the pretension. Then, on sudden impulse, I called a friend and asked him what the weather was like in Jerusalem at Passover. Mild during the day, he said, but cold at night. You’d want to wear a sweater. I thanked him and returned to my desk with the feeling that I had just crossed from one sphere to another and back again. Aionios.

It reminded me of going to see a pair of paintings by Caravaggio in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome on a sultry, overcast morning in early summer. The paintings, one of the conversion of Paul, another of the crucifixion of Peter, once you have left the light of the square and entered the dark of the church, come swimming right at you out of the gloom. Sinew and light is what they seem to be about, musculature and torque and chiaroscuro. One of the centurions is so tensed with the effort of torturing Peter to death that his nose is wrinkled, his upper lip drawn like a rabbit’s.

crucifixion-of-saint-peter-1601
Caravaggio, Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1601 [image from WikiArt]

Afterward I had a beer and a sandwich in the heat of the day at a cafĂ© in the Piazza del Popolo. First crucifixion, then crostini. I was a tourist. I thought about how long a time these stories have compelled the European imagination, about the way Caravaggio had used theme to speak about the body, to provoke wonder at the sheer force, had, I knew, invented the tourism I was embarked on. For speakers of English, it began with John Ruskin, who had used Italian art and the vivacity of Italian life as a weapon against the Christian and evangelical culture of Victorian England. Sitting in the piazza, watching the pigeons, watching the little surf of beer foam play against and cling to the surface of my glass, I knew I was enacting a piety, not one that had much to do with Peter. It wasn’t to an idea of spirit and the eternal that I was making this visit, but to an idea of art and mortal life.

[ … ]

… The synoptic Gospels, after all, belong to the eternity of story [ … ] . They are full of legends of the marvels of this world: the curing of lepers, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, the man who walked on water and died and rose from the dead. Though these same stories appear in John, it contains what the others do not — that astonishing leap to what is not figurable in human art, not tellable: the Word that was in the beginning and was with God and was God. This is not Jewish eschatology with its chairs in Paradise. It is something else that pulls away from the earth, wants to leave it behind. And clearly it speaks to a very deep place in the human imagination.

-Julie

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