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Truth as hard and tough as nails

22 Mar

 

I am surrounded by public art. Just across the street, on a hill in Jackson Park are seven half-sunken Buddha heads in a circle–Indria Freitas Johnson’s, “10,000 Ripples.” The heads, which were put in place on World Peace Day, September 21, 2016, symbolize peace; “We need to be reminded that peace is possible,” the artist says.

A half mile to the south, behind the Museum of Science and Industry, adjacent to the Wooded Isle with its lovely Japanese Garden of the Phoenix , Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding” was recently installed. Giant lotus petals rise out of the green turf, turning our eyes upward in welcoming gesture. The installation ceremony, which included dancers and special music, is pictured above.

Yoko Ono is a respected, if controversial, avant-garde artist and musician. When she married John Lennon, the couple became strong activists against the Vietnam War. “Skylanding” takes its meaning from her early life in Japan. She lived in Tokyo, her life disrupted by the firebombing and atomic bombs of World War II. In those days, the sky was a fearsome place–bombs rained down death, suffering, and destruction. Her family fled the city and scratched out an existence in the countryside. “Skylanding” welcomes the sky, its lotus leaves reaching upwards. The scene is one of peace, dancing, and song.

All very nice, we say, but what do these sculptures really amount to? Life is hard, not soft and beautiful. Hard here on the south side of Chicago, with its guns and gangs, as well as the unflinching dollars-and-sense calculation of urban developers. The artists seem to be engaging in out-of-touch soft power, while life around us operates on hard power.

This is where Ute Lemper enters. She is one of the great cabaret singers and composers of our time, a matchless interpreter of Kurt Weill’s songs and the Brecht/Weill classic Threepenny Opera. Fans of the movie, “Cabaret,” recall that the classic era of cabarets and their singing was early twentieth century Germany, and that they waged cutting satire of their society and its politics. Imagine a much more sardonic version of “Saturday Night Live.” Hitler shut them down–fascists don’t tolerate satire.

Lemper entitles one of her songs, “Munchhausen”–named after a sixteenth century German baron, who was notorious for his habit of lying. Its refrain:

I’m sick and tired of lies from you
But how I wish your lies were true
Liar, liar, liar, liar, liar, liar
Truth is as hard and tough as nails
That’s why we need fairy tales
I’m all through with logical conclusions
Why should I deny myself illusions

Hard power can banish soft power to the sidelines, even into obscurity. But soft power cannot be eradicated. It lives on–in the form of stories, fairy tales, songs, hopes, myths, and dreams. In a brilliant turn of phrase, our truth is tough as nails and fairy tales house their toughness.

Political figures, barons of business, dictators–these pass away, but dreams, hopes, and fairy tales live on and on. We remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, who lived at the time of the Babylonian oppression of Israel–“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” But who recalls the names of the oppressor Babylonian kings?

It has been said that the fairy tales and dreams are the opiate of the masses, intended to sedate their senses. I prefer to think of them as the sigh, deep in our hearts, that lives below the surface of events. Fairy tales are not only tough as nails, they are subversive of the existing order. They undercut human pretensions.

Lemper includes fairy tales in her song:

I saw a film the other day
That really varied from the norm
There were no soldiers on parade
And no one marched in uniform
Its heroes were not supermen
And no one even shot a gun
The audience still loved the film
Though not a single war was won
But I was really shocked to see
This film was made in Germany

I saw a land that hated war
And melted all its weapons down
To build a boat of love for kids
Who planned to sail from town to town
Declaring peace for all the world
Let killing now come to an end
Embrace your enemies instead
Your former foe is now your friend
Ev’ry conflict now will cease
And all of us will live in peace

These kinds of fairy tales are subversive–little wonder that Hitler closed them down.

Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding” expresses such a subversive dream. Our skies are not so friendly today–bombers and drones in the Middle East, lung-eating pollution around the world, amid moves to increase military forces. It is a dreamy fairy tale, but it advances a truth that is hard and tough as nails. If it were a policy proposal, it could be scrapped; as proposed legislation, it could be tabled. As hope and dream, as fairy tale, it will live on as long as human beings exist on this planet.

(c) Phil Hefner 3/22/2017

Something more than politics

7 Mar

Something “more” than politics–

Patricia’s poem

“Listen
after I have set the table
folded the scottowel into napkins cooked
this delicious eggplant stuffed with bulghur wheat
then baked the whole thing under careful
covering of mozzarella cheese
and
said my grace

don’t you bring Anita Bryant/Richard
Pryor/the Justices of the Supreme Court/don’t
you bring any of those people in here
to spoil my digestive processes
and ruin
my dinner

You hear?”

