Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Snake in the Grass
...not to mention the tree
Saint Augustine and our Founding Fathers share more in common than I at first thought. Augustine says that the search for happiness is hard-wired into our nature. Jefferson says that it is not merely our nature but our right. Well-being and optimism should thus be the defaults of the human situation. I believe this accounts for the sense of grievance we feel—or at least I feel—when life is intruded upon by oppression, hurtful accident, or sudden medical emergency. All of us, surely, face moments equally disturbing and clarifying in which we are forced to think about such things.
It was a choice Ozark morning in early summer, radiant but not yet hot. There was not a cloud in the sky. The only evidence that there had been a light shower in the night was the sparkle from every bright leaf and blade. I was fourteen or fifteen, and my moral and physical being matched the brightness of the day I rushed out to meet. What a great day to be alive! As I hurried through the screen door I crushed down upon my head my well-worn straw hat. What happened next began an unresolved theodicy of seven decades. Theodicy, fancy word: “a defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” I reeled before an explosive pain in my right temple. I actually imagined I had been shot. Quite unbeknownst to me my hat, acting like a butterfly net, had caught a wasp between its leather sweatband and my hairline. Never before nor since has an insect bite been so dramatic. The pain was not merely excruciating but nauseating. The right side of my head ballooned. Within minutes the right eye was swollen shut. Within an incomprehensible instant an effervescent youthful optimism was overcome by a confusing agony. I was ill for three days.
It would be nearly another decade, anyway sometime when I was at Oxford, that I picked up Goethe’s spiritual autobiography, Truth and Poetry. In 1755, when Goethe was six years old, the major church festival of All Saints’ Day happened to fall on a Sunday. For that reason the heavy stone churches of Lisbon were more crowded than usual when about ten in the morning the city was flattened by a monster earthquake—soon followed by a tsunami and uncontrollable fires. The loss of life was appalling. The impact of this event on the European intelligentsia deserves a chapter in the history of modern thought. Goethe, who was a genius, could already at the age of six intellectualize the dilemma of the Enlightenment philosophes. “By treating the just and the unjust in the same way, God had not behaved in the fatherly manner that I had been attributing to him in my catechism,” he later wrote. “The wise and learned people around me seemed to be unable to agree on the way in which the phenomenon should be described….”
Of course the “problem” was an ancient one, and it is beautifully treated in several ancient texts. In those most familiar to me, the Scriptures compiled by the Hebrew theologians and the poetry of the Greco-Roman ancient world, there is a striking thematic convergence seized upon by the earliest Christian humanists, those ancient ascetics, many of them unknown to us even by name, to whom we are indebted for the preservation of practically everything we have of “classical literature”. According to the myth of the Fall in the book of Genesis God created our race for immortal bliss in a magnificent garden. But human perfection required the freedom of the will to choose moral imperfection. That choice, proposed by the serpent, endorsed by Eve, and executed by Adam “brought Death into the world, and all our woe, with loss of Eden” (Milton). The actual cosmogony or creation story is less central in Greco-Roman mythology—but the idea of a fall from perfection, gradual, episodic, perhaps continuing to this very day—is enshrined in the story of the violent ending of the Golden Age, effected through the revolt of Jupiter against his father Saturn, and emblematized by the birth of Venus, goddess of passionate desire.
Ovid and Virgil both deal at some length with the sad implications of the end of the Age of Gold. In the pastoral world of the Eclogues, in which shepherds and goat-herds pursue their rustic amours and poetry slams, hidden dangers abound. “You lads who gather flowers and strawberries that grow in the earth,” says Damoetas, “fly hence! A cold snake lurks in the grass.” To which Menalcas adds: “Take care, my sheep, that you advance not too far; it is not safe to trust to the bank.” In other words, don’t go near the water.
Disaster intrudes when least expected—and least comprehensible. Proserpina (the Latin version of the Greek Persephone) is in a carefree instant snatched down to hell. Avoid that field of Enna “where Proserpin gathering flowers / herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis / was gathered…” (Milton again). Our old folklore is full of tales of sudden danger descending upon the innocent: the Babes in the Wood, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding-Hood. The Greeks had a proverb: “Under every stone a scorpion”—as if to say “In every porch awning a wasps’ nest.”