Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Two Weddings and an Assassination

Natalie and Dany on the ballroom floor

The Sahara of my social life is not punctuated by conveniently spaced oases, but it is sometimes, for brief periods, inundated by monsoons of conviviality. Such a happy drenching characterized the last weekend. It began with a dinner party we gave on the eve the British Royal Wedding, not that the two events had the slightest genetic connection. Indeed the Royal Wedding gave me the opportunity to practice my curmudgeonly arts. I didn’t think about it. I certainly didn’t get up in the wee hours to watch it on television. And I was inwardly annoyed that conversation concerning it played a prominent role at our dinner party. This is “nothing personal,” as they say. The young couple are doubtless very nice people, and God knows they are headed for a life one wouldn’t wish on beasts of burden. But I am a patriot and a constitutional conservative. The Constitution says that “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States” and that no American official can receive “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state”. In one of the Federalist papers Hamilton gives the motive for this clause: "One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption."

Foreign corruption—a great phrase, that. Yet true democracy seems too terrible to bear; as the liberated Hebrews of the Exodus lusted after the fleshpots of of their slave-masters in Egypt, Americans seem to lust after the hereditary aristocracy abolished more than two centuries past. Verily, we have had our reward. Whereas the vices of the Borgias or the Valois had about them a certain admirable awfulness, American aristocratic vice tends to the squalid and the banal. How can the aberrant drowning of a single girlfriend at Chappaquiddick compete with beheading several wives, or even just murdering the young princes in the Tower?

Perhaps my disgruntlement was actually founded in a groundless fear that static from the Royal Wedding might mar the sweet music of the real wedding I was to attend the next day in suburban Philadelphia. On Saturday, in St. John’s Lutheran Church in Melrose Park PA, our friend Natalie Deffenbaugh married Dany Mehry. Natalie is an alumna of the Princeton Class of 2002. Dany is Lebanese, and I don’t actually know about his school or class, except that he showed a great deal of it in marrying Natalie, a beautiful woman of dazzling intellectual ability and luminous ethical character. They are both professional international aid workers who once joyously united almost immediately faced a period of separation, as Dany returned to his assignment in Iraq, and Natalie to hers in the Congo.

The ceremony, which was intrinsically beautiful, was further beautified by the singing of the bridesmaid, Jennifer Borghi, a professional mezzo-soprano already familiar to readers of this blog. The officiant conducted the wedding service and the Communion liturgy with an easy yet impressive dignity, and she preached a brief but memorable sermon carefully crafted for a couple whose youthful vocations have been service among the world’s poor and downtrodden. Wedding couples are sometimes asked to memorize a brief passage of Scripture deemed particularly appropriate for their union. The preacher assigned to Natalie and Dany an unusually long passage—not for memorization (she reassured them) but for contemplation—the whole of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three entire chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.

 The church had an arresting architectural feature I had never before seen: a single window in the east end, cruciform, filled with a painted glass Crucifixion

The preacher had given us the hard counsel of “getting beyond the beatitudes,” and I discovered her intention for myself when I reviewed the text the next morning. What could be more comforting than “Blessed are the pure in heart”—or the meek, or the merciful, or the peacemakers? And what could be more challenging and disturbing than much of what follows?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” It is from this same passage that such phrases as “turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile” have entered the secular vocabulary of the English language, to be used daily by thousands who have no idea of their source. But has there ever been advice more absurd than Love your enemies? I wasn’t thinking about that then--as we feasted in the church hall and danced our geriatric best to strange Levantine beats.

That might have been enough festivity for any mortal, but we capped it the following night at a dinner at the fabulous New York apartment of our friends Michael Goldman and Eleanor Bergstein. Michael, an eminent scholar of drama and a fine poet, was my colleague for forty years. The popular meaning of the word mensch might have been invented for him. Eleanor, for whom "glamorous" is one mot juste, has had a fabulously successful writing career most famously as the creator of Dirty Dancing, one of the most widely viewed films (and now stage shows) of a long generation. Lots of people know that already, but I am in a position to out her as well as an amazing cook. Nobody puts Baby in a corner…but the kitchen? Strongly advised.

 Michael Goldman and Eleanor Bergstein on the set of Dirty Dancing

We had not seen each other in a long time, and the animated conversation of old friends, which often has a priceless quality, was further enriched by the presence of other, brilliant table guests. The long evening would have been memorable even without its dramatic ending. As midnight approached, indeed as we and the other guests were just beginning to make going-away noises, the telephone rang. It was a friend and assistant of Eleanor’s, calling to advise her to turn on the television set, quick. President Obama was just about to announce the death of Osama bin Laden.

We listened to the whole of the President’s announcement. It was of a definitive solemnity, and the evening was over. We took the subway local from Columbia University station down most of the length of Manhattan to Christopher Street. As we walked a few short blocks to our borrowed apartment, the streets were already abuzz. There were occasional shouts of exultation from festive undergraduates along Fourth Street. When we got to the apartment, we immediately turned on the Tube to see scenes of more young people, now massing on Times Square and at Ground Zero. Somebody had a large American flag. There was the usual exhibitionism of playing to the camera. The vibe was of a slightly bibulous athletic event. They were all chanting, as they might chant in support of their team in the semi-finals: U-S-A, U-S-A!

Who could blame them? A mass murderer, and one who added to the enormity of his criminality the blasphemy of claiming divine sanction for his crimes, had received a just retribution, and, given geo-political realities, probably the only one plausible. Why, then, did the gloating seem to me vaguely unseemly? Sometimes, surely, just getting within shouting distance of the beatitudes ought to be enough, without contemplating the impossible task of getting beyond them.