Yesterday I read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time since the sixth grade. For those of you not familiar, This is a science fiction novel set in a future in which people no longer read. They watch and participate in reality television shows on large-screen TVs. They spend a lot of time driving long distances in fast cars, everybody has music playing in little plugs in their ears, and there’s some war on, though no one pays much attention. People in this future no longer read because first this minority group complained about this book, and then that minority group complained about that book, and anyway, books in general were becoming an unwelcome intrusion into the fun, carefree reality that modern pop culture offered. So people, quite on their own, stopped reading.
In fact, the culture started becoming hostile to books to the point that books (other than comic books and some other harmless chaff) were eventually outlawed. Personal libraries and the homes that they were housed in were burned whenever such libraries were found. Society jettisoned the scholars and the Ideas and the philosophers (“In time she would be rid of all her books,” as I think the “Notes from Underground” beautifully puts it) and they were much happier for it. Granted, everybody needed sleeping pills just to get through the night, and suicide and divorce rates were through the roof, but why talk about that negative stuff? Far more engaging and important than dangerous, empty books were the reality-TV characters who came to be like family.
Guy Montag is a fireman in this world. His job is to burn down the houses where people are hiding books. He likes his job. He has a wife, three televisor screens in his parlor, and is considering purchasing a fourth. But one day, Guy Montag wakes up. Due to a clerical error, they arrive to burn down a house before the police have shown up to take away the owner. Normally the firemen never see a home’s owner. It’s a lady this time, and she has dozens of books in her attic. She fights furiously with the firemen, and before it’s over, she burns herself alive rather than be separated from her books.
Why the hell would somebody do that? Montag’s ignorant bliss cracks, and he starts to realize there must be something to these books after all. The story proceeds from there.
Later in the plot, Montag hooks up with Professor Faber, an English professor who retired from the last liberal arts college in the country when it closed its doors due to lack of students. Montag tells Faber that he’s come to believe that there’s something special about books.
from Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury
“Your a hopeless romantic,” said Faber. It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books. The same things [i]could[/i] be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what the books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together in one garment for us. Of course you couldn’t know this, of course you still can’t understand what I mean when I say all this…
That’s a very short passage, but Faber– a fictional man from the future– has made good use of short space. I have nowhere further I need to go with him. So let’s turn to his opposite, a real man from the past, and a lengthy passage. What does this man have to say that he was afraid we might forget?
Book I: Of Fires in the Sky
by Lucius Annaeus Seneca
circa 62 A.D.
Lucilius, my good friend, the great difference between philosophy and other studies is matched, I think, by the equally great difference in philosophy itself, between that branch which deals with man and that which deals with the gods. The latter is loftier and more intellectual, and so has permitted a great deal of freedom for itself. It has not been restricted to what can be seen; it has presumed that there is something greater and more beautiful which nature has placed beyond our sight. In short, between the two branches of philosophy there is as much difference as there is between man and god. One teaches us what ought to be done on earth; the other what is done in heaven. One dispels our errors and furnishes a light for us to see through the uncertainties of life; the other rises far above this fog in which we wallow, and, rescuing us from darkness, leads us to the place whence the light shines.
I, for one, am very grateful to nature, not just when I view it in that aspect which is obvious to everybody but when I have penetrated its mysteries; when I learn what the stuff of the universe is, who its author or custodian is, what god is; whether he keeps entirely to himself or whether he sometimes considers us; whether he creates something each day or has created it only once; whether he is a part of the universe or is the universe; whether it is possible for him to make decisions today and repeal in any part any sort of universal law of fate; whether it is a diminution of his majesty and an admission of his error that he had done things which had to be changed.
If I had not been admitted to these studies it would not have been worth while to have been born. What reason would I have to be glad that I was placed among the living? In order that I might digest food and drink? In order that I might stuff this diseased and failing body, which would soon die unless it were filled continuously– and that I might live as an attendant on a sick man? In order that I might fear death, the one thing for which we are born? Well, you can have this invaluable prize– living is not so important that I should even get sweaty and hot. After all, man is a contemptible thing unless he rises above his petty concerns. But what greatness do we achieve as long as we struggle with ignoble passions? Even if we are victorious we conquer only monsters. What reason is there to admire ourselves because we are not as bad as the worst? I do not see why a man should feel pleased who is simply less sick than the others in the hospital. Having good health is very different from only not being sick.
You have escaped the illness of the soul, Lucilius. You do not present a false front, your speech is not composed to suit someone else’s policy, your heart is not twisted; you do not have greed (which denies to itself what it has taken away from everybody else), nor extravagance (it squanders money shamefully only in order to get it back even more disgracefully), nor ambition (it will take you to a high position only through degrading methods). As yet you have attained nothing. You have escaped many ills, but you have not yet escaped yourself.
That special virtue which we seek is magnificent, not because to be free of evil is in itself so marvelous but because it unchains the mind, prepares it for the realization of heavenly things, and makes it worthy to enter into an association with god.