June Jordan wrote this poem in the late 1970s. If you substitute different names for Anita Bryant (singer and anti-Gay/lesbian spokeswoman) and Richard Pryor, it expresses what I have felt many times in the last six months. Miroslav Volf wrote, “Politics touches everything, but politics isn’t everything, not by a long shot.”

There is something more than politics–what is this “more”?

The more–family, faith, religion, personal integrity, the recovery of loved ones from cancer, art, cookouts in the backyard, the Cubs, the Packers–we all can names places in our lives that are “more” than politics–even though they may well be touched by politics.

In these comments, I’m focusing on art. When his novel, Underground Railroad, received the National Book Award, Colson Whitehead responded, with his eye on the current political situation, “Be Kind to everyone, make art, and fight the power.”

Why should we make art? The poet, Joy Harjo, gave an answer to this question when she bestowed the National Book Award for poetry: “Poetry carries the spirit of the people and is necessary at the doorways of transition and transformation.”

The words of George Steiner have stuck in my mind: Journalists insist the present moment has the most urgent claim on us–it is the hub of our universe; for artists, to the contrary, it is the longer view that counts, and the deeper view.

The politics of the day is mean and cheap. June Jordan’s Patricia has worked carefully and lovingly to prepare the meal for her guests–and she wants to contrast sharply with “mean and cheap.” Her mozzarella and eggplant transcends politics, and she means for her guests to share that transcendence–at the same time, the poem opens up other possibilities for transcending politics.


Consider Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica” (see above). Rooted in a current event, it probes deeply to portray the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Nazi German Air Force in April 1937. Picasso cries out that bombing was the rending of creation. And not just bombing that town, but also Srebinica in 1995 and Aleppo from 2012 until the present and Palmyra in 2016–all war, in other words. The list of “Guernicas” is endless.

Even the best journalistic treatment cannot convey the depth and breadth of Picasso’s painting. Wilfred Owen did the same in his poems from World War I. In “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and right to die for your country”–in other words, it is a wonderful and great honor to fight and die for your country), written in 1917, he foreshadows the bombing of Guernica in his description of a soldier dying of a mustard gas attack:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

Dripping with irony and sarcasm, Owen calls irrevocably into question the “old lie.” The journalist’s task is to report the soldier’s suffering and death in vivid terms, as TV news brought the Vietnam casualties to our dinner tables in the ’60s and ’70s. The artist’s message is a different one: war is a violation of the created order, and smoothing it over as noble sacrifice is a lie. This is not a condemnation of the soldiers who fight and die, but of the societies and their leaders who send soldiers into war.

It’s not a matter of escaping politics, but nourishing the deep places of our lives. I have tried to cultivate these deep places in my own life. I visit friends in our second-floor rehab unit. I read newspapers, but watch little TV news. I bought a small volume of Christian Wiman’s poems, “Once in the West,” and found these wonderful lines:

“Too many elegies elevating sadness
to a kind of sad religion:

one wants in the end just once to befriend
one’s own loneliness,

to make of the ache of inwardness–

something,
music maybe. . .”

Make the decision now to befriend the deep places of your life and make them into music. Share your music with us.

(c) Phil Hefner. March 7, 2017

The truth is. . .

28 Nov

I reflected on a news item, which in turn prompted these three poems:

“The booth, the size of a small house trailer, in the shape of a cartoon word bubble with “TRUTH” in bold letters on its side, serves as a video confessional. It will be set up at several locations, including at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Visitors are asked to sit inside and finish the politically and metaphysically loaded sentence that begins, “The truth is …” (New York Times, July 18, 2016). I thought of three ways people seem to think of truth.

I.
The truth is …: Word

A word. . .

in sacred language,
we do not understand

requires learning
translation

we speak those words aloud
understood or not

by ourselves
and together

Sanskrit Hebrew Greek
Latin Arabic King James English
the constitution’s colonial rhetoric

our accents as variable
as we are

the truth they say
is in the recitation

words require interpretation
that’s what rabbis are for

never just one rendering
of truth

we must choose
which words persuade us

which rabbinic eloquence
or logic

the truth is. . .


