Barry’s Blog # 310: To Sacrifice Everything — A Hidden Life, Part Two of Four

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass,
And by the streamers of white cloud,
And whispers of wind in the listening sky;
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor. — Stephen Spender

As readers, film and TV viewers, students, churchgoers or any other patriotic consumers of our national mythologies, we have long been conditioned to support, praise and even to emulate that vast pantheon of heroes who put themselves in harm’s way to defend the innocent. In the extreme, we venerate those few who are willing to simply die for an ideal. This is one of the major themes of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.

c10d11ef045e6abfb491b9c78134b707 Like almost every man my age, I grew up on John Wayne and Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett, who is last seen dying for freedom at the Alamo, and it’s not easy to remove those images and stories from one’s subconscious. It was easy, however, to forget that Davy’s family was back in Tennessee, and that John Wayne rarely even had a family.

For me, as a grandfather to three girls, the big question as I watched A Hidden Life was: Is one’s spiritual purity worth the suffering of others? I can’t speak for anyone else in the audience, but I was pleading with Franz: Sign the goddamn pledge! Think of your family!

Ultimately, however, along with my grief for them – and for our planet – I was angry at Franz. Yes, you could suggest that my reaction has something to do with my own psychology. But where would that get us? James Hillman said that we have psychology only because we no longer have mythology. To understand what conditioned his decision to refuse the pledge despite knowing the harmful consequences to himself and to his loved ones, we have to look at the history of European religion from a mythological perspective, as I do in Chapters Six and Ten.

For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son. – Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun

Roman generals declared, Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Partria Mori, that it was “a sweet and noble thing to die for your country.” This statement may be self-evident to true believers, but for those of us who no longer subscribe to such a belief system, who sit outside the bubble of other people’s myths, we ask: Why would anyone sacrifice his life for his country, or for any other abstract concept such as a religion?

Joseph Campbell taught that Europeans and their American descendants have lived in a “demythologized world” since Christianity began to lose potency in the 12th century. Now, we rarely take notice of the price we pay for living in such a world. Can we even imagine those times when culture and nature together really did hold and protect our ancestors? We live dispirited lives, since we long ago rejected the “spirits” who connected us to this immense and incomprehensible universe. We stand exposed to old, patriarchal conditions – raw opposition between irreconcilable polarities. We still have myths, even if we are rarely aware of them, but they no longer nourish us.

With great respect to Campbell, it seems to me, however, that myth has been breaking down for much, much longer. What remain, exposed like archeological layers, are immensely old stories: the myths of father/son and brother/brother conflict, and the literalization of initiation rites into the brutal socialization of children. 175842_f520 I argue in my book that the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son so as to glorify his god is the foundational myth underlying all of western civilization, that the story actually describes the breakdown of symbolic initiation into literal child sacrifice, and that a thousand years later, the death of Christ on the cross solidified this narrative for a new era.

We do not deny some of the great advances in human thinking such as the Alphabet that the Hebrew tradition bequeathed us. But these gifts came with consequences. Well before the Christian era, the Hebrews began to offer something new – history – as a literalization of myth. It was a culture-wide, top-down movement to no longer interpret the old stories as multi-layered social dreams intended to invite everyone to grow their souls, but as literal, chronological truth. Whereas the pagan world had long understood the words of Sallustius (This never happened, but it always is), people throughout the region now heard, This actually happened, and it happened once. It was the first movement from education (to draw something out of young people that already exists in them) to instruction (to stuff pre-determined information into their empty heads).

And we must admit that they also were the first to glorify people who preferred to die rather than change their thinking. Shira Lander writes: “Most scholars consider the Hasmonean traditions preserved in 2 and 4 Maccabees as representing the earliest Jewish strata of martyrology, although there are many earlier examples.”

Maccabees tells of the first martyrs to Roman persecution – not just those who fought, but those who refused to break Jewish law. Sure of going to Heaven, they went uncomplaining to their execution, unknowingly setting an example for future centuries of Christian martyrs:

And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.

A century later, the siege of Masada by Roman troops ended in the mass suicide of 960 rebels – or at least this is what Josephus, the sole chronicler of the event, recorded. Since archeologists have disputed his account, we must ask if this literally happened, or whether the evolving narrative of Jewish martyrdom required such a story. It doesn’t really matter, since the area is now one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations and, more importantly, it shores up the myth of Israeli innocence. 

In any event, such narratives began to have enormous emotional resonance, and both Jews and Christians (and later, Moslems) compiled catalogues or lists of martyrs and other saints. Some scholars consider these martyrologies to have been vehicles through which Jews and Christians competed for adherents and negotiated their conflicting claims to ultimate truth. To this day, the faithful venerate their memories, celebrate their feast days, name places of worship, schools and hospitals after them.

Many secular states, we should note, do the same with their war victims regardless of their religious convictions. This is a major way in which nationalism perpetuates itself, saying in effect, they died so that you could live in freedom. You must be willing to do the same. Gervase Phillips writes:

The word martyr itself derives from the Greek for “witness”, originally applied to the apostles who had witnessed Christ’s life and resurrection. Later it was used to describe those who, arrested and on trial, admitted to being Christians. By the middle of the second century, it was granted to those who suffered execution for their faith. Christians were not alone in their admiration of those willing to die for their principles. The philosopher Socrates was unjustly condemned to death in 399 BC for “refusing to recognize the gods”…There was, however, a striking difference between Socrates and those martyred in the arenas. The philosopher hoped for, but was not sure of, an afterlife. The martyr, however, was very certain of an afterlife (and) of salvation and reward in heaven.

In the early centuries of the Christian period, as the age of mythological thinking reached its end, it became more difficult to think in terms of the symbolic processes of initiation and rebirth. And the holy text that emerged out of this period omitted the few metaphors of the sacred Earth that had been allowed into Hebrew scripture. As a result, wrote Paul Shepard, the New Testament is “one of the world’s most antiorganic and antisensuous masterpieces of abstract ideology…”

The zealots who wrested control of the church believed that Christ had literally returned from the dead, and that metaphoric interpretation of his life was unacceptable. Theirs was a religion, write Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, of “…outer mysteries without the inner mysteries…”

In the late second century, they prohibited women from participating in worship. Soon, schisms developed over fine points of dogma, and rival sects attacked each other in furious jihads, even as the Roman state was still persecuting them. Soon enough, when Christianity became the official state religion, they attacked pagans with the same ferocity.