The mind possesses the full and complete benefit of its human existence only when it spurns all evil, seeks the lofty and the deep, and enters the innermost secrets of nature. Then as the mind wanders among the very stars it delights in laughing at the mosaic floors of the rich and at the whole earth with all its gold. I do not mean only the gold which the earth has already produced and surrendered to be struck for money but also all the gold the earth has preserved hidden away for the avarice of future generations. The mind cannot despise colonnades, paneled ceilings gleaming with ivory, trimmed shrubbery, and streams made to approach mansions, until it goes around the entire universe and looking down upon the earth from above (an earth limited and covered mostly by sea– while even the part out of the sea is squalid or parched or frozen) says to itself: “Is this that pinpoint which is divided by sword and fire among so many nations? How ridiculous are the boundaries of mortals! Let our empire confine the Dacians beyond the Ister; let it shut out the Thracians by means of the Haemus; Let the Euphrates block the Parthians; The danube separate Sarmatian and Roman interests; the Rhine establish a limit for Germany; the Pyrenees lift their ridge between the Gallic and Spanish provinces; between Egypt and Ethiopia let an uncultivated wasteland of sand lie. If someone should give human intellect to ants, will they not also divide a single floor into many provinces? Since you have aspired to truly great thoughts, whenever you see armies marching with flying banners, and a cavalry, as though engaged in something grand, scouting now at a distance, now massed on the flanks, you will be glad to say:
A black battle-line
Moves on the plain
(Seneca is quoting Virgil, who is describing ants– Alamanach) This army of yours is only a scurrying of ants toiling in a limited field. What difference is there between us and the ants except the insignificant size of a tiny body?
That is a mere pinpoint on which you navigate, on which you wage war, on which you arrange tiny kingdoms– tiny, even though ocean does run to meet them on both sides. Spaces in the heavens are immense; but your mind is admitted to the possession of them only if it retains very little of the body, only if it has worn away all sordidness and, unencumbered and light, flashes forth, satisfied with little. When the mind contacts those regions it is nurtured, grows, and returns to its origin just as though freed from its chains. As proof of its divinity it has this: divine things cause it pleasure, and it dwells among them not as being alien things but things of its own nature. Serenely it looks upon the rising and setting of the stars and the diverse orbits of bodies precisely balanced with one another. The mind observes where each star first shows its light to earth, where its culmination, the highest altitude of its course, lies and how far it descends. As a curious spectator the mind separates details and investigates them. Why not do this? It knows that these things pertain to itself. Then it despises the limitation of its former dwelling place. After all, how great is the distance from the farthest shores of Spain all the way to India? Only the space of a very few days if a good wind drives the ship. But in the heavenly region the swiftest star, which never maintains a constant velocity, has a journey of thirty years. (He’s referring to Saturn—Alamanach) Here, finally, the mind learns what it long sought: here it begins to know god. What is god? The mind of the universe. What is god? All that you see, all that you do not see. In short, only if he alone is all things, if he maintains his own work both from within and without, is he given due credit for his magnitude; nothing of greater magnitude than that can be contemplated.
What, then, is the difference between our nature and the nature of god? In ourselves the better part is the mind, in god there is no part other than the mind. He is entirely reason. None the less, meanwhile, a great error possesses mortals: men believe that this universe, than which nothing is more beautiful or better ordered or more consistent in plan, is an accident, revolving by chance, and thus tossed about in lightning bolts, clouds, storms, and all the other things by which the earth and its vicinity are kept in turmoil. Nor does this nonsense exist only among the common people; it also infects those who say they have knowledge. There are some men who conclude that they themselves have a mind, indeed a provident one, evaluating situations, both their own and other peoples’; but the universe, in which we also exist, they presume is lacking in plan and either moves along in some haphazard way or else nature does not know what it is doing.
What value is it, do you suppose, to establish definitions, to learn about such things? For example, how powerful is god? Does he for matter for himself or does he merely make use of what is already there? Which comes first: does function determine matter, or does matter determine function? Does god do whatever he wishes? Or in many cases do the things he treats fail him, just as many things are poorly shaped by the artist not because his art fails him but because the material in which he works often resists his art? To investigate these questions, to learn about them, to brood over them—is this not to transcend your own mortality and to be admitted to a higher plane? You say: “What good will these things do you?” If nothing else, certainly this: having measured god I will know that all else is petty.
I want to call attention to Seneca’s description of death as the one thing for which all of us are born. Whether a man ponders big questions or not, there are some things that make us all the same. All of us are as attendants to a sick man, feeding bodies which must constantly be filled. And while Seneca is grateful for the pursuits that carry him beyond his petty concerns, not everyone is so enlightened. Some folks never measure god. Some folks hardly try.
