Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Marked Man

No place of grace for those who avoid the face

No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.

T. S. Eliot, ‘Ash Wednesday’

I suppose there are many things to say in favor of Greenwich Village, but just at the moment I have one in particular, and it is this. A conservatively dressed, elderly white man walking down Bleeker Street at nine o’clock in the morning with a large, sooty cruciform smudge on his forehead attracts no attention. None at all. Zero. In fact the facial decoration fits in surprising well, considering that it lacks any hint or gleam of metal.

Still, it is a little disconcerting to have to walk for ten or fifteen blocks in that condition, houseled, aneled, but unabluted, so to speak; and I was relieved to get to a washbasin. The Ash Wednesday liturgy is perhaps no more paradoxical than most religious rites, but it does have a fiercer irony. First a priest reads out a passage of the gospel in which Jesus says some hard things about people who make an ostentatious display of their religiosity, as, for example, by praying loudly on street corners or by hiring a guy to walk in front of them blowing a trumpet as they hand out quarters to homeless street people.

I pause to note that this part is actually rather comforting, just as I have always found comfort in the second of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt make no graven image.” Because, by God, I never have made a single graven image, not one! Nor have I ever hired a guy with a trumpet. But the next thing Jesus says is really harsh. “When you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites. They disfigure their faces so that people will know that they are fasting.” Having gotten that one out of the way the priest then dips a thumb into a pot of powdered black ash and then, with a kind of disfigure-eight motion, smears it all over your forehead while offering the following cheerful advice: “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” You then get to go out and wander around among your fellow citizens as a marked man.

It is probably my tendency to hypertextuality, an undue sensitivity to the authority of the written word, that has caused me, ever since I was a child, to head for the soap and water as soon as possible. Many of my co-religionists seem to have no difficulty reconciling the ashen face with the gospel text. In fact, by the time I got on the train to leave New York this morning there were smudgy folks all over the streets of Manhattan, and quite a few in Penn Station. Some people, indeed, apparently feel no self-consciousness about it at all.

This photograph, I know, looks like one of those contests dreamed up by the New Yorker in which you are asked to supply an appropriate caption for a blank cartoon. Mine would be: “I was born in Scranton. Everybody in the family was a coal miner.” It is actually the vice-president of the United States hard at work, as always, on behalf of ordinary working Americans.

The reminder of one’s dusty nature is doubtless salubrious, but if you are of an age at which you are pretty sure that the large mound vaguely to be discerned on the horizon is the dust heap, it can be a bit of a downer. As a society we have pretty much decided that Mardi Gras is great so long as it doesn’t have to be followed by a Mercredi des Cendres; and we have applied that notion, disastrously, to our economic life. I had in fact come to New York for a fortuitous Mardi Gras meal of sorts. I am a member of a peculiar and old-fashioned club, the only purpose of which is to hold monthly dinner meetings at which the members, dressed in dinner jackets or elegant gowns, sit around a circular table having elevated conversation. We happen to meet on the third Tuesday of the month. With the exception of myself and one or two others who seem to have been elected by typographical error, it’s a very distinguished and erudite group, and last night’s conversation was particularly lively and enlightening. Young Shakespeare, too, as he knelt in the Stratford parish church, would have been told “dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” His greatest tragedies demonstrate how well he appreciated that sentence. But he knew also another truth, to which he had his Sir Toby Belch give amusing voice: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”