The American philosopher Jeff Sharlet described an encounter with Cornel West in his own office. West told him that many people read and took spiritual nourishment from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. There is nothing wrong with that he said but people should go deeper than that. He thought Steinbeck let the reader off too easy. I admit I loved that book, but he made an interesting point. Did he let us off too easy? I don’t think so but maybe I need to reread that classic? West recommended instead the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th century Italian poet-philosopher revered in Italy but little read in the U.S—“he starts with what he calls, ‘The mind’s sweet shipwreck.’ To which West added, “ Ain’t that a beautiful phrase?” Sharlet told how in West’s office West was digging through his books to make a point about Leopardi and finally found the book he was looking for. This is how Sharlet told the story:
“Leopardi should be the poet of our times… West prescribes Brother Leopardi for “deep-sea diving of the soul,” a process’s not just personal but essential to understanding “the paradox of human freedom”: that we must summon the strength to resist and endure oppression even as we acknowledge that we are ultimately weak in the face of death and despair. “We are organisms of desire.” West defines the human condition, “whose first day of birth makes us old enough to die.”
“Now, this, this is the greatest one,” West says, getting a page of Leopardi’s poems and looking at me with giant poem eyes as if to communicate the gravity of the words in his hand, the necessity of their immediate recitation. He resumes rocking and reading:
That man has a truly noble nature
Who, without flinching, still can face
Our common plight, tell the truth
With an honest tongue,
Admit the evil lot we’ve been given
And the abject, impotent condition we’re in;
Who shows himself great and full of grace
West closes his book and stands still. His head shakes back and forth with admiration. That’s too polite a word for the emotion flooding over him: it’s relief, gratitude.”
“To know the wretchedness of who we are,” he says. “Yet the fact that we know it, is itself a noble thing, because that kind of knowledge means we can know a whole lot of other things.”
The minds may be ship-wrecked but it can achieve knowledge. Sacred knowledge of truth. That truth can set one free. It won’t be easy but will be free. I call that tragic vision. That is what the religious quest is all about. Seeking truth when it is hard.
There was one more wonderful poem read out in part at the Joe Biden presidential inaugural. This is it.
The Cure at Troy”
by Seamus Heaney
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.
The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.
For the first time ever I watched the American presidential inauguration. Much to my surprise it was entertaining and interesting. The best part was the uncommon wisdom dispensed by a 22-year old African American woman. She is the youth poet laureate of America. She is worth listening to. In fact she is worth reading. After I heard her talk I got a copy of her poem online through the wonders of the internet. I wanted to read it more carefully. I recommend you read it and watch it. Here is the poem:
The Hill we Climb
By Amanda Gorman
When day comes we ask ourselves,
Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny black girl
Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
Can dream of becoming president
Only to find herself reciting for one.
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
But that doesn’t mean that we are
striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know to put our future first
We must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
So we can reach out our arms
To one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat
But because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
That everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare.
Because being American is more than a pride we inherit
It’s the past we step into
And how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
Rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while we once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?,
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain;
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
We will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.