Here, we can apply some social-psychological insight. Christianity grew up within a heritage and in an atmosphere of violence. Like other traumatized children, it became a perpetrator of abuse, and early on it became obsessed with death.

Absolutely nothing attributed to Jesus in the Gospels suggested anything about his death as a sacrifice. Saint Paul, however, changed Christianity’s central focus from the old mythic image of the birth of the Divine Child to his death; in his vision the Aqedah – the story of the binding of Isaac – was completed only with Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. A religion of love devolved into an obsession with suffering. It taught that Christ’s sacrifice had occurred once, not as part of an unending cycle. The western world now understood myth literally, as actual history.

And since the idea of one unrepeatable sacrifice excluded any metaphorical or psychological interpretation of Christ’s death as sacrifice of the ego, it resulted in the suppression of initiation rites. Christians came to believe that Jesus, unlike Dionysus and other earlier gods, had died not as the cycle of creation but as penance for humanity’s bad behavior. This subtle yet significant difference shifted the emphasis from the tragedy of the human condition to the innate sinfulness of human nature. Eventually the initiation of adolescents was transformed into the ritual purification of infants who by their very nature were such threats that it was necessary to protect the community from them.

Having died for the sins of the world, Christ became the ultimate, if willing, scapegoat. Men left society (and women) to defeat their own sinfulness. To this day, the monks of Mount Athos in Greece still refuse to allow the presence of female animals onto their sacred grounds.

Eventually, some of these men even pursued martyrdom. In the late second-century, Arrius Antoninus, proconsul of current-day Turkey, was provoked by “the whole Christians of the province in one united band.” He obliged some of them and then sent the rest away, saying that if they wanted to kill themselves there was plenty of rope available or cliffs they could jump off. Later, Ignatius longed to suffer, “but I do not know whether I am worthy”, and Cyprian imagined the “…flowing blood which quenches the flames and the fires of hell by its glorious gore”.

Martyrdom would eventually evolve into one of the most emotive terms in the English language. It became the highest ethical virtue that every believer must be prepared to emulate, a shared tradition of the Abrahamic religions – in Hebrew, Kiddush Ha-Shem (sanctification of the divine name); in Arabic, shahada (witness). But let’s be very clear about how radical this belief was. Leonard Shlain, in The Alphabet and the Goddess, put this astonishing demand into its proper context:

Until the Christian martyrs, there does not occur anywhere in the recorded history of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece, India or China a single instance in which a substantial segment of the population accepted torture and death rather than forswear their belief in an ethereal concept.

This is the legacy of monotheism. No Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Confucian, Pagan or member of any of the thousands of indigenous religious systems before or since could possibly understand this willingness to die – or to slaughter one’s own child – rather than to change one’s mind about an idea, or to even to pretend to do so. Bruce Chilton, in Abraham’s Curse, adds:

Uniquely among the religions of the world, the three that center on Abraham have made the willingness to offer the lives of children – an action they all symbolize with versions of the Aqedah – a central virtue for the faithful as a whole.

And as we all know, the meaning of the word “martyr” gradually changed. Abraham’s knife became a soldier’s sword in Christian iconography. Dying as Christ (around 100 AD) became dying for Christ (500), which became killing for Christ (1000), or for Allah. And a thousand years later, give or take a decade or two, the Western world’s relationship with its deity and its understanding of myth and, yes, its contempt for its own children has produced the ultimate descent into literalism: dying for Allah and simultaneously killing as many innocent non-believers as possible.

The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins. – Soren Kierkegaard

This is the logical outcome of the disappearance of mythic consciousness and initiation ritual. For thousands of years, men had symbolically killed the child-nature in their boys to invite their full participation in the adult world. But with the crushing of paganism, a literalized myth (the sacrifice of a child for the glory of his father) came to predominate. It was a very old myth, but now Europe was about to feast on the bodies of its young.

With the inexplicable advance of Islam, however, Christianity confronted a new and immensely powerful Other that questioned its assumptions of universal superiority. The Church responded by distracting its nobles from killing each other and enlisting their energies in crusades of conquest and extermination against the infidels. A new figure emerged: the warrior-monk, pledged to both chastity and eternal warfare. It became glorious to die even in defeat because it would be a martyr’s death.

The Crusades mark the first merger of what I have called the paranoid and predatory (link) imaginations. Pope Urban offered the soldiers both remissions of sin (now, violence was a ticket to paradise) as well as an incentive to martyrdom. The result was a scale of atrocities that still puzzles historians, who, writes Chilton,

…have not factored in the sacrificial dimension of Urban’s appeal. Self-sacrifice, more than self-interest, is the hidden hand guiding this strange and relentless history…Crusading was a license, not only to kill, but also to…indulge other appetites, absolved in advance.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 309: To Sacrifice Everything — A Hidden Life, Part One of Four

Every good deed brings its own punishment. – James Agate

Sometimes the spirit comes through me. I’m not saying this out of pride. I’m simply observing that one when is committed to his art – in my case, writing about historical, political and cultural issues through a mythological lens, when one asks to be a conduit for other voices – when one tries to pay attention – then one had better be prepared for synchronicities. One had better be prepared to drop what one is doing, to sacrifice some trivial pleasure or responsibility, and just listen.

Or watch. The other night, having already planned to see Terrance Malick’s new film A Hidden Life, I discovered the 2016 film Alone in Berlin on Netflix and watched this dramatized true story. A middle-aged German husband and wife, grieving for their son who’d been killed in the war, can no longer passively accept the authority of the Nazi death cult. They leave some 200 handwritten, anti-war postcards all over the city until the Gestapo arrests them.Otto-y-Elise Having offered up their son to the State (in reality it was her brother, but that doesn’t matter), they ultimately sacrifice themselves. Indeed, the film’s ending is a bit ambiguous. Perhaps they want to get caught; perhaps their protest, dangerous as it is, is not enough.

Otto and Elise Hampel were sent to the guillotine in Berlin on April 4th, 1943.

The next day, somewhat shaken by that film, thinking of people who really had sacrificed for their principles, I went for a hike in Oakland’s Mountain View d530fb3c3068e7aab468fb42f406d994Cemetery, where a series of random (?) turns took me past the grave of Fred Korematsu, who had refused to cooperate with the government’s internment of his fellow Japanese-American citizens and had fought for decades to clear his name and secure compensation for them. Synchronicity.

