Thursday, March 06, 2008

Everyman--(ca. 1485)I finished this December 11--I have fallen behind in my journal-keeping--so its particular impact is no longer burning in the forefront of my mind. Judging from such notes as I jotted down at the time it evoked a lot of satisfying images and feelings about the tactile objects of Northern European culture--books, makeshift stages set up in fairgrounds, crosses, bare, wind-rattled branches, heavy gray skies, meat stews poured into wooden bowls, which I am especially susceptible to the attractions of I think at that season of the year. This is the morality play which is the complement to the mystery play I wrote about a couple of entries ago. It is of course an allegory, and I have been gradually developing a certain fondness for allegories. The more stripped-down, religious-themed varieties of this form I am at this point better able to get a handle on than the longer, more extravagant ones. The manner of characterization of the abstractions in Everyman, especially Death, I found to be more than usually appealing. I suppose there is much to be argued for making Death a frenetic, bloodthirsty madman or at best a wholly impersonal, dimensionless bureaucrat with a lot of paperwork to fill out; but I still retain some idea of its being quiet, intelligent, possessed of a full philosophical understanding of its purpose when it comes to men, while still being stern and dutiful, which is the way it is portrayed in this play. That is however because it is as much the way I would like it to be as I believe it actually is. I have frequently imagined an elaborate, literary-inspired scene of my own death, which bears no relation to what will almost certainly be the real facts of the case. First of all of course I am never in any kind of modern hospital or being cared for by professional medical people whom I don't know on twelve hour shifts. I am always in some private lodging, sometimes the camp at Brattleboro, sometimes back in Annapolis or Portland in an upper story of some house or apartment building in one of the older districts of the town. I always have a view of trees and hills or treetops and clouds and stars and part of some sufficiently aged brick or clapboard facade out a window near my sickbed; in the towns I can hear the sounds of traffic and the voices of people on the street below, at the camp the calls of birds or the distant rumbling of rural machinery, but I cannot see them. Some young girl relative, perhaps my daughter (at the moment I have no daughter), perhaps a orphaned niece I have taken in (I have no nieces, orphaned or otherwise, either) is putting warm damp rags on my head and bringing me ginger ale or hopefully the occasional jigger of brandy to ease the passage. If one or more of my sons, out of particular attachment and affection to me, were to take upon himself the administration of this care, naturally I would be much honored. I have left my wife out of this description so far only because if she were there she would of course be in charge of the situation and I don't think she would let me be set up in a dusty 1920s apartment building and treated with brandy and damp cloths so that I could meet Death in a more poetical setting and with greater intellectual autonomy (i.e., as the primary figure of my own death) than I would have in a hospital. Also there would, I think, be a sadness at such a passing--even my passing--peculiar to spouses of long such relation that, unlike with the younger people or literary admirers on hand, who might be persuaded to take some comfort in the poignant spectacle I had arranged, I would feel an obligation to acknowledge with some corresponding emotion, which interferes with the poise and serenity of the imagined scene. This is a most fanciful way of anthropomorphizing Death, but most things of value to the formation of a human mind, I think, derive from originally fanciful notions. The ability to think abstractly is often touted as one of modern man's greatest achievements and assets, and I do not dispute its wonders when it is achieved with some amount of real mastery, but something is lost in the way of vividness and force of individual personality if the habit of abstraction is adopted for purposes of convenience only and not carried through. The mind must in some way be impressed that a thing, an idea, possesses being, in the sense of life, in some manner in order for that idea to possess any reality. A successful allegory or philosophical argument must at least make such an impression of reality plausible, not to the pure reason, but to the lively sense which identifies and affirms experience.

With regard to the play itself it is my intention to keep the notes to a minimum. A few points:

Despite my just-declared enthusiasm for representations of abstract ideas I am still not sure that God Himself ought really to be making somewhat whiny speeches about the ungratefulness of human beings ("They thank me not for the pleasure that I to them meant/Nor yet for their being that I them have lent"). If He is to speak at all one would think it would only be to utter absolute truths in the noblest language possible.

At the line, "Everyman will I beset that liveth beastly" I imagined Death to be speaking with a lisp. Also when he went on with "Full little he thinketh on my coming/His mind is on fleshly lusts and his treasure."

Goods, whom Everyman summons at one point in hopes of getting some assistance on his coming journey with Death, offers some rather strong words: "My condition is man's soul to kill/If I save one, a thousand do I spill."

His hatred of his body and desire that it be punished, while associated here with Christian feeling, seems to be a pretty widespread, at times almost instinctive aspect of the human character, even if only in contemplation, and does not necessarily have any direct connection with either religion or philosophy. This interests me, and I ought to look into it farther some day.

A plug for the authority of the church:
"There is no emperor, king, duke, ne baron,
That of God hath commission
As hath the least priest in the world being:"

and later:

"For priesthood exceedeth all other thing"


"God hath to them more power given
Than to any angel that is in heaven.
With five words he may consecrate
God's body in flesh and blood to make,
And handleth his Maker between his hands."

One supposes this was probably written by a member of the clergy.

I wrote a note that "Longing for death even in theory is odd to our sensibility." It sounds pretty good anyway.

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