If we turn from first century Rome to nineteenth century South Africa, we can find a very handy example of such a person in the fictional Allan Quartermain. A professional big game hunter, his description of himself tells us plenty.
from King Solomon’s Mines
By H. Rider Haggard
It is a curious thing at my age – fifty-five last birthday – I should find myself taking up a pen to try and write a history. I wonder what sort of a history it will be when I have done it, if I ever come to the end of the trip! I have done a good many things in my life, which seems a long one to me, owing to my having begun so young, perhaps. At an age when other boys are at school I was earning my living as a trader in the old Colony. I have been trading, hunting, fighting, or mining ever since. And yet it is only eight months ago that I made my pile. It is a big pile now I have got it – I don’t yet know how big – but I don’t think I would go through the last fifteen or sixteen months again for it; no, not if I knew that I should come out safe at the end, pile and all. But then, I am a timid man, and don’t like violence, and am pretty sick of adventure. I wonder why I am going to write this book; it is not in my line. I am not a literary man, though very devoted to the Old Testament and also to the “Ingoldsby Legends.” Let me try and set down my reasons, just to see if I have any…
If you’ve never heard of The Ingoldsby Legends, an 1889 edition of it recently turned up in my sock drawer. In the course of his adventures, Quartermain tried to quote from it.
from King Solomon’s Mines
By H. Rider Haggard
As for the fight that followed, who can describe it? Again and again the multitudes surged up against our momentarily lessening circle, and again and again we beat them back.
“The stubborn spearsmen still made good
The dark impenetrable wood;
Each stepping where his comrade stood
The instant that he fell”
As I think the “Ingoldsby Legends” beautifully puts it.
Quartermain is more literary than he gives himself credit for. The Ingoldsby Legends is a dingbat collection of ghost stories and humorous poems. Popular in its day, it does not seem to have ever been meant as a really serious literary work (for starters, it was written under an assumed name), and it has since fallen into obscurity. What Quartermain actually quoted was from a serious poem by one of the greatest contributors to English literature of all time, Sir Walter Scott. His epic work Marmion immortalizes the Scottish military disaster at Flodden Field against the English in 1513, the sort of disaster in which all is lost but one’s honor. (At least, that’s how the King of France described it.)
At 224 pages, Marmion is too long to repeat in full. But here’s a small piece of it. This comes near the end of the entire work, when Marmion lies wounded while the doomed Scots fight on.
from Marmion, canto vi
By Sir Walter Scott
Deep drank Lord Marmion of the wave,
And, as she stoop’d his brow to lave-
‘Is it the hand of Clare,’ he said,
‘Or injured Constance, bathes my head?’
Then, as remembrance rose,-
‘Speak not to me of shrift or prayer!
I must redress her woes.
Short space, few words, are mine to spare
Forgive and listen, gentle Clare!’-
‘Alas!’ she said, ‘the while,-
O, think of your immortal weal!
In vain for Constance is your zeal;
She-died at Holy Isle.’-
Lord Marmion started from the ground,
As light as if he felt no wound;
Though in the action burst the tide,
In torrents, from his wounded side.
‘Then it was truth,’-he said-’I knew
That the dark presage must be true.-
I would the Fiend, to whom belongs
The vengeance due to all her wrongs,
Would spare me but a day!
For wasting fire, and dying groan,
And priests slain on the altar stone,
Might bribe him for delay.
It may not be!-this dizzy trance-
Curse on yon base marauder’s lance,
And doubly cursed my failing brand!
A sinful heart makes feeble hand.’
Then, fainting, down on earth he sunk,
Supported by the trembling Monk.
With fruitless labour, Clara bound,
And strove to stanch the gushing wound:
The Monk, with unavailing cares,
Exhausted all the Church’s prayers.
Ever, he said, that, close and near,
A lady’s voice was in his ear,
And that the priest he could not hear;
For that she ever sung,
‘In the lost battle, borne down by the flying,
Where mingles war’s rattle with groans of the dying!’
So the notes rung;-
‘Avoid thee, Fiend!-with cruel hand,
Shake not the dying sinner’s sand!-
O, look, my son, upon yon sign
Of the Redeemer’s grace divine;
O, think on faith and bliss!
By many a death-bed I have been,
And many a sinner’s parting seen,
But never aught like this.’-
The war, that for a space did fail,
Now trebly thundering swell’d the gale,
And-STANLEY! was the cry;-
A light on Marmion’s visage spread,
And fired his glazing eye:
With dying hand, above his head,
He shook the fragment of his blade,
And shouted ‘Victory!-
Charge, Chester, charge! On, Stanley, on!’
Were the last words of Marmion.
By this, though deep the evening fell,
Still rose the battle’s deadly swell,
For still the Scots, around their King,
Unbroken, fought in desperate ring.
Where’s now their victor vaward wing,
Where Huntly, and where Home?-
O, for a blast of that dread horn,
On Fontarabian echoes borne,
That to King Charles did come,
When Rowland brave, and Olivier,
And every paladin and peer,
On Roncesvalles died!