Then, knowing what I was in for (it’s nearly impossible to see a movie these days without already knowing about its plot), I went to my local theater and watched A Hidden Life, another true story of passive resistance to the Nazis.

Franz Jägerstätter is no urban sophisticate but a devout Catholic farmer living an idyllic life in Austria’s Tyrolian mountains. 320px-Seis_St-Valentin His village lies below towering peaks shrouded in mist, with green hills rolling to distant horizons. Deep, intense green fills every frame. He and his wife Fani, even after having produced three daughters, are deeply, sensuously in love. In voiceovers he muses, “I thought we could build our nest high up in the trees…Fly away like birds.” Even though the war, its horrors and its moral choices will soon reach them, Fani says, “It seemed no trouble could reach our valley.”

I won’t lie; from the first images I was weeping. I’ve been to the Tyrol, and the area certainly is gorgeous. But the film immediately, repeatedly and quite deliberately presents images of such overwhelming natural beauty (later to be contrasted with the meanness of people and institutions) that I fell into a trance, as poet Mark Nepo says, “of wonder and grief”.  It seemed clear (to me at least) that the filmmaker was intent on forcing viewers – me – to confront not simply the imminent loss of this fairy-tail family love nest. I was well aware that it was the first week of 2020, that this year may well be our last chance to reverse global warming, that there may well not be a future. We are all on the very edge of losing this beautiful world.

Franz’s faith is absolute. In this age of pedophile priests, racist evangelicals who look forward to the End Times and televangelists who declare you-know-who to be “the Chosen One,” we are a bit shocked to realize that Franz is a real Christian. (By the way, here’s a link to a contemporary American real Christian).

Or perhaps – with all this lush scenery, these intensely verdant meadows and gently flowing waters, all this planting and harvesting, all this much-more-than-Christian sensuality, all this dancing, playing, ahiddenlife004 touching, kissing, caressing of animals, rolling on the grass, filling the hands with the fertile earth, with the mothers of all mountains in the background – perhaps, just below the surface, these people are true pagans (paganus: hill people). It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that they are devout Catholics in nearly the same way that syncretistic Haitian vodouisants or Brazilian Candomblers are.

But Franz gradually concludes that he cannot remain a moral person and also serve in Hitler’s death machine or even sign an oath of allegiance to the Fuhrer, as all Austrian men are required to do. By saying, “No,” Franz, like the Hampels, knows that he could lose everything. This is why Malick spends so much of this very long film dwelling on the family’s profound love of nature and each other. There really is so much at stake, for them and us.

Their Eden eventually becomes a social hell. Franz’s refusal to just go along calls down scorn and condemnation upon his family, because he has forced everyone else in the village to confront the roots of their own identities. Some may be afraid to publicly agree with him, while others quote Hitler, screaming about the evils of immigrants and foreigners in a place where there seems to be none of either. They brand him a traitor, spit on Fani and throw mud at their daughters. Once Franz is transported to prison in far-away Berlin, the other farmers refuse to help Fani with the back-breaking labor of tending the land and livestock. When her cow dies, she and her sister must pull a plow through her field by themselves. What a metaphor.

She ultimately makes her own choice to support his decision, but only after after months of emotional conflict in which everyone in the film, from his mother and his closest friends (who become ex-friends), to his fellow prisoners, his guards, his lawyers and even his judge, plead with him to take the oath. Everyone agrees that his resistance won’t change anything and will come at too high a price for him and his family. And there is a way out: he can be a conscientious objector and serve as a medic in a hospital, if he will only sign. Everyone has their own argument:

The Bishop: “You have a duty to the fatherland. The church tells you so.”

The villagers: “Pride! That’s what it is, Pride!” Your mother will die un-consoled.”

A fellow prisoner: “You can’t change the world; the world is stronger.”

A sadistic guard: “I can do anything I want to you! No one will notice!”

His judge: “Nature has not noticed the sorrow that has come over people.”

His priest: “God doesn’t care what you say, only what is in your heart.”

Fani: “I need you.”

By the end, after Fani’s heart-wrenching final meeting with him in the prison has failed to persuade him, the only man in the film to support him, her father, admits, “Better to suffer injustice than to do it.” Franz, like the Hampels, goes willingly, if with deep sadness, to the guillotine.

A few historical notes: The municipality of Sankt Radegund franziska_jaegerstaetter_body.5131631 at first refused to put his name on a local war memorial and the state did not approve a pension for Fani until 1950. Eventually, several books and films made their names known, and the Vatican beatified Franz in 2007. Fani died in 2013, age 100.

You can read dozens of reviews of A Hidden Life here.  Most are of interest only to other film reviewers and serious film buffs, but a couple of writers observe its religious dimensions. Peter Ranier writes:

Most of the famous religious-themed Hollywood movies…are biblical epics functioning as star-studded illustrated guidebooks to sacred texts… “A Hidden Life” is the antithesis of those epics. It’s an attempt to make the movie itself function as a religious experience. It has a powerful sense of the immanence of life. Franz’s stance is a deeply moral one, but his morality is based on his religious precepts. This is what differentiates “A Hidden Life” from so many Hollywood movies where people, without any religious underpinning, fight for what is right.

Barbara Vandenburgh:

“A Hidden Life” is less a story than an experience, a spiritual journey made accessible through light and sound. Malick doesn’t transcend cinema. He sanctifies it.

But it’s the film’s moral dilemma that throws us into such torment. Why, ask so many characters (and viewers), should Franz do the right thing if it changes nothing? What is the value of an unwitnessed sacrifice? More on that later.

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Barry’s Blog # 308: A Tale of Two Families, Part Three of Three

When their idealism collapsed, so did their lives. Finally realizing that the C.I.A. was intent only on destroying all he had believed in, Frank resigned – and quickly drank himself to death. Similarly, after Stalin’s crimes came to light, Al, whose own idealism had kept him from acknowledging what had been obvious for years, experienced a similar loss of innocence. He quit the party, but he struggled for the rest of his life with a cocaine habit.

These are deeply mythic issues that point back to the betrayal on the cross at Calvary and even further back, to what I consider Western culture’s foundational myth, the willingness of Father Abraham to sacrifice his son in order to glorify his God.

