Fear

When terror takes over, time and time again, and fear sweeps over city after city, our tomorrow never seems as safe as yesterday, anywhere. This year has been especially hard like that. Some incidents have us glued to the news reports and the internet; sometimes we barely have the strength to open the television. All these incidents make our world shudder, and they turn it into a darker place. At the same time, we know that we should not give in, should not let evil, hatred and fear win.  

When contemplating the untimely death of a young girl, John Donne (1572–1631), too, felt similar helplessness in the face of the events and the cruel world around him. “[W]hen thou knowest this,” he concludes three times in his despair:    

“Thou knowest how poore a trifling thing man is.
[—] Thou knowest how lame a cripple this world is.
[—] Thou knowest how ugly’a monster this world is”    

Every death, every violence, shakes us to the core, and we may, like Donne, see the world “a cripple” and “a monster” and resign to our own insufficiency. It feels that all we want to do is to hide and to protect our loved ones as best we can. Seems like the best thing to do.  

In 1529, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1478–1530) had to step down as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII (1491–1547). His main successor as the king’s trusted advisor was Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540). In his play about Henry VIII (1613), William Shakespeare (1564–1616) gives Wolsey a moment to pause when leaving office, and Wolsey gives a long, moving speech to Cromwell. At the time of writing the play, more than eighty years after the event, Shakespeare already knew that the world Wolsey was leaving behind was to face turmoil and even terror, and Cromwell, too, was to meet a violent death. Yet, in the play, Shakespeare lets Wolsey instruct his follower – as well as the audience – on how to encounter the world:

[—]
Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; 
Corruption wins not more than honesty. 
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace, 
To silence envious tongues. Be just, and fear not:   
[—]   

These are heavy challenges on a day when the news are again filled with violence and terror. Yet, even in hindsight, Shakespeare deemed it more productive to go with “honesty” and with “gentle peace” – and to encourage us to “fear not”.  

 

St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on the night of the terror attack on 22nd March 2017. 

* John Donne: “An Anatomy of the World”, ll. 183–4, 238, 326, ed. by John T. Shawcross, 1967; William Shakespeare: King Henry VIII, Act III, scene ii

Royal Trains and Helicopters

Last night I was listening to the distant sound of passing helicopters in the cool Finnish summer night. These were part of the national army equipment assigned to escort the President of Russia, now returning to his home country after a visit of political meetings and cultural exchange. Only two months earlier, I was listening to similar sounds from another set of helicopters outside a lecture room at Hebrew University on a hot afternoon in Jerusalem, when the President of the United States was finishing his visit to the Middle East after his talk at the Israel Museum just next door to the university campus. And it strikes me now how the at times seemingly superficial, yet perhaps eventually potentially crucial political events coincide and sometimes intertwine with the lives of ordinary people.  

In much the same way William Shakespeare (1564–1616) describes a scene in his play King Henry VIII (1613), where two gentlemen discuss the passing “royal train” taking Queen Anne to her coronation in Westminster in May 1533 (act IV, scene i). This day, the first gentleman states, is one of “general joy”, and the second gentleman concurs:  

[T]he citizens,
I am sure, have shown at full their royal minds—
As, let ‘
em have their rights, they are ever forward—
In celebration of this day with shows,
Pageants and sights of honour.

To this the first gentleman answers:

Never greater,
Nor, I’ll assure you, better taken, sir.

We know, however, that also other voices were heard at this time in the streets of London. Contemporary accounts include references to violent and rude language and even mockery when the royal train was passing in the street. Many people were in favour of the recently dismissed Queen Catherine of Aragon, and they would not accept the new wife of the King easily. 

Yet, when Shakespeare was writing his play eighty years after the event, he knew that at the time of her coronation Queen Anne had already been pregnant with her only child, Princess Elizabeth. Although a male heir was what King Henry really wanted, Shakespeare had also seen that this future Queen Elizabeth I was to carry the Tudor legacy and make England greater than ever before. (So perhaps we can understand his artistic liberties of focussing on the positive acclamations…) Furthermore, now almost five centuries later, we can see how that child of Queen Anne became the first of remarkable English female monarchs with a long reign and a significant role in international politics and world peace.  

Like the royal train in Shakespeare’s play passes over the stage and gives way for a new theatrical scene, so too has the sound of the helicopters receded outside my bedroom window and other news topics top today’s headlines. Only time will tell which of these current scenes will be remembered in the future, how they will be retold, and what role they will play in international politics and world peace.     

