Song II: The Dark Night by San Juan de la Cruz

St. John of the Cross (1656)
Francisco de Zurbarán
source Wikipedia

This poem is my fifth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

Canción II: La Noche Oscura

     Canciones
      De el alma que se goza de haber llegado
          Al alto estado de la perfección, que
          Es la union con Dios, por el camino
          De la negación espiritual.
1. En una noche escura,
con ansias, en amores inflamada,
¡o dichosa ventura!,
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada:
2. a escuras y segura
por la secreta escala, disfrazada,
 ¡o dichosa ventura!,
a escuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada;
3. en la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
 ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz y guía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.
4. Aquésta me guïaba
más cierto que la luz del mediodía,
a donde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía,
en parte donde nadie parecía.
5. ¡O noche que guiaste!,
¡o noche, amable más que el alborada!,
 ¡o noche que juntaste
Amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!
6. En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba;
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.
7. El aire de la almena,
quando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.
8. Quedéme y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el amado;
cesó todo y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.


Song II: The Dark Night
     Songs
      Of the soul that rejoices at having reached
         The high state of perfection, which
          Is the union with God, by means of the path
          Of spiritual denial of self
1.  On a dark night, deep and black,
When I, on fire with the passions of love
—- what great good fortune was mine! —
slipped out, hidden, unseen,
when my sleeping house was silent and still;
2. and protected in the dark,
concealed by the quiet, secret staircase
—- what great good fortune was mine! —
in the ebon dark, well-hidden
when my sleeping house was silent and still;
3. and on the fortunate night,
in secret, when no one’s eyes could see me,
I saw nothing around me
And had no light or guide
But the one that was blazing in my heart.
4. This was the fire that led me,
more clear and certain than the light of noon,
to where he waited for me
— I knew who he was, oh I knew —
there where no one was seen, no one appeared.
5. O dark night who guided me!
O night, kinder by far than any dawn!
O night, you who have joined
lover with beloved,
beloved into lover here transformed!
6. On my flowering bosom,
meant only for him, kept for him alone,
he rested his head to sleep,
and I with love caressed him,
and the swaying cedars sent a breeze for him.
7. The wind from the battlements
when I loosed his hair and smoothed it, unbound,
with serene and tranquil hand,
struck my neck, pierced and wounded it,
dimming and suspending all my senses.
8. I stayed there, self forgotten,
lowered my face, leaning over my lover,
all things ceased, self abandoned,
abandoning all care
that lies, forgotten, there among the lilies.

I found this poem in the book The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance to which Amanda of Simpler Pastimes kindly introduced me.  It was a “close your eyes and point” choice, yet it has turned out to be quite a fascinating poem.

St. John of the Cross was a disciple of St. Teresa of Ávila, whose biography I had recently read.  He fought to reform the Spanish Carmelites and spent a number of years in prison where he compposed the Cántico espiritual, or Spiritual Canticle, without any writing tools, having to rely solely on his memory.  
Song II: The Dark Night is part of St. John’s greater work, The Dark Night of the Soul, chronicling the spiritual journey of the soul and the stages of love that it must pass through to become more like God.  Taken out of context, this poem loses some meaning but the beauty of the words and the impact is spiritual by themselves.  Based on the biblical book, Songs of Songs, the sensual imagery St. John uses for the union of the soul and God is a stepping outside of religious tradition.  Mystic and beautiful, the poem marries the natural to the supernatural, to exemplify harmony with God.
Deal Me In Challenge #5 – Jack of Diamonds

The Plague by Albert Camus

“The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194-, at Oran.”

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria.  His father was killed at the Battle of the Marne in World War I and he and his brother were raised by their mother in a state of poverty.  He became a journalist, and during World War II, moved to Paris where he worked for an underground newspaper, and it was then that he began to craft his “philosophy of the absurd.”  The Stranger, published in 1942, was followed by The Plague in 1947, and in 1957 Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Tragically he died in a car accident in the south of France at only 46 years old.