But Frank, Al, Ron and Danny are real people; only their names have been changed. Still, their stories are real mysteries. It appears that one son took on his father’s curse and the other didn’t. Ron became a clinical psychologist, taught at Stanford and raised a family, while Danny became a talented but emotionally troubled poet. The two men never met but they were undoubtedly present together at many of the iconic events of the 1960s and 1970s. Danny, however, like his father, descended into drug addiction. In later years he was a well-known participant in San Francisco’s poetry scene, before dying of an overdose. He is still highly regarded among the post-Beat poetry generation. Ron has spent most of his career working in veterans’ hospitals, serving survivors of America’s tragic crusade in Viet Nam.

I relate these stories because they illustrate some of the themes of my book. Our cultural evolution has primed us to come to awareness of our identity through two forms of experience. The first is the gradual process of learning the stories that tell us who we are. The second is abrupt breaks in that self-knowledge. Those breaks can be accidental; or older representatives of culture may deliberately create them in order to propel the initiates into new identities, to challenge them to step up and accept more mature rolls in the community. The first form of experience we used to call myth, and the second we called initiation ritual. For much more on this topic, see Chapter Five of my book.

Modern life, however, is characterized by the absence of both of these traditional patterns. Consequently, whether we know it or not, we all exist close to a line beyond which is the terrifying suspicion that we have no solid identity, that anything goes, while life lacks all meaning. As a result, much of what we do and believe and tell each other about ourselves amounts to unconscious efforts to cling to a sense of meaning, thin though it may be.

Ideology

Modernity compensates for its loss of myth and initiation rituals with consumerism and the culture of celebrity, as well as through deep, emotional commitment to an ideology, whether it is religious, nationalistic or political – and finally, through substance abuse. Thus, when Frank and Al lost their faiths and couldn’t find other ones to replace them with, they each searched for it in substances that may have temporarily recreated the joy of singing some identity-confirming anthem among their brothers-in-arms.

My book argues that these are all forms of addiction, as well as attempts to re-establish our sense of innocence, and that the crusading impulse toward re-making the world is a specifically American version, formed by our Puritan heritage. But, as Hillman taught, when that innocence (or if you prefer, grandiosity) is punctured, a cavernous well of meaninglessness may open up.

In a mythologically literate culture, where real elders are capable of guiding one through the suffering of authentic initiation, a young person’s experience of the loss of innocence can be – is intended to be – an opportunity for deepening into the sorrowful knowledge of maturity. Few modern people, however, can endure that disillusionment without succumbing to the overwhelming impulse to replace one addiction (ideology) with another (a substance). After all, it is no accident that our word for strong alcohol is spirits (“inspiration; breath of life”).

Tribal people knew that the only way the world can be re-made 315903040-initiation-rite-tribe-maasai-stick-object is when individuals are willing to experience loss (even the loss of identity), to look into the abyss and to return to their communities with a deeper sense of their own gifts, with the dark knowledge of both their own wounds and their unique blessings. But this requires real community and real ritual.

Perhaps there may be no loss of innocence – personal or national – and no deepening into maturity without the experience of some form of betrayal. In Chapter Twelve I write:

Now, all creative acts have political implications. Poet Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Another poet, Frances Ponge, says that genuine hope lies in “…a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man that he becomes almost speechless and later reinvents a language.” We are required to collapse so deeply into the mournful realization of how much we have lost that we become speechless. Only from that position can new forms of art and language arise that might break the spell of our amnesia. Then it is possible for us to speak and act without being throttled by belief systems riddled with unconscious forms of violence…

Like the Hindu deities, the actors in the new myths…will ask not for belief, but to be entertained…The world would still be a “vale of soul-making,” as Keats wrote, but we would no longer believe that is fallen. Indeed, we wouldn’t believe anything, in the religious sense of something being unalterably true…Imagine millions of Americans no longer needing to interpret Biblical poetry as literal fact. “Belief” would return to its German roots where it is connected to love and cherish, something closer to “entertaining possibilities.” Christ himself could join those suffering gods who preceded him. Without the model of and belief in a god who sacrifices himself to redeem others, we would begin to redeem ourselves.

Neither Frank Adams nor Al Zelig grew up in such a world. Neither one could have known, as Rumi wrote in the 13th century:

When school or mosque, tower or minaret get torn down,

Then dervishes can begin their community.

For it is not until faithfulness turns to betrayal

And betrayal into trust

That any human being can become a part of the truth.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 307: A Tale of Two Families, Part Two of Three

In that same period, the Zeligs were moving their residences every three or four months. As committed, underground communist cadres, Al and his wife had been assigned the task of providing safe houses for fugitive radicals who were evading the F.B.I. Each time they moved to a new town, they changed their jobs, their churches and their surnames. And they instructed their impressionable six-year-old son that he had to – several times – falsify his first name. One month, Danny would be Tommy; another month he would be Robert. At first it was a game; later it was simply crazy making.

Later Years

Ideologically opposed as they were, both Frank Adams and Al Zelig had built their entire identities upon what turned out to be thin veneers of belief. Generations before, both of their families had spurned organized religion. But, as James Hillman taught, all Americans are “psychologically Christian… we are each…like it or not, children of the Biblical God. It is a fact, the essential American fact.”

james-hillman2010

James Hillman

What does Hillman’s curious statement mean? I interpret it as a lament that in this demythologized world, we are all essentially uninitiated persons who have long forgotten the indigenous capacity to think metaphorically. As such, we tend to use literalized, polarized, “either-or” terminology. We are all monotheists at heart, and our default mode, even as educated liberals, is to fill the holes in our creative imaginations with belief systems of one form or another and to demonize opposing points of view. And it is a simple temptation when we lose faith in one system to quickly replace it with another.

We have been conditioned over the centuries to reduce the multi-layered mystery of world and self to the simplistic dualisms of monotheism: whatever isn’t aligned with our god must necessarily follow his opposite. Here is a clue: if your people consider their story to be literally true and other people’s stories are “myths,” then you and your people are thinking literally. Other mono-words share the brittleness of one correct way: monopoly, monogamy, monolithic, monarchy, monotonous.

As monotheism triumphed, it transformed difference into “otherness,” as a threat to be eliminated. But in our bones, we still have the vestigial memory of an original, creative, animist, pagan imagination that appreciates diversity and welcomes all gods and all emotions, including humor. Hillman insisted, “The Gods don’t require my belief for their existence, nor do I require belief for my experience of their existence.”