 

Queen Elizabeth I (“The Ditchley portrait”) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (circa 1592), National Portrait Gallery, London. 

 

Pyhän kolminaisuus

Kolmisenkymmentä tutkijaa kokoontuu kolmeksi päiväksi Jerusalemiin keskustelemaan raamatun vaikutuksesta kirjallisuudessa samaan aikaan kun amerikkalaiset armeijan helikopterit halkovat ilmaa yliopistokampuksen yllä ja vain maailmanpoliittisesti merkittävä valtiovierailu löytää tiensä uutiskanavien tiedonvirtaan. Kuitenkin juuri tässä luentosalissa liikutetaan olemassaolon peruskalliota.

Kansainvälisen osallistujajoukon aiheet vaihtelevat heprean- ja kreikankielisten raamatuntekstien tulkintojen historiallis-kulttuurisista haasteista ja William Shakespearen (1564–1616) kuningasnäytelmien raamatullisista viittauksista aina John Miltonin (1608–74) vanhatestamentillisten tulkintojen soveltamiseen nykypäivän maailmanpolitiikkaan. Esitelmissä juutalainen, islamilainen ja kristitty kerrontatraditio kohtaavat ja erkanevat – ja kohtaavat taas.

Jerusalem itse kertaa samaa tarinaa: Katukilvet toistavat hepreaksi, arabiaksi ja englanniksi pyhistä kirjoista tuttuja paikannimiä ja tekevät historiasta ja tarinasta totta. Juutalaisen retkioppaan sanoin: “Kun historia, arkeologia ja traditio kohtaavat – ja jos niiden kertomat tarinat eroavat toisistaan – traditio voittaa, aina.”

Tutkijan tieteellinen esitys ei sisällä tunnustuksellisia elementtejä vaan pyrkii kaikessa objektiivisuuteen, ja esitykset on tässä asiayhteydessä riisuttu kaikista tunnustuksellisista tunnusmerkeistä. (Esimerkiksi ajalliset käsitteet viittaavat “toisen temppelin [historiallisesti todistettuun] aikaan”, ei uskonnollisen profeetan tai jumalan elämään perustuvaan ajanlaskuun – joskin kipa tai kaulariipus antavat viitteitä yksittäisen osallistujan omasta vakaumuksesta.) Tässä ympäristössä kuitenkin myös uskonnollisesta elementistä tulee väistämättä osa poikkitieteellistä jatkumoa ja raja analyysin ja elämyksen välillä hämärtyy. Koska kaupunki on niin avoimen kolmijakoinen, ottaa myös osallistujien oma tieteellinen ajattelu kantaa kolmijakoisuuteen.

Kirjallisuudentutkimuksen uskonnolliset raja-aidat ylittävä lähestymistapa seuraa osallistujia myös luentosalin ulkopuolelle pyhällä maalla. Tutkijat ovat juutalaisia, muslimeja ja kristittyjä. Joukossa on epäilijöitä ja etsijöitä; joku määrittelee itsensä ateistiksi. Moni on kääntynyt elämässään kerran, toiset vaeltavat vakaumusten varjoisassa välimaastossa. Nyt anglikaani polvistuu rukoukseen tabernaakkelin edessä, uskonnoton kastaa varovasti kätensä pyhään veteen, ja etsijä ostaa päänsä suojaksi lakin, johon on kirjailtu “I <3 Jesus”. Vanhassa kaupungissa minareettien kutsu sekoittuu länsimuurin rukouslauluun ja ristin tien hartaushetkiin. Opilliset yksityiskohdat sulautuvat yhteen, silmät sulkeutuvat, kädet nousevat kohti samaa korkeutta.

Tässä kiteytyy myös kirjallisuudentutkimuksen perimmäinen tehtävä: yhteisymmärryksen luominen ihmisten ja kansojen kesken. Kaupungissa, jossa yksi ja sama tienviitta johtaa eri vakaumusten edustajat kukin kohti omaa päämääräänsä (ja ehkä kohti samaa päämäärää?), tuntuu hetken siltä, että maailmanrauha voisi sittenkin olla mahdollinen.

(The Bible in the Renaissance and its Influences on Early Modern English Literature, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, 22-25 May 2017)

Jane Austen

At social events, from acquaintances as well as strangers, a teacher of literature often gets the question: So, what should I read? I just received that question again some days ago.  This year my answer is clear: Read Jane Austen.