Often Camus is lumped in with the existential philosophy, but he rejected that appellation, claiming himself an absurdist.  What is an absurdist?  Well, I like to think of them as existentialists with hope.  Absurdism is an idea that man is longing for meaning and clarity in a world that contains neither.  The conflict between the search for a purpose and the lack of one, creates absurdism.  Yet while Camus felt a meaninglessness in life, he wondered if man could create his own morality and follow it, even though his achievements would be fruitless.

St. Macarius of Ghent giving aid
to the plague victims (1672)
Jacob van Oost
source Wikimedia Commons

The Plague is set in the town of Oran in Algeria, a town perhaps like any other, yet the citizens are so ingrained in their day-to-day activities, there is no real life or passion within its walls.  When the plague arrives, their lethargic outlook and self-centred actions initially prevent them from seeing the danger that is so obviously present, as evidenced by the number of rats dying throughout the town.  As the plague is finally realized and claims its victims, Camus employs a scientific and philosophical examination of how the people react to the pestilence, what emotions and actions are brought to the forefront and the significance of their struggle to survive, not only the plague but the day-to-day trials that they must face.

The Plague (1898)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikimedia Commons

Camus shows the futility of attempted comprehension of the events, when the priest, Father Paneloux, declares the plague a judgement from God on the sins on the people.  In reality, the plague is not a moral judgement, nor anything that can be explained rationally, and therefore it is futile to try to rationalize it; one must simply accept the circumstances.  The plague means death, no more nor less than any other death, and the only reaction should be to battle against it.  Another character, Grand, decides to write a story perfect in its execution, but finally realizes his hopes are impossible.  As we meet more and more characters in Oran, we see its paralysis in the life of these men and women who choose actions that are meaningless and therefore self-isolating.  Because perfection cannot be obtained, a type of helplessness is portrayed, yet in a few characters we see another option.  While some victims have quietly succumbed to the inescapable death, others choose to fight, which gives their struggle significance within the inevitable.

Each character plays an important part in Camus’ philosophy, almost like a symphony, as Camus presses the loud pedal with one, and the soft with another. I’m still not sure how I feel about this tactic.  On one hand, it really gives the reader the ability to scrutinize each person’s part in the plague and, of course, Camus’ philosophy, but on the other, the story perhaps suffers. With such close dissection, the humanness fades into the background as the emphasis is given to worldview over plot, and in some cases the plausibility of the character and his/her actions is sacrificed to communicate Camus’ pet beliefs.

 

Plague in Ashod (1629)
Nicolas Poussin
source Wikimedia Commons

With the existentialist worldview, the novel would have signified defeat in the face of a world devoid of hope and purpose, but Camus spurs us to vigilance and action. He may not believe in truth or God, but one gets the feeling that he wants to believe.  It is as if he is waiting …… waiting for a sunbeam in a storm or a flower in the desert, and while he waits, he fights for the right to hope in what he tells himself is impossible.

Ultimately Camus struggled against his own belief system.  When the Nazi’s invaded France, he actively worked against them.  He made a judgement that their actions were wrong and attempted to stop them, showing that he did indeed believe there was something worth fighting for in the world.  Unlike the existentialists that I’ve encountered, Camus confronted the implications of his unbelief — and ultimately offered a solution, or at least a compromise with regard to his dilemma: while he still held to the absence of meaning within life, that did not mean that the search could not be rewarding.  At the end of his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


A Read-Along with Bookstooge – January 2015

 

The Plague Read-Along Update #4

I’m reading The Plague by Albert Camus as part of a read-along with Bookstooge.

Part V

The outbreak of the plague definitely appears to be slowing down, yet people are hesitant to accept it after living so long under its shadow.  Yet gradually people show hope and there are more escapes than ever as people are terrified of succumbing to the pestilence just as an end is in sight.  M. Othon does catch the plague and dies as does Tarrou, yet Tarrou struggles and fights until the disease takes him in the end.  Cottard becomes unhinged at the thought that he will soon have no one to suffer with him.  He begins a gun fight in town and soon his taken into custody by the police.  And finally Dr. Rieux is revealed as the narrator of the story.  After the plague it is suspected that the people will forget about it and continue to live their lives as before, therefore Rieux wished to write a chronicle of the pestilence in honour of its victims so they will not be forgotten.  The chilling end is not really an end; the plague, we’re told, can live dormant for years, just sleeping and waiting for a new emergence.