So it seems to me that If solutions to our great social and environmental crises emerge, they will originate outside of the monoculture’s arrogantly monocular view, from people on the edges, people who, in Caroline Casey’s words, “…believe nothing; entertain possibilities.”

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.

Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.

– Wendell Berry

The danger – and the opportunity – that belief offers us is to lose it, to lose faith, to become disillusioned. For some of us, as Hillman wrote, this tragic blessing happens through betrayal.

All of the grand, over-arching, ideological mono-liths of our Judeo-Christian tradition, from the Crusades to the Inquisition, to American Puritanism to Nazism to radical Islam have utilized betrayal and the fear of betrayal for their own ends. But perhaps the utopia symbolized by international communism is the saddest story of our past century, where the lives of Frank and Al, and millions of believers like them, intersected. Unfortunately, like all the ideologies that came before, communism accepted the primacy of means over ends, that any crimes whatsoever were acceptable if they furthered the “cause.” Adam Kirsch writes:

By the late nineteen-thirties, Western intellectuals who sympathized with Communism had already proved themselves capable of accepting a great deal of killing in the name of the cause…(They) usually justified Stalinism’s crimes as the necessary price of building a socialist future, and of defending it against a hostile capitalist world. Walter Duranty, the Times’ correspondent in Moscow, excused the three million famine deaths that were caused by the push to collectivize Soviet agriculture, writing that, “to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

The twin shadows of belief are betrayal and martyrdom. Indeed, Christianity became the first religion to make martyrdom a demand of faith. Leonard Shlain put this process into historical context:

Until the Christian martyrs, there does not occur anywhere in the recorded history of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece, India or China a single instance in which a substantial segment of the population accepted torture and death rather than forswear their belief in an ethereal concept.

Even as deeply idealistic men like Frank and Al – communists, anti-communists. socialists, liberals, labor activists, anarchists, fascists, anti-fascists, monarchists, Catholics and poets – were sacrificing themselves on the arid fields of Spain between 1936 and 1939, Stalin’s show trials were destroying thousands, perhaps millions of lives. Their alleged crimes: betrayal of the cause. One of these believers in intellectual orthodoxy was Arthur Koestler, who in his disillusionment would go on to write Darkness At Noon, Dialogue With Death and The God that Failed. Kirsch continues:

Koestler…did not become a Communist “by a process of elimination.” Rather, he compared the experience to a religious conversion. “The whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” he wrote. “There is now an answer to every question.”

Soviet Communism in its heyday served many people around the world as a secular religion. Today, although Marxist ideas and the label “socialist” have been resurgent on the left, the enormous influence once exerted by Communism now seems a distant phenomenon. To its adherents, Communism was not just a party identification but a complete theory of life and history, which dictated both personal and political morality. And it was the conflict between that morality and ordinary moral instincts—which condemned things like lying and killing, which the Party often demanded—that provided the dramatic focus of “Darkness at Noon”…every political creed must eventually face the question of whether noble ends can justify evil means. As Koestler saw, this problem reached its pure form in Communism because its avowed aim was the noblest of all: the permanent abolition of social injustice throughout the world. If this could be achieved, what price would be too high? Maybe a million or ten million people would die today, but if billions would be happy tomorrow wasn’t that worth it? A Communist revolutionary, Koestler writes, “is forever damned to do what he loathes the most: become a butcher in order to stamp out butchery, sacrifice lambs so lambs will no longer be sacrificed.”

Frank’s belief system was no different. He saw close up how anti-communism was as much a system of mass murder as Stalin’s was, but he justified his crimes because of his noble ideals. His politics, like Al’s, had been an all-encompassing faith; psychologically they were no different from other fundamentalists. And each inevitably became disillusioned. Perhaps eventually each of them might have agreed with Koestler: “A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.” But each in his way experienced the dark reality behind his passionate commitment when he felt betrayed by those he had served. I would imagine that they each felt, even in their agnosticism, that God himself had betrayed them.

Part Three of this essay is here.

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Barry’s Blog # 306: A Tale of Two Families, Part One of Three

The Adams’

The Adams’ are an old New England Yankee family. After attaining a Law degree from Yale (as both his father and grandfather had done before him), Frank Adams signed up to fight fascism in World War Two. He joined the Office of Strategic Services, America’s first national intelligence service. Most of its members came from conservative backgrounds, but quite a few, like Frank, were liberals and true believers in the Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

As a government agency, the OSS was unique in American history. Many of its top leaders were Ivy League graduates, while among its most effective operatives on the ground – and behind enemy lines – were communists and veterans of the Abraham Brigade which had recently fought fascism in Spain. Richard Harris Smith’s book OSS – The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency  is a fascinating narrative of how the 11,000 members of its intelligence and sabotage units engaged in many of the unheralded but critical episodes of the war while negotiating bizarre coalitions of right-wing monarchists and left-wing revolutionaries in every country in Europe and the Far East.

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Ho Chi Minh (center) and Vo Nguyen Giap (far left) with American OSS agents planning action against the Japanese, 1945

The 2006 film The Good Shepherd  describes the OSS’s idealistic origins and its dark transformation into the criminal CIA.

But all that came later. Frank served honorably, and at war’s end he felt that America was indeed fulfilling its destiny to defend freedom and bring opportunity to the world. There was only one problem – he believed (I will be using this word a lot) in the idea of American exceptionalism, that America always did right, and always for the right reasons, and that even when it didn’t this was because of human mistakes. And he naturally believed in one of its main corollaries, that the Evil Other was determined to subvert America’s ideals, for no reason other than its own depravity.

And in Frank’s time, once Germany and Japan had surrendered, the Other appeared to be the cancer of international communism that threatened democracy everywhere. So, when the O.S.S. transformed into the Central Intelligence Agency, Frank continued his career in covert operations as a willing soldier in America’s anti-communist crusade. For a while, his belief in the CIA’s mission kept him from realizing that it was purging all the liberals and was functioning to destroy popular movements for self-determination everywhere, from Italy, Greece and Iran to Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The Zeligs

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Zelig family, like millions of others, escaped anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe and immigrated to America, which they considered the beacon of democracy and freedom. But they never forgot their socialist ideals (honed before the Russian revolution), and they were politically active in their new home, New York City. By social class, ethnicity, politics and their sheer newness, they were the exact opposite of the Adams – but they were also true believers. 300px-american_communists As a 15-year-old in 1937, Al Zelig stood on street corners raising money for that same Spanish Republic that so many New York Jewish progressives were fighting for, some of whom would later join Frank Adams’ OSS.

