October 22, 2013

Cliff's Edge

“And as he came he saw that it was spring, a time abhorrent to the nihilist.”—Wallace Stevens.

Weeks before World War II began, British author Leonard Woolf (husband of the famed Virginia) was planting iris reticulata under an apple tree at their country home. Suddenly Virginia called him to come listen to Hitler on the radio. “I shouted back: ‘I shan’t come. I’m planting iris, and they will be flowering long after he is dead.’ Last March [he wrote this in 1966], 21 years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple tree in the orchard.”

A powerful anecdote with a nice punch and comforting thought: somehow good will endure even after evil’s gone. Yes, 21 years after Hitler’s death the iris reticulata were still there. Today, 68 years after his death, they’re probably gone, but tyrants still flourish.

Poet Anna Akhmatova, though suffering greatly under Stalin, though losing everything, didn’t despair because “by day, from the surrounding woods,/cherries blow summer into town;/at night the deep transparent skies/glitter with new galaxies.”

She drew hope from the waft of cherries and from the glitter of new galaxies, even though cherries often rot on the bough and the “new” galaxies might have already died out long before their faint light ever tickled her eyes.

Johann Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was filled with the rapturous, almost mystical ruminations about nature by its young hero: “Oh, how thankful I am that my heart can feel the simple, harmless joys of the man who brings to the table a head of cabbage he has grown himself, and in a single moment enjoys, not only the vegetable, but all the fine days and fresh mornings since he planted it, the mild evenings when he watered it, and the pleasure he felt while watching it grow.”

Something emanates from the earth and from the sky grand enough to instill intimations of hope in our forlorn souls even as they fight a losing battle with gravity, the weakest force in nature (so weak that the entire gravitational pull of the earth can’t even keep a butterfly from rising), but still strong enough to return us to dirt, always.

Yet one has to be careful: the hope’s not in the gift but in the Giver, not in the creation but the Creator. Nature cannot answer our deepest needs any more than reading a prescription on a bottle of pills will cure the disease. Nature, too, sends mixed messages. “They are Nature’s impulses man follows,” wrote an eighteenth-century author, “when he indulges in homicide; it is Nature who advises him, and the man who destroys his fellow is to Nature what are . . . plague and famine.”

Nevertheless, Anna and Leonard and young Werther exhumed from the majesty and beauty of nature (well, not exactly “exhumed” but rather couldn’t help seeing the obvious) a goodness that sparked hope within. Who hasn’t? That goodness, though, isn’t inherent to nature itself, any more than the magnificence of a Rembrandt arose out from something inherent in the paint and canvas. Our hope can’t be in the natural but only in the supernatural because the natural now leads only to an eschaton of worms.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7-9).

Nature points us to what it doesn’t itself possess, to what it only faintly reflects.