He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.
...The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
- William Faulkner – Nobel Banquet speech, 1950. Emphasis mine.
It felt as though the entire West was holding its collective breath on Monday, watching the people of Paris as they watched the great Lady of Paris, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, be engulfed in smoke and flames. Pictures of the bystanders reflected our own expressions back at us--awe and a kind of futile incredulity. Notre Dame Cathedral has been part of the Parisian landscape since the 12th century, and part of the landscape of the Western imagination for almost as long.
The fire itself, the pathos of the hymn-singing Parisians, the bravery of the firefighters, the small consolations as one treasure after another was announced to have been recovered, all of it made a compelling story filled with vivid images and characters--the firefighter priest, the Crown of Thorns, the warped but intact rooster weathervane.
With every photo, I compulsively scanned for some sign of the fate of the famous rose windows. I'm not sure why. No, that's not true--I do know why. It's because in the back of my mind, I always assumed that some day I would make it to Paris to stand in the dappled light of those glorious windows.
Some day, I assumed, I would reach through the centuries to feel fellowship with men and women long-dead, all of us gaping at the grotesqueries and buttresses, all of us, lifted by the glory of her arches and the wonder of her windows, touching something transcendent.
Tuesday and Wednesday brought unexpected joy and relief at the news that Notre-Dame will rise again. President Macron vowed to rebuild. The rose windows were found to be intact; the arches still solid. The roof burned and melted away, but photos of the interior showed spots so untouched by the inferno that even the candles remained unmelted.
But this is an age when nothing beautiful or unifying--not grief and not joy--can be allowed to stand unchallenged. And so we have the following piece of misanthropy masquerading as virtue.
|[Image: Meme showing the Great Mosque of Aleppo before and after bombing. Facebook text reads: "Ethnocentric bias pointed out. 'The world's selective outrage sickens me ...like trained brainless fucking monkeys crying on cue'"]|
Leaving aside the assumption that those of us upset at the burning of Notre Dame were untouched by the destruction in Aleppo--which is indicative of the poster's selective attention and focus more than anything, I suspect--is it "ethnocentrism" to grieve some things in a more personal and particular way than others?
A friend of mine responded by passionately pointing out that ethnocentrism is an inescapable feature of humanity, not a character flaw,
"Ethnocentric (or rather, spiritually-centric, you bigoted idiot, big fucking difference) bias is a neurological reality of being alive. The things that effect you and your group are going to elicit a greater emotional response. It’s not a mystery, and it doesn’t make you a failure as a person."
This is, of course, true. It's natural to feel more strongly about those things that affect you more closely, and it is normal to be more closely affected by things that happen to familiar places and people.
It's no more strange that a Westerner would be especially affected by the burning of Notre Dame than it is strange that a woman should grieve especially deeply for her own mother.
A friend of mine has been driven to anxious distraction today by a health crisis in her husband's family. No reasonable person would think to scold her for being more heartsick over an in-law than she would be over a distant friend's cousin's neighbor's brother. That much grief and worry over every suffering person would be unsustainable. It would be paralyzing. The only way to equalize them would be to remain as faintly and distantly dismayed by the family member's illness as we are over the distant acquaintance's injuries.
This, you see, is where this impersonal universalism inevitably leads us: to the corrosion of our humanity. Because, of course, the truth is that my friend does not love the friend's cousin's neighbor's brother less for loving her own father-in-law in particular. The reverse is in fact observably true: her compassion for strangers is enriched by her love for those closest to her. She sees her lost brother in every addict; she sees herself in every motherless daughter.
By knowing and loving particular people, she has learned better how to love people in general. And there is no better way to begin to love Humanity than knowing that it is made up of individual humans, each of them a person as deeply real as we are ourselves.
A wise man said that the family is "a school of deeper humanity." Mother Teresa, the little Albanian nun who left her home and community behind for a life of service to the poor and suffering people of the streets of Calcutta, has been quoted as saying, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family."
Meanwhile, our modern Mrs. Jellybys preach about Aleppo to neighbors grieving for Notre Dame, but they give their hearts to neither.
How can our erstwhile critic enter into the communal grief of the people of Aleppo if she holds herself apart from the communal griefs of her own cultural community? Her griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars.
She writes as though she is standing apart, watching the end of man.
Nobody is obligated to feel deeply, emotionally moved by the immolation of Notre Dame--or any other loss or tragedy. But when you are struck more fiercely by some one particular grief or joy or fear or hope than another, you should know it for what it is--a tutorial on the passions and movements of your own heart, and an opportunity to grow in understanding and compassion for the hearts and lives of others.
Westerners treasure Notre Dame in part because her artistry, like Faulkner's, reminds us of "the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice" that made up our past.
It will rise to do so again.
Until then, let us strive to let the particular grief of this moment teach us to recognize the "universal bones" of human grief, love, and loss, wherever and in whomever they may be found.
A sidebar, because it was tickling at my brain and finally clicked. As I was writing this post, I had a vague sensation I had read some other quote that bore thematic similarities to the Faulkner passage I opened with, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Just now, I realized that it was from an interview with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski that a friend and fellow fan sent me yesterday. In the interview, JMS compares the universe he envisioned with what he saw as the much more antiseptic utopia of Star Trek's Federation. "The Star Trek universe," he said, "seemed to say that for us to go into the stars, we have to leave behind important parts of ourselves, the good and the bad: our vices, our avarice, our commercialism, but also our faith and our beautiful fractures."
The image of leaving behind "our beautiful fractures" had evoked Faulkner's "His griefs grieve no universal bones, leaving no scars"--which then burst to the forefront of my consciousness when I sat down to write about the particularity of love and grief. So there you are--a bit of insight into the web-like way my brain makes connections. Babylon 5, Faulkner, Mrs Jellyby, JPII and Mother Teresa. And Notre Dame. And you and I. All connected by the universality of our particularities.
[*** I'm back to blogging for Lent! And I'm not the only one. Check out the list here. ]