Both progressives and conservatives held the notion of progress, along with freedom, as their highest ideal. As I write in Chapter Nine of my book, Madness at The Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence:

Socialists also believed in progress. Freedom, writes (Robert) Nesbit,

…became inseparable from “membership in some collective or community…and from the creation…of a new type of human being.” The religious expectation that had driven men for centuries shifted to socialism’s secular dream without losing intensity. Marx put the golden age at the end of history rather than at the beginning. Communism would be “the solution of the riddle of history.” Its universally compelling appeal had overtones of the Book of Revelation. People everywhere sang the words of The Internationale: “Tis the final conflict.”

In Spain, members of the International Brigades sang it in twenty languages. Spain, like no other time or place in the twentieth century, was a place of possibility, where people crossed borders, sacrificing their futures not for religion or to glorify their fathers, but simply to make a better world. For many, Spain still symbolizes what might have been. And, like any war between brothers, including America’s, the Spanish Civil War evokes the conflict between unreconciled parts of the psyche, for which we may substitute Frank and Al. Neither of them went to Spain, but the shadow of that tragedy hangs over this story.

Years later, Al and his wife joined the American Communist Party, as fully committed to their vision of the future as Frank Adams was to his. Frank’s son Ron, born shortly after the war, spoke Spanish, ironically, as his first language, because he lived his first four years in Peru, where the C.I.A. had stationed his father. Al’s son Danny was born the same year and, like Ron, was a post-war child steeped in his parent’s idealism.

Parallel Childhoods

1953 was a critical year for the two families. Both McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist were at their heights. Under the banner of resisting Communism, the American empire was crushing dissent at home and extending itself across the world.

Tehran, Iran, August 19th: Ron Adams, age six, sat in the front seat of a car holding a metal box as his father drove through the city. Ron learned later that it contained thousands of dollars in cash that Frank and his CIA cohorts were distributing to corrupt politicians and thugs. This map shows their whereabouts.

Directed by another OSS alumnus, Kermit Roosevelt, they were in the process of overthrowing Iran’s elected government and installing a brutal monarchy that itself would not be overthrown until the Islamic revolution of 1979.

In the following year, the CIA would overthrow another democratically elected government in Guatemala, leading to decades of civil war and genocide against the Mayan people.

As I write in Chapter Eleven:

Imagine America entering the liminal period of 1953-1955. Imagine it as a time during which the empire reached its apogee (the current madness being merely a last gasp), when the seeds of its collapse first sprouted. The U.S. had a position of security that was unparalleled in human history, with absolute control over the Western Hemisphere and both oceans. Its economy and culture dominated the world. And yet anticommunist hysteria was running wild.

In April 1953, President Eisenhower barred gays from all federal jobs. In June, the government executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Korean War ended in stalemate in July, just as the Cuban revolution began. In August, the C.I.A. overthrew Iran’s government. Kinsey’s second volume, on female sexuality, appeared in the fall. War of the Worlds left viewers staring fearfully at the stars for signs of the next incursion by The Other, while Shane presented the lone Redemption Hero in his most classic form, literally riding off into the sunset. In December, the first issue of Playboy with nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe arrived.

In May 1954 the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu (Viet Nam). Ten days later, the Supreme Court made its decision in Brown vs Board of Education, jump-starting the Civil Rights Movement. In June, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and the C.I.A. overthrew another democracy in Guatemala. Three days later, Viet Nam was divided, marking the official beginning of America’s involvement. In August, as the C.I.A. defeated the insurrection in the Philippines, Congress made membership in the Communist Party a felony.

Consider that last fact: it was now a crime to join a political party in America.

Part Two (of three) of this essay is here.

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Barry’s Blog # 305: Death, Where is Thy Sting? Death Poems, Last Words and Epitaphs, Part Two of Two

Part two: The West

Yoel Hoffman, editor of Japanese Death Poems, observes that jisei poetry arose out of a culture of extreme conformism:

Death poems reveal that before death, the Japanese tend rather to break the restraints of politeness that hold them back during their lifetime. After a lifetime of fitting in, there’s an opportunity to go against the grain in one’s last moments, after which one can hardly be punished for unorthodoxy.

Angela Chen compares jisei and Western death poems. These differing traditions offer a glimpse into the clash of individualism versus collectivism and spontaneity versus control:

When the group takes precedence, as is the case in many East Asian cultures, its members spend much of their lives bending to the collective will and holding back their individual quirks and needs. Against this backdrop, death poems provide a break from conformity, a cherished opportunity to say what one really thinks.

Modern Western poets, on the other hand, favor

…spontaneous last words that serve as a final confirmation of your personal brand…In the West, the pull away from religion, coupled with the emphasis placed on individualism, provided both the freedom to perform our “authentic” selves and the responsibility to make sure those authentic selves were…never phony. Last words are a final chance to reinforce the unique personality the speaker has worked so hard to cultivate throughout his life.

And yet I think I see more similarities than differences. Here are some last words, epitaphs and final poems and comments on death by Western writers:

Shakespeare:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed heare. Bleste be the man that spares these stones And curst be he that moves my bones. (Epitaph)

Antonio Machado:

And on that last day when finally I embark
on that ship that will never turn back,
you’ll find me shirtless, traveling light
almost naked like the children of the sea. – from Self Portrait

Seamus Heaney:

Walk on air against your better judgment. (Epitaph)

Noli timere (“Don’t be afraid” – texted to his wife shortly before his death)

William Butler Yeats: yeats

How can I, that girl standing there, my attention fix

On Roman or on Russian or on Spanish politics,

Yet here’s a travelled man that knows what he talks about,

And there’s a politician that has both read and thought,

And maybe what they say is true of war and war’s alarms,

But o that I were young again and held her in my arms.

– from his final poem, Politics

And his epitaph, from Under Ben Bulben:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

Nikos Kazantzakis: kazantzakis

I hope for nothing.

I fear nothing.

I am free. (Epitaph)

Pablo Neruda:

And now I’m going behind

This page, but not disappearing.