II.
The truth is …: Place

A place

for the solitary monks
two millennia back in time

empty desert wastes
were truth-bearers

resonating to
lives emptied of things
and fancies

the great western plain
is such an empty vastness
like the sea when the shore is
left behind

emptiness is overflowing fullness

when I’m alone
my vessel
small barely visible
against the wastes
that have no boundary
is filled by a vastness
not mine

for me
this place is both
beginning and end
where arrival and starting out

are one


III.
The truth is …: A Person

Her eyes,
that’s what it is,
Piercing, yes–
but even more,
the world that lies behind her gaze
and projects outward.

Her voice
echoes with the resonance
of God.
Pulling me into her world,
I know that she
is truth for me.

She sees straight into my heart,
tells me who I am
who I can be
and who I must be.
She gives me my direction
and my mission.

She bodies forth the truth
and my truth,
not from afar
nor from a higher place,
but here, before me
at eye level.

Eye-to-eye, I can see
she’s more, better, than
I could ever be, but she is
very like me. I say fully like me.
She eats and drinks,
loves and struggles

to a degree that surpasses me.
But she cries,
fears death–
shouts out her abandonment.
So fully me I ask myself:
Can this be truth?


I considered writing a fourth poem about how all forms of truth are filtered through us–our vision, our minds, our judgments. No matter how we anchor truth in something objective outside us, we judge what is true. I would not say the truth is me and my judgment, but there is no truth for me apart from me.

Query: would it make a difference if the Person were male?

(c) Phil Hefner 11/27/2016

More than politics

5 Nov

This week, Chicago–the quintessential “political” town–was a good place to be if you needed to be reminded that life is more than politics. I’m talking about Chicago Cubs, of course, and their triumph in the World Series last Wednesday. Chicago went berserk–5 million people at the parade and rally on Friday, reported by the Chicago Tribune to be the “seventh largest crowd of human beings in the history of the world.” (Disclaimer: the Tribune is part-owner of the team). It was a shout out to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: “Move over, give us a break. We love the Cubbies more than either of you!” Here at Montgomery Place, music events were cancelled for the games. Believe me, that is a very big deal here.

A much-appreciated reminder that as important politics is, it’s not the end-all and be-all. But there’s more–I’m a White Sox fan. I empathize with the woman quoted in John Kass’s Tribune column: “If this becomes a thing with the Cubs and it happens every year for the next three years, then I’m leaving town,” said Sox fan Wendy. “I won’t be able to take it.”

My wife, Neva, is a Cubs fan. I’m reminded that you can be on the wrong side of history and still love the “misguided” people on the other side. So the Cubs had 5 million people at their parade. We had 2 million at ours in 2005, and that ain’t hay, as they say. Chicago is a Cubs town, to be sure, and a Bears and a Bulls and a Blackhawks town–never a Sox town, but 2 million of of us redefine the concept of “outsiders.”

There was more than baseball this week that put politics into perspectives. Good news: a granddaughter selected for the Association of Choir Directors of America National Choir, to perform in the Minneapolis Symphony Hall on March 11. A friend has emergency surgery to deal with a heart rate issue; a pacemaker solves the problem, and she goes home the next day.

Bad news: my sister’s cancer has returned, and she faces drastic surgery. An old friend who fell and broke her shoulder in four places now undergoes fusion of her cervical vertebrae.

Politics is important and even decisive in some respects, an essential dimension of our world. But it’s not the whole. We’ll be rooting for the Cubs–or not–no matter who is elected president or senator, or local dog-catcher. The Inauguration will pass, and sister and my friend will be living with the results of their surgeries and rehabbing themselves back to recovery. The world we live in has many dimensions–not parts that we can separate from one another, but interweaving dimensions that in fact permeate each other.

Personal life has been in tension with politics for millennia. In Sophocles’ play, Antigone, (written 2,500 years ago), tragedy results when Antigone clings to family values. She buries her brother, against the wishes of the king, who executed the brother for treason. President Obama (reputed to be a Sox fan) went a different route when he called John Madden, the Cubs’ manager, to invite the team to the White House, before Obama leaves office.

On the other hand, no one cares who the surgeons and nurses vote for–we just want them to do their personal and professional best. And we pray.

Only three days until the election. Between now and then, my TV will be tuned to Masterpiece Theater and re-runs of “Murder, She Wrote,” “Gunsmoke,” and “NCIS.”

Sorry, pundits. Sorry, Donald. Sorry Hillary. But you see, there’s a murder every day in Cabot Cove, and Angela Lansbury is a charming sleuth.

(c) Phil Hefner 11/5/2016