Such blasts might warn them, not in vain,
To quit the plunder of the slain,
And turn the doubtful day again,
While yet on Flodden side,
Afar, the Royal Standard flies,
And round it toils, and bleeds, and dies,
Our Caledonian pride!
In vain the wish-for far away,
While spoil and havoc mark their way,
Near Sybil’s Cross the plunderers stray.-
‘O Lady,’ cried the Monk, ‘away!’
And placed her on her steed,
And led her to the chapel fair,
Of Tilmouth upon Tweed.
There all the night they spent in prayer,
And at the dawn of morning, there
She met her kinsman, Lord Fitz-Clare.
But as they left the dark’ning heath,
More desperate grew the strife of death,
The English shafts in volleys hail’d,
In headlong charge their horse assail’d;
Front, flank, and rear, the squadrons sweep
To break the Scottish circle deep,
That fought around their King.
But yet, though thick the shafts as snow,
Though charging knights like whirlwinds go,
Though bill-men ply the ghastly blow,
Unbroken was the ring;
The stubborn spear-men still made good
Their dark impenetrable wood,
Each stepping where his comrade stood,
The instant that he fell.
No thought was there of dastard flight;
Link’d in the serried phalanx tight,
Groom fought like noble, squire like knight,
As fearlessly and well;
Till utter darkness closed her wing
O’er their thin host and wounded King.
Then skilful Surrey’s sage commands
Led back from strife his shatter’d bands;
And from the charge they drew,
As mountain-waves, from wasted lands,
Sweep back to ocean blue.
Then did their loss his foemen know;
Their King, their Lords, their mightiest low,
They melted from the field, as snow,
When streams are swoln and south winds blow
Dissolves in silent dew.
Tweed’s echoes heard the ceaseless plash,
While many a broken band,
Disorder’d, through her currents dash,
To gain the Scottish land;
To town and tower, to down and dale,
To tell red Flodden’s dismal tale,
And raise the universal wail.
Tradition, legend, tune, and song,
Shall many an age that wail prolong:
Still from the sire the son shall hear
Of the stern strife, and carnage drear,
Of Flodden’s fatal field,
Where shiver’d was fair Scotland’s spear,
And broken was her shield!
By contrast, here’s a sample of what one would actually find in The Ingoldsby Legends
The Cynotaph excerpted from The Ingoldsby Legends
By “Thomas Ingoldsby, Esquire” who was actually The Reverend Richard Harris Barham
Poor Tray charmant!
Poor Tray de mon Ami!
Dog-bury, and Vergers.
Oh! where shall I bury my poor dog Tray,
Now his fleeting breath has pass’d away?
Seventeen years, I can venture to say,
Have I seen him gambol, and frolic, and play,
Evermore happy, and frisky, and gay,
As though every one of his months was May,
And the whole of his life one long holiday –
Now he’s a lifeless lump of clay,
Oh! where shall I bury my faithful Tray?
I am almost tempted to think it hard
That it may not be there, in yon sunny churchyard,
Where the green willows wave
O’er the peaceful grave,
Which holds all that once was honest and brave,
Kind, and courteous, and faithful, and true;
Qualities, Tray, that were found in you.
But it may not be — you sacred ground,
By holiest feelings fenced around,
May ne’er within its hallow’d bound
Receive the dust of a soul-less hound.
I would not place him in yonder fane,
Where the mid-day sun through the storied pane
Throws on the pavement a crimson stain;
Where the banners of chivalry heavily swing
O’er the pinnacled tomb of the Warrior King,
With helmet and shield, and all that sort of thing.
No!– come what may,
My gentle Tray
Shan’t be an intruder on bluff Harry Tudor,
Or panoplied monarchs yet earlier and ruder,
Whom you see on their backs,
In stone or in wax,
Though the sacristans now are ‘forbidden to ax’
For what Mister Hume calls ‘a scandalous tax;’
While the Chartists insist they’ve a right to go snacks.
No!– Tray’s humble tomb would look but shabby
‘Mid the sculptured shrines of that gorgeous Abbey.
Besides, in the place
They say there’s not space
To bury what wet-nurses call ‘a Babby.’
Even ‘Rare Ben Jonson,’ that famous wight,
I am told, is interr’d there bolt upright,
In just such a posture, beneath his bust,
As Tray used to sit in to beg for a crust.
The epitaph, too,
Would scarcely do;
For what could it say, but ‘Here lies Tray,
A very good sort of a dog in his day?’
And satirical folks might be apt to imagine it
Meant as a quiz on the House of Plantagenet.
No! no!– The Abbey may do very well
For a feudal ‘Nob’ or poetical ‘Swell,’
‘Crusaders,’ or ‘Poets,’ or ‘Knights of St. John,’
Or Knights of St. John’s Wood, who last year went on
To the Castle of Goode Lorde Eglintonne.