Jane Austen (1775–1817) died on 18 July two-hundred years ago this summer. She is perhaps the best known and most widely read British author of the pre-Victorian era. Today, her stories also find their way to television and cinema, and the novels are loved almost to the point of metaphor: references to Pride and Prejudice (or to ‘first impressions’) as well as the concept of Mr Darcy seem to be “a truth universally acknowledged…”.

Jane Austen’s main work are her six completed novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815/16), Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion (1818). Most girls have read an Austen novel or two in their teenage years, and many have a strong favourite character or book; most men have at least seen a film of one of the novels when indulging their girlfriends – and they all have had to measure up to the hero.

Jane Austen novels are entertainment, as they should be. They were written in the dawn of the great English novel, when the strong purpose for prose writing of being educational and to engage was joined by the equally forceful need to move and entertain. The first versions of many Austen novels were first written for reading aloud to her family for entertainment. Yet, there is more to these seemingly light social and domestic novels with a heavy touch of irony and humour. In addition to writing about the social game of courtship and romance, Jane Austen writes about the intricacy of the human mind, the depth of emotion, and the pain of loss.

Jane Austen herself never married, despite the centrality of the topic of marriage in all her novels. She lost an opportunity for marriage when she was nineteen, when the family of the hoped-for fiancé rejected Jane as not socially his equal. In 1802, when she was 27, Jane herself turned down a proposal. The fundamental reason is not known, but much later, in 1814 Jane wrote to her niece Fanny in a letter instructing her on romance: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection”.

When looking at some of the chronology of Jane Austen’s own life and that of some her writing, there is some eerie number-symbolism in the intersection of the two. For example, in Sense and Sensibility (1811) there is a scene where Marianne states: “A woman of seven and twenty,… can never hope to feel or inspire affection again.” Also, at the outset of Persuasion (1818), the heroine Anne is a spinster of twenty-seven. Eight years earlier, we are told, at age nineteen, Anne had been persuaded by her mother’s friend, the widow Lady Russell, to break her engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth of the Royal Navy (as he was poor and of uncertain future). – Somehow, what happened to Jane Austen at the age of nineteen and again at twenty-seven, seems to be revisited in her novels.

My challenge for anyone who asks me to recommend reading for this summer is first to read an Austen biography*, and then read the novels, all of them. This way you can follow the narrative from the point of view of the author’s own life. Because, perhaps, under the romance and day-dreaming that these novels present, we can also find some clues to Jane Austen’s own dreams. Maybe the novels are a way for Jane Austen to write for her own life the happy ending she never herself received, to give herself an opportunity, if only in make-believe, to say ‘yes’ to love before it is too late.

Portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra Austen (circa 1810), National Portrait Gallery, London.

* For example, Carol Shields: Jane Austen (2001), Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (2012), Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen (2014) – or A Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh (1869).

 

Uppståndelsens mysterium

Den engelska prästen och poeten John Donne (1572–1631) skrev i början av 1600-talet en dikt om Kristi uppståndelse (”Resurrection, imperfect”). I den dikten ville han beskriva och förklara uppståndelsen på tre olika sätt, från tre olika synvinklar.

I den första delen av dikten, de första åtta raderna, jämför Donne Kristus med solen. Men när Kristus uppstår är solen och alla andra ljus överflödiga, allt världsligt ljus bleknar. Det här är en välkänd bild. I den andra delen av dikten, de följande åtta raderna, presenteras Kristus som de vises sten, som lades i graven men uppstod för att kunna förvandla allt det orena och oädla till heligt och rent. På Donnes tid var användningen av denna alkemistiska språkbild även starkare än idag, eftersom man trodde att det bortom människans dåtida kunskap och förstånd verkligen kunde finnas ett något så magiskt ämne. I den tredje och sista delen av dikten använder John Donne inte längre en språkbild, utan han försöker sig på att beskriva konkret själva händelsen. Han börjar beskriva vad man kunde ha sett om någon hade vittnat uppståndelsen.

Men denna sista del av dikten innefattar bara sex rader och slutar två rader före den poetiskt sett borde, och dikten förblir således ofullbordad. (Senare förläggare har tillagt orden Desunt Cætera, ”resten fattas”, efter dikten.) Än idag, fyrahundra år senare, tvistar litteraturvetare om hur det riktigt gick till: Visst borde en poet som John Donne ha hittat de sista rimmen för att slutföra dikten? Varför klarade han inte av att beskriva konkret det han förklarat bildligt just innan?