I’ll dive into clear air

Like a swimmer in the sky,

And then get back to growing

Till one day I’m so small

That the wind will take me away

And I won’t know my own name

And I won’t be there when I wake.

Then I will sing in the silence.

from Autumn Testament MV5BN2M5Y2U5YmYtMWVhNy00ZDEwLTk4ZTktZjY5MTM5ZWNiNjViL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTc4MzI2NQ@@._V1_UY1200_CR239,0,630,1200_AL_

A train waits for me, a ship
loaded with apples,
an airplane, a plough,
some thorns.
Goodbye, harvested
fruits of the water, farewell,
imperially dressed shrimps,
I will return, we will return
to the unity now interrupted.
I belong to the sand:
I will return to the round sea
and to its flora
and to its fury:
but for now – I’ll wander whistling
through the streets.

from Farewell to the Offerings of the Sea

Ranier Maria Rilke:

No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.

Mary Oliver: poet-mary-oliver.jpg

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

from When Death Comes

– Czeslaw Milosz:

In advanced age, my health worsening,

I woke up in the middle of the night,

and experienced a feeling of happiness

so intense and perfect that in all my life

I had only felt its premonition.

And there was no reason for it.

It didn’t obliterate consciousness;

the past which I carried was there,

together with my grief.

And it was suddenly included,

was a necessary part of the whole.

As if a voice were repeating:

“You can stop worrying now;

everything happened just as it had to.

You did what was assigned to you,

and you are not required anymore

to think of what happened long ago.”

The peace I felt was a dosing of accounts

and was connected with the thought of death.

The happiness on this side was

like an announcement of the other side.

I realized that this was an undeserved gift

and I could not grasp by what grace

it was bestowed on me.

– Awakened 

William Stafford:

If the sky lets go some day and I’m
requested for such volunteering
toward so clean a message, I’ll come.
The world goes on and while friends touch down
beside me, I too will come.

from November

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Now—these few more words, and then I’m gone:

Tell everyone just to remember their names,

and remind others, later, when we find each other.

Tell the little ones to cry and then go to sleep, curled up

where they can. And if any of us get lost,

if any of us cannot come all the way—

remember: there will come a time when

all we have said and all we have hoped will be all right.

from A Message From the Wanderer

Raymond Carver:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so? I did.

And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

from Late Fragment

Abe Osheroff (lifelong political activist):

My ship is slowly sinking, but my cannons keep firing.

Or, here’s another way to say it:

I have one foot in the grave

and the other keeps dancing.

(Reputed) Last Words:

Johann Sebastian Bach:

Don’t cry for me, for I go where music is born.

Frederic Chopin:

Play Mozart in memory of me, and I will hear you.

Gustav Mahler:

Mozart! Mozart!

Joe DiMaggio: marilyn-monroe-joe-dimaggio

I’ll finally get to see Marilyn.

Roger Ebert:

I’ll see you at the movies.

Salvador Allende:

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice, and treason.

Rilke:

I don’t want the doctor’s death. I want to have my own freedom.

Henry David Thoreau:

I did not know that we had ever quarreled. (Upon being urged to make his peace with God)

Gertrude Stein:

What is the answer?…In that case, what is the question?

Leonardo Da Vinci:

 I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.

Groucho Marx: groucho-marx

Die, my dear? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do!

 

 

Steve Jobs:

Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

Carl Jung:

Let’s have a really good red wine tonight.

And finally, my obituary for Greg Kimura:

Greg called me “brother” – not because we socialized together, but because the time we spent together was in ritual space. There, everyone who could stand the heat, stay in the room and laugh or weep together was either a brother or a sister. We shared these spaces for five years in our weekly men’s group, ten years at men’s retreats in Mendocino, poetry salons and grief rituals.

greg 2006Greg was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” And for that reason, he was full of joy. Does that sound strange? I’m reminded of a friend who visited a West African village and asked a particular woman why, despite her poverty, she seemed so happy. She responded, “Because I cry a lot.”

Greg was rock solid. At these rituals he could always be counted on to be one of the drummers. And that’s no simple or easy thing. It means to maintain the beat for up to two hours, to hold the container while others release their pent-up feelings in the sacred work of grief. It’s one of the countless ways in which Greg served the beauty and the terror of this world.

Because of this, Greg’s humor was inseparable from both his pain and his compassion. His Caring Bridge website said, “Hi. I’m Greg and I’m dying. And so are you!” And his poetry. I’d like to think that this crazy insight came from his knowledge of Rumi, who wrote:

Listen, I would make this very plain

If someone were ready to hear what I have to tell:

Everybody in this world is dying.

Everybody is already in their death agony.

So listen to what anyone says as though it were

The last words of a dying father to his son.

Listen with that much compassion, and you’ll

Never feel jealousy or simple anger again.

People say everything that’s coming will come.

Understand this: It’s all here right now.

And me? I’ve been so woven into the mesh of my trivial errands

That only now do I begin to hear the mystery of dying everywhere.

Greg had done much difficult interior work, and so (depending on your point of view) he was a real Christian, a real Buddhist and/or a real Pagan. Perhaps I’m idealizing here – the family knows far better than I – but it seemed that he achieved a profound sense of peace with his own death, an ability to be in the moment. True to his Japanese heritage, he wrote what I think is his own jisei:

Resist the World’s Numbness

And your passion revive,

so when death comes to find you,

Iet him find you alive.

He was lucky in those last nine months to be surrounded by so much love, appreciation and music. When we visited for the last time and I asked him “How are you doing?” he responded, without a trace of irony, Couldn’t be better!” 18574738_1488400898.6827

So finally he was a teacher, who left me with a spontaneous Zen koan that I’ll be working with for a long time. We recited some favorite poems together, including this one of his:

Sacred Wine

Sit with the pain in your heart, he said.

Hold it like a sacred wine in a golden cup.

The wine may break you and if it does, let it.

To be human is to be broken,

and only from brokenness can one be healed.

The ancestors say: the world is full of pain,

and each is allotted a portion.

If you do not carry your share, then others are forced to carry it for you,

And the suffering you bring to the world is your sin,

But the suffering you bring to yourself will be your hell.

Sit with the pain in your heart, he said.

Hold it there like a sacred wine in a golden cup.

