Decay and Joy

December 14, 2006

Today I finished reading The Rings of Saturn by German author W. G. Sebald. I was led to this book by the recommendation of Teju Cole, the author of “Modal Minority.” As Cole reports, the book is not easy to categorize. I would say it is a book that moves the reader–in many ways. It’s a sort of walking travelogue through eastern England, but with many detours to distant lands and times. Sebald’s topic is decay; he calls history “a long account of calamities,” and he invites the reader on a hike down its decadent and sinuous paths. He draws on many sources, but one he returns to more than some is Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine polymath and maker of worlds. Borges, and later Sebald, imagined parallel trajectories for history, a feat that results not in a tangled mess but rather in an ever more insistent suggestion that there is an order that we cannot understand to our reality. There is no suggestion that this reality is benign, however there is an overwhelming sense that it is unimaginably beautiful.

Of all the arresting lines in the book, here is one:

“Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.”

I’m about to enter my last semester of coursework of this doctoral program before I begin my dissertation. Everyday I am admonished to narrow my focus of expertise even while I am encouraged to make my scholarship part of a greater conversation of meaning. One act is to be more engrossed in minutiae; the other act is to be more and more relevant to others. Through it all, there is–as Sebald maintains–the intuitive sense that we will not even begin to breach some of the mysteries. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes said it long ago:

“I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind….For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase in knowledge increase sorrow.”

But all is not lost! Paul Tillich preached in 1955:

“Sorrow is the feeling that we are deprived of our central fulfillment, by being deprived of something that belongs to us and is necessary to our fulfillment. We may be deprived of relatives and friends nearest to us, of a creative work and a supporting community which gave us a meaning of life, of our home, of honor, of love, of bodily or mental health, of the unity of our person, of a good conscience. All this brings sorrow in manifold forms, the sorrow of sadness, the sorrow of loneliness, the sorrow of depression, the sorrow of self-accusation. But it is precisely this kind of situation in which Jesus tells his disciples that His joy shall be with them and that their joy shall be full. For, as Paul calls it, sorrow can be the ‘sorrow of the world’ which ends in the death of final despair, and it can be Divine sorrow which leads to transformation and joy. For joy has something within itself which is beyond joy and sorrow. This something is called blessedness.

Blessedness is the eternal element in joy, that which makes it possible for joy to include in itself the sorrow out of which it arises, and which it takes into itself. In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls the poor, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst, those who are persecuted, ‘blessed.’ And He says to them: ‘Rejoice and be glad!’ Joy within sorrow is possible to those who are blessed, to those in whom joy has the dimension of the eternal.”

I wish joy on you, even if you arrive through sorrow. I wish blessedness on you.

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