Eller ville John Donne kanske genom att lämna dikten oavslutad visa att det här alltid förblir ett mysterium för människan: att människan inte kan förstå och därför inte kan med ord beskriva det under som uppståndelsen innebär? För Donne var det här ett mycket större under än en sol som får alla världens ljus att blekna eller de vises sten som förvandlar oädla metaller till guld. Det tomrum som dessa saknade rader skapar visar för Donne på det hisnande avståndet mellan mänsklig strävan och gudomlig fullkomlighet som han själv kämpade med hela sitt liv. Kanske svaret på mysteriet för Donne ligger i de här två diktraderna som inte finns.

(En tidigare version av den här texten har publicerats i Matteusbilagan i Kyrkpressen (nr. 13/2010). Texten publiceras här med tillstånd av chefredaktör May Wikström.)

Time

For a mother, there are always moments when you want time to stop: holding your newborn in your arms; seeing your toddler explore the world; or spending precious moments with a child already leading their own life. Life often gives us moments when we feel the need to stop the clocks, step down from the busy highway of life, seize the wheel of time.

John Donne (1572–1631) also had moments when he voiced a similar yearning to master the flow of time. Three poetic instances especially come to mind:

Firstly, Donne’s poem “A Valediction of my name, in the window” shows a magical moment of the poet inscribing his name on glass with a diamond. The poet imagines his lover looking at the inscription and seeing her own reflection in the glass at the same time, and thus his work blurs the parameters of time and place. Most importantly, however, this inscription is eternal and “[s]o shall all times finde mee the same” – at his happiest, most content, safe perhaps.*

The second moment is probably the best known from Donne’s poetry, the poem “The Sunne Rising”. Here Donne (or the speaker, but with Donne that often feels like one and the same person anyway) has been interrupted in his lovemaking to his mistress (and now we tend to believe that this would in fact be his wife and the sole love of his life, Anne More). Donne commands the “[b]usie old foole, unruly Sunne” to go wake schoolboys and tell courtmen the time – but to leave the lovers alone, because love “no season knowes, no clyme, / Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time”.

Finally, in his Holy Sonnet “At the round earths imagin’d corners”, depicting the Day of Judgement, Donne asks God to let the dead still sleep, and to let him “mourne a space”, in order for him to be able to repent and be ready for judgement. Here, too Donne takes to his verbal powers to stop time, at the very last moment, in order to be able to stay in a place in time where God’s mercy and grace still abounds.

This image of man stopping time is closely related to the concept of carpe diem, of seizing of the day, introduced by the Roman poet Horace, and made especially famous in English verse in early modern time by Donne’s late contemporaries like Robert Herrick (1591–1674) and Andrew Marvell (1621–78). With carpe diem the point is to make the best of a moment, not to waste the precious time we are given. However, Donne’s pursuit to master time seems more intense than that, more violent perhaps, more desperate at least, more eager. Donne does not content himself by making the best of a given moment; he wants to hold on to it, be in control of time.

Donne saw the times treat his Catholic family harshly; he experienced the loss of wife and children. He himself almost lost his life in illness, and he realised that indeed, “no man is an island… ”. Life was not always kind to him, and more than once he hoped not only to seize the day but make time stop, give him a breathing-space, let him regroup and decide where and how best to move on. – There were also many moments of love, of gratitude, and of deepest divine devotion. Then too, Donne would gladly have stopped time for a while, to keep happiness close, to savour the moment.

All in all, Donne seems very confident of his power to master time and make it pass – or not – at his command. Although he was strongly aware of all aspects of the heliocentric worldview, especially, we know, of Keplerian thought, he liked to revisit the Medieval reality of an orbiting sun and rising stars in his imagery. So he commands the planets and the temporal realities as well as God’s own composition of time. And he does not plead; he seems to be stating in an assertive imperative like Joshua (“Sun, stand thou still…”) – yet, “there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man” (cf. Joshua 10:12–14). Time just does not do that. It tends to move on, everyday – and day by day a little faster it seems. But I can relate to Donne. Not only do I wish to stop for a moment every now and then; I want the moment to stop for me.

Donne’s signature from the title page of Donne’s copy of a book by Johannes Kepler; image reproduced by permission of the Benchers of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.

* Poetry quoted from The Complete Poetry of John Donne, edited by John T. Shawcross (1967); Bible quotations from the King James version.