In the beginning I find I want to remember Paul Robeson, whose birthday occurred on April 9. Even though I’m late, I thought I’d post this little video again in honor of the occasion. It stirs up something I want to say after a relatively dry period.
Politics aside, Robeson was a great singer and a phenomenal talent in many other ways, a consensus All-American football player and eventual hall of fame inductee who played in the old NFL, a graduate of Rutgers University where he was class Valedictorian, and of Columbia law school, an international star. If you’re not familiar with his life or know of him only as a name associated with communism, you might like to read a short biography. A couple of not bad ones are here, and here.
Robeson ended his life in sad obscurity, but his reputation revived in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Given our country’s present neofascist turn against civil rights, Robeson’s life and example, not to mention his voice, can serve as at least a small reminder of the civilized people we might have been in the united States of America and of a part of what we have now willfully thrown away.
I told the story of making this video here. It has not been unpopular, and it presently has more hits than any other performance of “Joe Hill” listed at You Tube. I think that may have as much to do with the way the song fits Robeson’s voice as with anything else. When I think of “Joe Hill” and the singers I admire who have been associated with it recently: Luke Kelly, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen—none has quite the eloquence or the authenticity of the Robeson performance. I think of it as I sometimes remember this, a guitar pick and a Wobbly membership card left on the step at Mother Jones’s grave some years ago when I was there.
It’s important to me that such people be remembered, now that most of our founding narratives have failed us in this country. I believe they are reminders, not of who we are, or were, but of who we might have been. This month’s issue of Orion, a magazine I can’t recommend too much, carries a lead article by Paul Kingsworth that evokes the historical trough I’ve thought about in a good many posts on this blog. Kingsworth takes up Karl Jaspers’s old idea of an axial age and suggests that we may be living in another one now, a time when all the old ways of thinking and doing are open to new and urgent questioning and the future of the experiment with life on this planet seems to hang in the balance.
But in the final analysis Kingsworth is both too optimistic and too nostalgic for me. I don’t think the old stories will save us from ourselves. For many of us the old stories only reinforce popular bigotry and the violence of extractive capitalistic practice. That is why I am coming to believe we should think of Robeson and Jones and Dr. King and perhaps even the prophets of Jasper’s axial age, Jesus and Buddha and Socrates and Mohammad, as witnesses to who and what we might have been, and reminders that we can no longer be those things in the ways we thought we could when I was young.
We shall now have an entire new overcoming ahead of us as our modern liberal societies rebarbarize. And as the planet that nourishes us becomes less and less hospitable because of our willfulness, we shall need new stories and new prophets to teach us how to live upon a ruined earth. We’re like some mythic witness of the sacrifice of Isaac. Everything in the world hangs on the moment as the knife begins to move and the the angel cries out, No! Or as Apollo rebukes Achilles in the Olympian assembly after the hero has brutalized Hector’s dead body:
Let him take care,
or, brave as he is, we gods will turn agaist him,
seeing him outrage the insensate earth!
For dust we are, Hector made of the same dirt as Adam. Martin Heidegger famously predicted that only a god could save us in this present crisis, which he more or less foresaw. But what if God doesn’t hear or comes too late or thinks we’re not worth saving? What if the angels stay home? What if Abraham had killed his son in a godless world and burned the boy’s bleeding body when nothing aside remained but his own conscience and self-loathing? The old stories push the narrative of human destiny to a limit the other side of which is nothing recognizably human and then provide an escape, the angel and the ram, the political machinations through which Achilles returns Hector’s body to his father and saves his own pride, the empty tomb.
Kingsworth argues that we are at a religious turn in history. I think I agree but don’t find much consolation in the fact, if fact it is, today. Kierkegaard argues that God injects a radical new command into an ordinary act of conventional piety in order both to suspend and to reground Abraham’s sense of the ethical. Gone is Abraham’s naive normative ethics in which his love of his son is grounded in his sense of family and community. But in exchange he gets to love his son again as the gift of God who, we are told, in another epoch sacrificed his only son, completing the figure.
It seems a cruel bargain on all sides, but it has the virtue of recognizing the cruelty that seems to run through our experience of the world from beginning to end. I’ve said elsewhere that I sometimes think the rift in nature is aboriginal. In the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, Abraham has a choice, and that too may be aboriginal. Indeed, had Abraham withheld his son, as Genesis presents the nature of his dilemma, he would have chosen as the Olympian gods finally demand of Achilles, having themselves abetted the hero’s excesses and marooned him morally.
But on Good Friday there’s no Olympian colloquy and especially no empty tomb, only this:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd;
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.
Another Orion piece this issue is called The Doe’s Song. It begins with the story of a car hitting a doe on a night road. Her leg is broken, and she will die. She frantically resists the ineffectual efforts of distraught humans to help her and runs away into the woods by the side of the road, the broken limb dangling uselessly. Human choice, especially the modern choice to inject inhuman agency into the cosmic balance of life and death and perhaps to have altered it permanently, has at at the very least introduced a radical post-Edenic cruelty into our experience of the world. The doe’s death is an accident, like a crucifixion.
Perhaps Abraham made the wrong choice. Perhaps Kierkegaard’s affirmation of it is wrong headed. Had Abraham made the choice Achilles made, perhaps a better angel would have appeared to explain to him that God desires mercy rather than sacrifice, as in Hosea where the ground of piety seems to shift. Or perhaps Abraham’s obedience is correct and the Angel a poor translator. On Good Friday the nails of crucifixion may be yet many iterations of Abraham’s knife, turned mad as the sword of Achilles and rending flesh like the giant engines that presently torture Canadian tar sands. This past Good Friday, though we may not realize it yet, we Americans have made Abraham’s choice, the knife, the nails, over the possible better angel.
That is why this story won’t save us—and one more thing. The empty tomb is not a talisman of the coming of spring. That is what Lent is, lent being the Old English word for spring. ‘Lent is come with love to town’ wrote an anonymous monk of the fourteenth century. So, the earth experiences the yearly round of renewal. I understand the poet’s need to call it love. But the empty tomb is a tallisman of another love altogether. “Only a god can save us,” Heidegger exclaimed. Human wullfulness and its devastation have so altered the normality of that first love that only a radical intervention, something like a resurrection, can put things right. This is what John Updike must have meant in a well-known Easter poem that has always given me trouble.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
Such may be taken for hope by the pious, but the conventional appropriations of the old stories by churches and the hopeful humanism of modernity represent a refusal of the judgment leveled against us by knife and nail and their modern analogues, and by the poor dangling limb of a dying doe. Some deaths in which we are implicated as modern humans did not, do not, have to be. Some cruelty, and let me hear no suggestion of collateral damage as we willfully continue to channel the horror of the twentieth century into its successor—some cruelty is but the will of humans who will be neither controlled nor reproved. Here is Updike’s conclusion.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
If there is hope. If the possibility of our salvation remains in the midst of the ruin of our stories and now of our planet, that hope, that possibility will require a miracle to be achieved. The renewal of our planet and the turning of our hearts required for its enabling will not occur in the natural course of things. Hope may be real, but judgment is radical and now.