Count Fiddle-fumkin, and Lord Fiddle-faddle,
‘Sir Craven,’ ‘Sir Gael,’ and ‘Sir Campbell of Saddell,’
(Who, as Mr. Hook said, when he heard of the feat,
‘Was somehow knock’d out of his family-seat;’)
The Esquires of the body
To my Lord Tomnoddy;
‘Sir Fairlie,’ ‘Sir Lamb,’
And the ‘Knight of the Ram,’
The ‘Knight of the Rose,’ and the ‘Knight of the Dragon,’
Who, save at the flagon,
And prog in the waggon,
The Newspapers tell us did little ‘to brag on;’
And more, though the Muse knows but little concerning ‘em,
‘Sir Hopkins,’ ‘Sir Popkins,’ ‘Sir Gage,’ and ‘Sir Jerningham.’
All Preux Chevaliers, in friendly rivalry
Who should best bring back the glory of Chi-valry.–
(Pray be so good, for the sake of my song,
To pronounce here the ante-penultimate long;
Or some hyper-critic will certainly cry,
‘The word ‘Chivalry’ is but a ‘rhyme to the eye.”
And I own it is clear
A fastidious ear
Will be, more or less, always annoy’d with you when you
Insert any rhyme that’s not perfectly genuine.
As to pleasing the ‘eye,’
‘Tisn’t worth while to try,
Since Moore and Tom Campbell themselves admit ‘spinach’
Is perfectly antiphonetic to ‘Greenwich.)
But stay!– I say!–
Let me pause while I may –
This digression is leading me sadly astray
From my object — A grave for my poor dog Tray!
I would not place him beneath thy walls,
And proud o’ershadowing dome, St. Paul’s!
Though I’ve always consider’d Sir Christopher Wren,
As an architect, one of the greatest of men;
And,– talking of Epitaphs,– much I admire his,
‘Circumspice, si Monumentum requiris;’
Which an erudite Verger translated to me,
‘If you ask for his Monument, Sir-come-spy-see!’
No!– I should not know where
To place him there;
I would not have him by surly Johnson be;–
Or that Queer-looking horse that is rolling on Ponsonby;–
Or those ugly minxes
The sister Sphynxes,
Mix’d creatures, half lady, half lioness, ergo
(Denon says) the emblems of Leo and Virgo;
On one of the backs of which singular jumble,
Sir Ralph Abercrombie is going to tumble,
With a thump which alone were enough to despatch him,
If that Scotchman in front shouldn’t happen to catch him.
No! I’d not have him there, nor nearer the door,
Where the Man and the Angel have got Sir John Moore,
And are quietly letting him down through the floor,
Near Gillespie, the one who escaped, at Vellore,
Alone from the row;–
Neither he, nor Lord Howe
Would like to be plagued with a little Bow-wow.
No, Tray, we must yield,
And go further a-field;
To lay you by Nelson were downright effront’ry;–
We’ll be off from the City, and look at the country.
It shall not be there,
In that sepulchred square,
Where folks are interr’d for the sake of the air,
(Though, pay but the dues, they could hardly refuse
To Tray what they grant to Thuggs and Hindoos,
Turks, Infidels, Heretics, Jumpers, and Jews,)
Where the tombstones are placed
In the very best taste,
At the feet and the head
Of the elegant Dead,
And no one’s received who’s not ‘buried in lead:’
For, there lie the bones of Deputy Jones,
Whom the widow’s tears and the orphan’s groans
Affected as much as they do the stones
His executors laid on the Deputy’s bones;
Little rest, poor knave!
Would he have in his grave;
Since Spirits, ’tis plain,
Are sent back again,
To roam round their bodies,– the bad ones in pain,–
Dragging after them sometimes a heavy jack-chain;
Whenever they met, alarmed by its groans, his
Ghost all night long would be barking at Jones’s.
Nor shall he be laid
By that cross Old Maid,
Miss Penelope Bird, of whom it is said
All the dogs in the Parish were always afraid.
He must not be placed
By one so strait-laced
In her temper, her taste, and her morals, and waist.
For, ’tis said, when she went up to heaven, and St. Peter,
Who happened to meet her,
Came forward to greet her,
She pursed up with scorn every vinegar feature,
And bade him ‘Get out for a horrid Male Creature!’
So, the Saint, after looking as if he could eat her,
Not knowing, perhaps, very well how to treat her,
And not being willing, or able, to beat her,
Sent her back to her grave till her temper grew sweeter,
With an epithet — which I decline to repeat here.
No, if Tray were interr’d
By Penelope Bird,
No dog would be e’er so be-’whelp”d and be-’cur’r'd.
All the night long her cantankerous Sprite
Would be running about in the pale moon-light,
Chasing him round, and attempting to lick
The ghost of poor Tray with the ghost of a stick.
