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September 11, 2011
Heroism, Poetry, Faith and A Pagan Ethos
On 9/11, of all days, the words carpe diem echo in the mind.
"Seize the day," it's usually translated. Carpere, however, actually means "to pluck." Hence Robert Herrick's poem, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time:"
This sentiment, too, lies behind Andrew Marvell's poem, "To His Coy Mistress." All of them have their root in Job 14:2. Because the root of the matter is "pluck:" Thus, the Book of Job:
"Pluck" has several meanings, including a sexual one. And sex and passion are very much part of the meaning of "seize the day" - in "To His Coy Mistress," explicitly so. Yet these words - with its imagery of a man's life as a fleeting flower - appear also in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer's funeral service.
These sentiments are, in their origin, pagan. If there's nothing after death, then the natural order should be wine, women and song. You can skip the "sermons and soda water tomorrow."
But mortal man seeks immortality as well as pleasure.
In a pagan ethos, immortality is achieved by living on in the memory of others through one's heroic deeds. And man's memory being what it is, remembering requires poetry and sagas which stick in the mind. The poems of the First World War generation are still read today for this reason.
So is ancient epic poetry around the world.
Homer's Illiad and Virgil's Aenead represent this pagan ethos very well. In our own time, we have such movies as "King Arthur" and "The 13th Warrior." In "King Arthur," pagan Guinevere (played by Keira Knightley) seeks to reassure the Christian Arthur that, should he die in battle against the Saxons, "you have your deeds."
In "The 13th Warrior," the dying Norse chieftain Buliwyf asks the Arab traveler Ahmed ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas) to make a book of what he and his warriors have done - so they are not forgotten. Indeed, before the climactic battle scene, all his fighters, including the Muslim Fadlan, recite the Norse Warrior's Prayer. Pagan to its core, the Prayer's lesson is that only the brave live on in the halls of Valhalla.
It should hardly be surprising, then, that the ability to compose and recite poetry was considered an important part of the proper equipment of both a Norse warrior and a samurai, as well as a Christian knight. Or that, in 2003, Robert D. Kaplan published a book called Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. Some of these pagan sentiments made it into Christianity, too, especially profane poetry.
And not just poetry. Here is one version of the Knight's Oath:
This desire for immortality, of course, is not limited just to living on via the memory of one's great deeds. A kindred desire is the wish that one's Beloved (or, at least, one's object of desire) shall live forever too. Once again, this can be achieved by immortalizing the Beloved in poetry. For moderns, perhaps the best known example of this is William Butler Yeats' poem, "When You Are Old."
With love poetry, what you see is not always what you get. As commentators have noted, the subtext of Yeats' poem -- unlike, say, the explicit "To His Coy Mistress" -- is subtle seduction. Subtle seduction reigns in Shakespeare's Sonnet # 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") too.
But Yeats also employed poetry for its other traditional purpose: memorializing fallen heroes. In 1921, Yeats immortalized the leaders of the Irish Easter Rebellion in "Easter, 1916:"
Again, here is the last stanza of Shakespeare's famous love Sonnet # 18:
Christianity's teaching, of course, is very different from the pagan one: death, while not to be sought, is not undesirable -- because, through death, we have the possibility of going to be with God. So, keep your eyes on heaven. Pride -- vainglory, really -- is thus one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
As for the time of one's own death, Scripture says, we know not the time or the hour. Jesus taught the parable of the wise virgin (that eternity comes as a thief in the night, or like the bridegroom knocking on the door of the house of the foolish virgins) to illustrate this. He also taught the parable of the rich man: "you fool! This very night your life will be required of you."
The events of 9/11 amply illustrates all that too.
With the reemergence of paganism in the modern world, the desire to live forever is very strong in our time. David Brooks wrote recently, it's the desire among contemporary Americans to postpone death which has helped drive the cost of U.S. healthcare through the roof.
Thus, perhaps, it's worth noting one unremarked lesson of 9/11: the pagan desire to live forever through performing heroic deeds and the religious faith in Eternal Life are not automatically incompatible. The Dead of the NYPD, the Dead of the NYFD, the passengers on Flight 99 and all the rest of the victims -- they have achieved precisely this.
In time, perhaps the words "We will never forget," will be converted from a cry for vengeance (like "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!") into a meme of memory. Until then, the iconic photo of the body of Fr. Mychal Judge, O.F.M., the Fire Department's chaplain, being carried from the ruins of the World Trade Center can symbolize both. That photo has been called "an American Pieta."
For now, at least, until the right poem comes along, it will have to do. The absence, ten years on, of a major work of art or imagination coming out of 9/11 is very striking.
When the twin blue beacons of the "9/11 Tribute in Light" were first displayed above the Lower Manhattan skyline in 2002, I went over to Hoboken to watch. I remember someone on the ferry saying: "Look, they go all the way up to heaven."
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