St. Roch praying to the Virgin for
and end to the Plague (1780)
Jacques-Louis David
source Wikiart

Thoughts:  This part seemed a little rushed but with the cases of the plague decreasing, perhaps it was a natural wind-up of the outbreak and the story.  Again Camus explores the psychological effect of the town returning to “normal” after a crisis and his psychology is rather heavy-handed, sacrificing story for pet philosophy.  The characters are still rather drab and lifeless, which could have been intentional.  He makes sure he kills the one spark of love throughout the story:  Rambert who had been wild to escape to be reunited with the love of his life, at the end meets her but it’s a rather low and uninspiring reunion; the plague has changed him and snuffed out the flame of his love.

Review to come …..

The Princess by Anton Chekhov

Portrait of Anton Chekhov (1886)
Isaac Levitan
source Wikiart

This short story is my fourth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

What happened to Narcissus when he looked at his own reflection in the pool? This beautiful hunter from Boeotia fell in love with himself, and in fact was so deeply infatuated, in his self-obsession he fell into the pool and drowned.  Not a very fitting end for one with so much promise.

Narcissus (1594-96)
Caravaggio
source Wikipedia

In Chekhov’s story we meet the Princess, a lovely young woman who arrives at an isolated monastery for a night’s stay.  She is so thrilled to be there, gushing effusively about the setting and the priests and brothers who have received her.  She wants to forget her life in the city and the monastery and its occupants give her the tools to do so.  But the reader soon realizes that her arrival, instead of being a moment of interest and delight, is instead looked upon with discomfort and even dread by the good brothers of the monastery, and one feels that the Princess, in spite of her outward joie-de-vivre and vivacious personality, is only noticing the benefits that she gets from her visit, without concern for anything or anyone around her.

Soon she meets Mikhail Ivanovitch there, a doctor whom she’d earlier employed in her service, but instead of a warm reception for her, the doctor’s replies drip icicles.  Our poor, puzzled Princess cannot understand ….. why the reserve, especially when she condoles with him upon the death of his wife, an event that is certainly sad, but of course, life must go on.  When she mentions the mistakes she’s made in life and the doctor agrees, she begs him to enlighten her.  Perhaps she should have been more careful in what she asked for.  Directly he begins to catalogue her offenses, taking her to task for her lack of sympathy, her greed, her complete disdain for the feelings of others ………. in fact, the whole system of life that she has built around her is false and cruel, breeding those traits, and choking out any love or caring.  She has replaced God with herself, and therefore is no longer able to understand the creation in which she lives.

Oh!  The Princess is hurt, she is distraught, she is devasted!  That cruel, uneducated, ill-bred man!  How could he speak so to her, to HER, a princess?!  She must use her only defence against these horrid accusations, and so she begins to cry.  The doctor is immediately contrite and leaves her.  When they meet the next day, the princess is once again herself, gay and blithe as she prepares to leave, expecting everyone to admire and entertain her even as she promises to come again soon.  The unpleasantness of the day before is blotted from memory as once more she strives to be the centre of the world.

The Unsmiling Tsarevna (1916-26)
Niktor Vasnetsov
source Wikiart

In spite of the inclination to laugh at the princess’ stupidity and complete self-absorption, this story is quite a tragic one.  Her character is certainly one of a narcissist, and anything that exists around her, merely exists for her alone.  She is devoid of the character traits that make one truly human and, therefore, is not much better than a beast.

On November 15, 1888, Chekhov wrote to his publisher, stating that he was writing a story about a “vile woman”.  Three days later Chekhov wrote, “I want to write protest stories this season ——  I must learn the knack, but it bores me because I’m not used to it,” which makes one wonder if the doctor’s social protest was supposed to be the hub of the story.  In any case, both character’s roles offered a ripe opportunity for social and psychological examination.  This was an excellent story that certainly makes me want to read more of Chekhov’s works.

Deal Me in Challenge (#4) – Six of Clubs