Stay!– let me see!–
Ay — here it shall be
At the root of this gnarl’d and time-worn tree,
Where Tray and I
Would often lie,
And watch the light clouds as they floated by
In the broad expanse of the clear blue sky,
When the sun was bidding the world good b’ye;
And the plaintive Nightingale, warbling nigh,
Pour’d forth her mournful melody;
While the tender Wood-pigeon’s cooing cry
Has made me say to myself, with a sigh,
‘How nice you would eat with a steak in a pie!’
Ay, here it shall be!– far, far from the view
Of the noisy world and its maddening crew.
Simple and few,
Tender and true
The lines o’er his grave.– They have, some of them, too,
The advantage of being remarkably new
Now, it was not my intention to feature death so prominently in this discussion. But Seneca, Scott, and Ingoldsby all have had things to say on this topic of death—things insightful, heroic, and comedic. If death is where our walk through the literature insists on taking us, we may as well confront it head-on.
The following is a remarkable edict from Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty. It gives some insight, in a backwards kind of way, into some of the usual mourning practices in China . It also seems to hint at a genuine humility possessed by a man who was, in fact, accountable to no one.
The Testamentary Edict of Emperor Wen
c. 157 BC
I have heard that of the countless beings beneath heaven which sprout or are brought to life, there is none which does not have its time of death, for death is a part of the abiding order of heaven and earth and the natural end of all creatures. How then can it be such a sorrowful thing? Yet in the world today, because all men rejoice in life and hate death, they exhaust their wealth in providing lavish burials for the departed , and endanger their health by prolonged mourning. I can in no way approve of such practices.
I, who am without virtue, have had no means to bring succor to the people. If, having passed away, I were to inflict upon them deep mourning and prolonged lamentation, exposing them to the cold and heat of successive seasons, grieving the fathers and sons of the people and blighting the desires of old and young, causing them to diminish their food and drink and to interrupt the sacrifices to the ancestor spirits, I would only deepen my lack of virtue. What then could I say to the world?
For over twenty years now I have been allowed to guard the ancestral temples of the dynasty, and with my poor person have been entrusted with a position above the lords and kings of the empire. With the aid of the spirits of heaven and earth and the blessings of our sacred altars, peace has been brought to the region within the seas, and the empire is without armed strife. I, who am without wisdom, have been in constant fear that I might commit some fault to bring dishonor among the virtue handed down to me by those rulers who went before me. As my years of rule grew longer, I trembled lest they should not reach a just conclusion. Yet now I have been permitted to live out the years which have been granted to me, and graciously allowed to serve the ancestral temple of Emperor Kao-tsu. For one so unenlightened as I, is this not a cause for rejoicing? Why should there be any sadness or sorrow?
Let the officials and people of the empire be instructed that, whenever this order shall reach them, they shall take part in lamentations for three days, after which all shall remove their mourning garments. There shall be no prohibitions against taking a wife or giving a daughter in marriage, or against performing sacrifices or partaking of wine or meat.
As for those who shall take part in the actual funeral proceedings and lamentations, they need not wear the customary unhemmed robes, and their headbands and sashes should not exceed three inches in width. There shall be no display of chariots or weapons, nor shall men and women be summoned from among the people to wail and lament in the palace. Those whose duty it is to lament in the palace shall do so only in the morning and evening, raising their voices fifteen times on each occasion, and, when the funeral rites have come to an end, this practice shall cease. There shall be no indiscriminate wailing other than at these prescribed times. After the coffin has been lowered into the grave, deep mourning shall be worn for fifteen days, then all mourning clothes shall be removed. Matters which are not specifically covered herein shall be disposed of in accordance with the spirit of this order. All of this shall be announced to the people of the empire so that they may understand my will. The hills and rivers around my tomb at Pa-ling may be left in their natural state and need not be altered in any way. The ladies of the palace, from those of the highest rank down to the junior maids, shall be sent back to their homes.
That edict appears in a book entitled Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume I (Edited by Cyril Birch, Grove Press, 1965). Some of what Wen says is startlingly stoic in tone; “death is a part of the abiding order of heaven and earth and the natural end of all creatures. How then can it be such a sorrowful thing?” could have been written by Seneca himself.
If Emperor Wen is echoing Seneca, I think there is another work in this same book that completes Faber. Professor Faber, recall, said that the magic wasn’t the books, it was what was in the books. The books were merely a repository of information, information that could just as well be transmitted over the radio or though the television. So far on this excursion we’ve seen in the books a steady march of death. This may have been more by accident than design, but there it is. If, like Seneca, we want to measure God, then maybe just for today we need to employ some alternate instrument. A poet from the T’ang dynasty has a surprising suggestion for us.
Three poems on wine
8th century AD
Amidst the flowers
a jug of wine—
I pour alone
So raising the cup
I invite the moon,
Then turn to my shadow
which makes three of us.
Because the moon
does not know how to drink
My shadow merely
follows my body.
The moon has brought the shadow
to keep me company a while,
The practice of mirth
should keep pace with spring.
I start a song
and the moon begins to reel,
I rise and dance
and the shadow moves grotesquely.
