Griffin Smith-Nichols is a Senior Classics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. He was born in a town called Bethlehem, but not in a manger, and would rather be in 19th-century Heidelberg. The E'er Inscrutable appears every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at [email protected]
Standing beneath McGraw Tower at midnight is akin to experiencing the prolonged death throes of an eternity. Every day becomes as the instar of all time en miniature. Sunrise came today at 7:16, and sunset came at 16:34. Every passing minute sends another crumpled leaf falling in a perishing semicircle; long-since dead, each has now given up clinging to even a semblance of its former life. The flood of light at the sun’s rising and the onset of twilight mimic the life-story of the universe as a whole, the first inklings of energy stretching the cosmic fabric outward, and, having vented their smoldering fury to the point of exhaustion, their eventual extinguishment.
3:00 A.M. is high time for a deflated, depressed-looking bag of Cheetos. My mind steers me like a sleepwalker down a flight of stairs and into the bowels of my dorm. The lounge vending machine flaunts its wares at me as its mechanical humming becomes a soft, seductive crooning. I insert my ID. Nothing happens.
What would it be like to return to a home that no longer recognized you? Maybe the people you knew have packed up and left, maybe they are no longer on speaking terms, and you no longer feel at ease. Regardless, a place that you thought you could trust, into which you had invested yourself, is somehow giving you the cold shoulder. This is all the more troubling because of how natural it is that, over time, certain parts of what we call a home etch themselves into our lived experiences, until they are grooves worn smooth by the habit of habitation. A lived-in space has fewer surprises around the corner.
“WIr sind doch nunmehr gantz / ja mehr alß gantz vertorben. Der frechen Völcker schar / die rasende Posaun /
Daß vom Blutt feiste Schwerd / die donnernde Carthaun /
Hat alles diß hinweg / was mancher sawr erworben /
Die alte Redligkeit vnnd Tugend ist gestorben;
Die Kirchen sind verheert / die Starcken vmbgehawn /
Die Jungfrawn sind geschänd; vnd wo wir hin nur schawn /
Ist Fewr / Pest / Mord vnd Todt / hier zwischen Schantz vñ Korbẽ
Dort zwischen Mawr vñ Stad / rint allzeit frisches Blutt
Dreymal sind schon sechs Jahr als vnser Ströme Flutt
Von so viel Leichen schwer / sich langsam fortgedrungen.
Ich schweige noch von dehm / was stärcker als der Todt /
(Du Straßburg weist es wol) der grimmen Hungersnoth /
Vnd daß der Seelen=Schatz gar vielen abgezwungen.” — “Tränen des Vaterlandes”
It is the most logical thing in the world to yearn for the rigidity of the medieval cosmology, the moral landscape to which a stonemason, manuscript illuminator or painter could turn for artistic solace, and from whose ethereal, luminescent matter parabolic universes could take shape. This bedrock of the European imagination held fast even in its deepest moments of crisis, before its eventual exhaustion. The peculiarly medieval aura, which thrived on the starkest contrasts between light and dark, good and evil, changeability and eternity, could always create, as if from antediluvian clay, the antidote to its own blood curdling nightmares. For every grisly, teeth-gnashing demon in the grottos and impenetrable abysses of Byzantine-Romanesque architecture, there stood in sublimely-opposed chiasma, up above the clerestory or enthroned in the tympanum, the shining redeemer, Christ Pantokrator.
It is not easy to imagine what an entire city on fire must look like. It would be easier to imagine what Hell itself looks like: more than two millennia of referential material survive to aid in painting that mental portrait. Perusing Dante, or staring wide-eyed at a tableau of Hieronymus Bosch, even turning one’s ear to the apocalyptic blare and bleating of any dime-a-dozen Evangelical can give one at least an inkling of this. The word itself has been cheapened almost beyond practical use: “go to Hell,” “to Hell with it,” “what the Hell.” It is as if, as the preacher in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man explains it, the eternal punishment of brimstone were a mild discomfort. Not so: Hell is stench, Hell is immobility, Hell is an eternity of directionless torture, and by eternity is meant the elapsed time it takes for a sparrow to light upon a mountain of a million-billion grains of sand and, carrying one away in his beak, to make it flat.
“πάθει μάθος.” -Derived from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Refers to learning gained through adversary. -To the memory of the German martyrs-
Orthodoxy, ὀρθός, “correct, upright, decent,” + δόξᾰ, “opinion.” The opinion which an upright person holds. One may be forgiven for chafing under the presupposed weight of an “orthodox” opinion; after all, in some quarters, it is held to be an act of the highest arrogance to dub one opinion more correct than another. I am not of that persuasion.
“ᛏ Týr er einhendr áss
ok ulfs leifar
ok hofa hilmir
Time does not, and has never, suffered itself to be stopped on the whim of a mortal. If all mystified fatalism, be it twine-snipping hags at the base of the world-tree and the general stuff of soothsayers, has been stripped from our cold-fact cosmology, this central fact has never been, and almost certainly never shall, be doubted. The date of a man’s birth and of his death may be preordained or may hang entirely on Zufall, stupidity, and other waste-products of the human psyche, but its circumstances cannot be altered in fact. “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; /
Petals on a wet black bough.” -Ezra Pound
Shortly after I was born, I, a rosy-faced eructation on Planet Earth, received the mixed blessing of being initiated into a certain Bohemian brand of Protestantism, whose believers, given the demonym “Moravians” after their hilled Czech homeland, practiced burial rites which, even in my ur-youth, I found unusual. The various other cemeteries of colonial Pennsylvania ranged from the solemn to the gaudy, painted, weeping Madonnas and glum little cherubs shaking their heads.
the rage of the Demigod.” (Friedrich Hölderlin, “Der Rhein,” p.t.)
Youth’s high-esteemed vitality, grace in form, and strong, prattling innocence have as their all-too-easy obverses its seething rage, misdirection, and choking, desperate thirst for the authority. The last failing, the outcome is violence. The stuffy back-closet of psychoanalysis has already vomited forth a whole host of “complexes” in the past century to attempt to explain the nebulous workings of the psyche. Jung may find his panacea in dream-analysis, in analyzing anecdotes of young men having their genitals bitten by snakes, and Freud may trawl the muck of the Archaic Greek mythos in search of a new name for the desire to bed one’s twice-removed cousin on the full moon in October. It is all, in truth, quite simpler than that.
Mag einer spüren das Waldgeschrei.” -Friedrich Hölderlin, “Der Ister”
Almost two thousand years are to be retrospectively traversed from the death of Hitler to the object of my next inquiry. This is an ode to the Rhein river, the fosterer of an independent Germany, and a blessing, and a curse. In 55 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar built a bridge over the Rhein. The river was dark, wild, and churned with the same malevolence which the peoples of the sunnier Mediterranean perhaps perceived in the spectral shapes flitting amongst the German pines.