When we got to the third from the last line, he interrupted me:

…the suffering you bring to yourself will be your salvation.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 304: Death, Where is Thy Sting? Death Poems, Last Words and Epitaphs, Part One of Two

Part One: The Far East

How do we want to be remembered? Death poems (jisei) developed in the literary traditions of Japan as early as the seventh century. Later, taking much energy from Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on the transiency and impermanence of the material world, the genre spread to China and Korea. Brief as they usually are, these poems consider the big questions, both in general and in terms of the author’s own life and imminent death. image-7

They were traditionally composed by samurai warriors, nobleman and monks, often as final parting gifts to their disciples. The essential idea of the jisei was that in one’s final moments his reflection on death could be especially lucid and therefore an important observation about life.

Some are written as haiku, although most appear in the 31 syllable (5-7-5-7-7) tanka format. Both forms seek to transcend rational thought and evoke a realization that counters our dualistic divisions between beauty and ugliness, life and death, future and present. Some jisei are dark while others are hopeful. They each reflect what is on the mind during the last days or moments of the writer. Acceptance – including the inevitability of death – is one of the key elements:

Breathing in, breathing out,
Moving forward, moving back,
Living, dying, coming, going —
Like two arrows meeting in flight,
In the midst of nothingness
Is the road that goes directly
to my true home. – Gesshu Soko

Like dew drops
on a lotus leaf
I vanish. – Shinsui deathpoem

Since time began
the dead alone know peace.
Life is but melting snow. – Nandai

I pondered Buddha’s teaching a full four and eighty years.
The gates are all now locked about me. No one was ever here –
Who then is he about to die, and why lament for nothing? Farewell! The night is clear, the moon shines calmly,
the wind in the pines is like a lyre’s song.
With no ‘I’ and no other who hears the sound? – Zoso Royo

What shall I become when this body is dead and gone?
A tall, thick pine tree on the highest peak of Bongraesan,
Evergreen alone when white snow covers the whole world. – Seong Sam-mun

As the sound of the drum calls for my life,
I turn my head where the sun is about to set.
There is no inn on the way to the underworld.
At whose house shall I sleep tonight? – Jo Gwang-jo

Empty handed I entered the world.
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings that got entangled. – Kozan

Oh young folk —
if you fear death, die now!
Having died once
you won’t die again. – Hakuin Ekaku

Riding this wooden upside-down horse, I’m about to gallop through the void. Would you seek to trace me? Ha! Try catching the tempest in a net. – Kukoku

Inhale, exhale,
Forward, back, Living, dying:
Arrows, let flown each to each
Meet midway and slice the void in aimless flight. Thus I return to the source. -Gesshu Soko zp_samurai-writing-a-poem-on-a-flowering-cherry-tree-trunk_print-by-ogata-gekko-1859-1920-courtesy-of-ogatagekkodotnet

Frost on a summer day:
all I leave behind is water
that has washed my brush. – Shutei

Holding back the night
with its increasing brilliance
the summer moon. – Yoshitoshi

Not even for a moment do things stand still.  Witness color in the trees. – Seiju

From ancient times the saying comes: “There is no death, there is no life.” Indeed, the skies are cloudless and the river waters clear. – Toshimoto

Before long I shall be a ghost. But just now how they bite my flesh! The winds of autumn. – Fuse Yajiro

My whole life long I’ve sharpened my sword
And now, face to face with death
I unsheathe it, and lo –
The blade is broken – Alas! – Dairin Soto

Life is an ever-rolling wheel. And every day is the right one. He who recites poems at his death adds frost to snow.  – Mumon Gensen

Death poems
are mere delusion —
death is death. – Toko

I raise the mirror of my life up to my face: sixty years. With a swing I smash the reflection. The world as usual all in its place. – Taigen Sofu

The fourth day of the new year; What better day to leave this world! – Aki No-Bo

Although the autumn moon has set, its light lingers on my chest. – Kanshu

My old body: a drop of dew grown heavy at the leaf tip. – Kiba

I cast the brush aside – From here on I’ll speak to the moon face to face. – Koha

I cleansed the mirror of my heart – now it reflects the moon. – Renseki

Time to go. They say the journey is a long one: Change of robes. – Roshu

Boarding the boat, I slip off my shoes: Moon in the water. – Seira

Autumn winds: Having sworn to save all souls, I am at peace. – So’Oku

The moon leaks out from sleeves of cloud and scatters shadows. – Tanko

In the twentieth century, death poems commented on the “real” world of politics. When Yukio Mishima’s military coup failed, he left a final poem before committing ritual suicide:

A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate

Composing a death poem was a task that demanded time and consideration, even input and criticism from others. But they were not necessarily without humor:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel in a tavern.
With luck the cask will leak.  – Moriya Sen’an

People, when you see the smoke, do not think it’s fields they’re burning. – Baika

Many things befell me as I followed Buddha three and seventy years. What is death Freely, from my own true self: Ho, Ho! – Ensetsu

Moon in a barrel: You never know just when the bottom will fall out. – Mabutsu 407px-Akashi_Gidayu_writing_his_death_poem_before_comitting_Seppuku

Life is like a cloud of mist emerging from a mountain cave. And death a floating moon in its celestial course. If you think too much about the meaning they may have, you’ll be bound forever like an ass to a snake. – Mumon Gensen

Dimly for thirty years, faintly for thirty years – dimly and faintly for sixty years: at my death I pass my feces and offer them to Brahma. – Ikkyu

Had I not known that I was dead already, I would have mourned my loss of life. – Ota Dokan

My life was lunacy until this moonlit night. – Tokugen

The owner of the cherry blossoms turns to compost for the trees. – Utsu

Till now I thought that death befell the untalented alone. If those with talent, too, must die, surely they make a better manure! – Kyoriku

Ninth-month moon: Of late, when I have said my prayer, I’ve meant it. – Kisei

Narushima Chuhachiro started drafting death poems at the age of fifty lest he die unprepared. He sent one of his last poems to his teacher:

For eighty years and more, by the grace of my sovereign and my parents, I have lived  with a tranquil heart between the flowers and the moon.

The teacher’s response: “When you reach age ninety, correct the first line.”

Even satire could find its way into a death poem. Bashō’s jisei is well-known:

Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields.

Another, unknown poet clearly familiar with Bashō wrote:

Locked in my room, my dream goes wandering over brothels.

In Part Two, we’ll look at some death poems in the West.

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