While I’m still conscious
let’s rejoice with one another,
After I’m drunk
let each one go his own way.
Let us bind ourselves for ever
For passionless journeyings.
Let us swear to meet again
far in the Milky Way.
If Heaven itself
did not love wine,
Then no Wine Star
would shine in the sky.
And if Earth also
did not love wine,
Earth would have no such
place as Wine Fountain.
Have I not heard
that pure wine makes a sage,
And even muddy wine
can make a man wise?
If wise men and sages
are already drinkers
What is the use
of seeking gods and fairies?
With three cups
I understand the great Way
With one jar
I am at one with Nature.
Only, the perceptions
that one has while drunk
Cannot be transmitted
after one is sober.
In the third month
The city of Hsien-yang—
Thousands of flowers
at noon like brocade.
Who is able
in spring to be sad alone?
Faced with this
to drink is the shortest way
as well as short and long
Alike have early been
offered us by Creation.
A single cup
may rank with life and death,
The myriad things
are truly hard to fathom.
Once I am drunk
losing Heaven and Earth,
I go to my lonely pillow.
Not to know
that myself exists—
Of all my joys
This is the highest.
Wine! Through wine Li Po implies that he touches the highest of spiritual states—“Not to know that myself exists—of all my joys this is the highest.” This smacks of the abolition of the self described in Buddhism, the losing of one’s life so that one may gain it in Christianity. And as a non-drinker, it is, for me, enlightenment in the most unexpected place!
Unexpected though it may be, Li Po’s idea is not unique. Traveling to eleventh century Persia, we come upon a scholarly mathematician-astronomer saying much the same thing. In Persia, in those days, any respectable gentleman was broadly educated in numerous subjects, and was a prolific poet. Omar Khayyam, like so many of his compatriots, was only a poet on the side, yet it is his poetry for which he is remembered.
Khayyam’s favored poetic form was the rubai, the quatrain. He wrote thousands of rubaiyat during his life, and a selection of some 75 of them have come down to us due to the work of translator Edward FitzGerald. Here are a few.
from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
By Omar Khayyam
11th, possibly 12th century
Iram indeed is gone with all its rose,
And Jamshyd’s seven-ringed cup where no one knows*
But still the vine her ancient ruby yields,
And still a garden by the water blows.
Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring
The winter garment of repentance fling:
The bird of time has but a little way
To fly—and lo! The bird is on the wing!
But come with old Khayyam, and leave the lot
Of Kaikobad and Kaikhosru forgot:
Let Rustum lay about him as he will,
Or Hatim Tai cry supper—heed them not.
With me along some strip of herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of slave and sultan scarce is known.
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his thrown.
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse – and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness
And wilderness is paradise enow.
Up from Earth’s center through the seventh gate
I rose, and on the throne of Saturn sate,
And many knots unravel’d by the road
But not the knot of human death and fate…
You know, my friends, how long since in my house
For a new marriage I did make carouse:
Divorced old barren Reason from my bed,
And took the daughter of the vine to spouse.
For “Is” and “Is-Not” though with rule and line
And “Up-and-Down” without I could define,
I yet in all I only cared to know,
Was never deep in anything but – wine.
And lately, by the tavern door agape,
Came stealing through the dusk an angel shape
Bearing a vessel on his shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and ‘twas – the grape!
The grape that can with logic absolute
The two-and-seventy jarring sects confute:
The subtle alchemist that in a trice
Life’s leaden metal into gold transmute.
And much as wine has played the infidel,
And robb’d me of my robe of honor, well—
I often wonder what the vintners buy
One half so precious as the goods they sell.
I don’t drink, but it’s almost enough to make me start. As Faber promised, Khayyam speaks of something so wonderful, he had to write it down lest we forget. Logic and reason, as wonderful and powerful as they are, have their limits. There are forms of joy and happiness that can surpass even them. And as Li Po would also tell us, wine can, under the right circumstances, bring us that kind of happiness.
You may or may not be as moved by this as I am, but I consider it a wonderful discovery, and a major surprise. Sometimes it is like that—you head out on a walk looking for one thing, and unexpectedly find a treasure of a completely different sort. Thus I pour myself some grape juice and close with the following. (By the way, it’s in iambic pentameter.)
A Fountain, a Bottle, a Donkey’s Ears, and Some Books
Old Davis owned a solid mica mountain
In Dalton that would someday make his fortune.
There’d been some Boston people out to see it:
And experts said that deep down in the mountain
The mica sheets were big as plate-glass windows.
He’d like to take me there and show it to me.
“I’ll tell you what you show me. You remember
You said you knew the place where once, on Kinsman,
The early Mormons made a settlement
And built a stone baptismal font outdoors—
But Smith, or someone, called them off the mountain
To go West to a worse fight with the desert.
You said you’d seen the stone baptismal font.
Well, take me there.”
Someday I will.”
“Huh, that old bathtub, what is that to see?
Let’s talk about it.”
“Let’s go see the place.”
‘To shut you up I’ll tell you what I’ll do:
I’ll find that fountain if it takes all summer,
And both of our united strengths, to do it.”
“You’ve lost it, then?”
“Not so but I can find it.
No doubt it’s grown up some to woods around it.
The mountain may have shifted since I saw it
“As long ago as that?”
“If I remember rightly, it had sprung
A leak and emptied then. And forty years
Can do a good deal to bad masonry.
You won’t see any Mormon swimming in it.
But you have said it, and we’re off to find it.
Old as I am, I’m going to let myself
Be dragged by you all over everywhere——”
“I thought you were a guide.”
“I am a guide,
And that’s why I can’t decently refuse you.”
We made a day of it out of the world,
Ascending to descend to reascend.
The old man seriously took his bearings,
And spoke his doubts in every open place.
We came out on a look-off where we faced
A cliff, and on the cliff a bottle painted,
Or stained by vegetation from above,
A likeness to surprise the thrilly tourist.
“Well, if I haven’t brought you to the fountain,
At least I’ve brought you to the famous Bottle.”
“I won’t accept the substitute. It’s empty.”
“I want my fountain.”
“I guess you’d find the fountain just as empty.
And anyway this tells me where I am.”
“Hadn’t you long suspected where you were?”
“You mean miles from that Mormon settlement?
Look here, you treat your guide with due respect
If you don’t want to spend the night outdoors.
I vow we must be near the place from where
The two converging slides, the avalanches,
On Marshall, look like donkey’s ears.
We may as well see that and save the day.”
“Don’t donkey’s ears suggest we shake our own?”
“For God’s sake, aren’t you fond of viewing nature?
You don’t like nature. All you like is books.
What signify a donkey’s cars and bottle,
However natural? Give you your books!
Well then, right here is where I show you books.
Come straight down off this mountain just as fast
As we can fall and keep a-bouncing on our feet.
It’s hell for knees unless done hell-for-leather.”
Be ready, I thought, for almost anything.
We struck a road I didn’t recognize,
But welcomed for the chance to lave my shoes
In dust once more. We followed this a mile,
Perhaps, to where it ended at a house
I didn’t know was there. It was the kind
To bring me to for broad-board paneling.
I never saw so good a house deserted.
“Excuse me if I ask you in a window
That happens to be broken, Davis said.
“The outside doors as yet have held against us.
I want to introduce you to the people
Who used to live here. They were Robinsons.
You must have heard of Clara Robinson**,
The poetess who wrote the book of verses
And had it published. It was all about
The posies on her inner windowsill,
And the birds on her outer windowsill,
And how she tended both, or had them tended:
She never tended anything herself.
She was ‘shut in’ for life. She lived her whole
Life long in bed, and wrote her things in bed.
I’ll show You how she had her sills extended
To entertain the birds and hold the flowers.
Our business first’s up attic with her books.”
We trod uncomfortably on crunching glass
Through a house stripped of everything
Except, it seemed, the poetess’s poems.
Books, I should say!—-if books are what is needed.
A whole edition in a packing case
That, overflowing like a horn of plenty,
Or like the poetess’s heart of love,
Had spilled them near the window, toward the light
Where driven rain had wet and swollen them.
Enough to stock a village library—
Unfortunately all of one kind, though.
They had been brought home from some publisher
And taken thus into the family.
Boys and bad hunters had known what to do
With stone and lead to unprotected glass:
Shatter it inward on the unswept floors.
How had the tender verse escaped their outrage?
By being invisible for what it was,
Or else by some remoteness that defied them
To find out what to do to hurt a poem.
Yet oh! the tempting flatness of a book,
To send it sailing out the attic window
Till it caught wind and, opening out its covers,
Tried to improve on sailing like a tile
By flying like a bird (silent in flight,
But all the burden of its body song),
Only to tumble like a stricken bird,
And lie in stones and bushes unretrieved.
Books were not thrown irreverently about.
They simply lay where someone now and then,
Having tried one, had dropped it at his feet
And left it lying where it fell rejected.
Here were all those the poetess’s life
Had been too short to sell or give away.
“Take one,” Old Davis bade me graciously.
“Why not take two or three?”
“Take all you want.”
Good-looking books like that.” He picked one fresh
In virgin wrapper from deep in the box,
And stroked it with a horny-handed kindness.
He read in one and I read in another,
Both either looking for or finding something.
The attic wasps went missing by like bullets.
I was soon satisfied for the time being.
All the way home I kept remembering
The small book in my pocket. It was there.
The poetess had sighed, I knew, in heaven
At having eased her heart of one more copy—
Legitimately. My demand upon her,
Though slight, was a demand. She felt the tug.
In time she would be rid of all her books.
*Jamshed was fabled to possess the Elixir of Immortality
**I already checked, Frost made her up. Sorry.