Tag Archives: Baudelaire

To feel astonished is to be disturbed.

I only got a face mask last week, and this week I tied a piece of drapery cord to the ear loops, so that I can leave it hanging around my neck when I am not exactly “in public.” Otherwise, I might be fined $1,000 if I am discovered without it covering my face.

On this morning’s walk I never needed it, as I went earlier and on the southern creekside route that is less traveled. In some places honeysuckle escaped from a back yard and has climbed all over the trees along the bank:

I began to think again, as I have done so often throughout my life, about the verse,

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Every time I muse it is from a new perspective, of course. Today I considered how king and happy are words with many levels and shades of meaning, and in our minds they live in a context that is rich with metaphor and our individual experience.

A child might think he’d like to be a king, and tell people what to do, and order his servants to bring him cookies or pizza whenever he wants. But we older and wiser ones think, How happy can a king be, anyway? What a job, being a king!! Too much work, right? I’m sure some kings (rulers) get into the business because they want to profit from it, but true happiness could never result from that motivation.

“The ‘whole good’ cannot be had, it would seem, without mustering all the strength of our inner life. Even in the sphere of external possessions there are goods which inherently demand, if they are to be truly ours, far more of us than mere acquisition. ‘My garden,’ the rich man said; his gardener smiled.” – Josef Pieper

A king who has nothing but leisure will not long be king. And the thought of leisure made me think on something else that I have returned to again and again, the title of Josef Pieper’s book: Leisure, the Basis of Culture. He presented it as five lectures in 1947. I have never read the book, I say to my shame. Until now, the title alone was evocative enough. I did get another book by Pieper which I have not finished reading, and right now I can’t find it on my shelves, either. But thanks to Goodreads I have been nourished this morning by excerpts from various of his books. (All the quotes in brown here are from him.) And I found a helpful review (I have read many such reviews) in case you’re interested, by James W. Schall: “On Pieper’s Leisure and Living Well.” This short explanation of Pieper’s idea of leisure is good, too: “It is not laziness, but rather an inner silence that enables one to see reality.”

But long before I got home, I continued to think about that book I haven’t read, as I walked up and down the path pictured at top. I didn’t want to continue up to the street and on my usual loop, because I knew there were many people walking on the pavement above; my own newly mown swath by the creek I didn’t have to share with another soul. It was my own little kingdom for a while. So I turned around and came back, and I did that three times altogether, which added up to about two miles.

I’m afraid I had gone back to thinking about work instead of leisure, giving a nod as I passed by, to the idea of culture. What about all the work I need to be doing in my kingdom of my house? We have completed the fast with its spiritual labors, its fitness training for the soul, and are reminded that we can live, especially during this Bright Week, “Renewal Week,” in the glorious light of the Resurrection. I know our priest said something last night or this morning, about what our focus should be, but I forgot already. The sun was shining this morning as is so appropriate on the mornings of Bright Week, so I took another screen shot of the church during the streamed Morning Prayers.

In spite of its being Bright Week, I was thinking about how as a king I could really use a few servants, in order to get my work done — even one servant! I’m sure the construction workers are all wishing they could get over here, too, and finish a few tasks that will liberate me to be a good steward over that part of my realm, and create culture, if you will.

But the kingdom of my soul…. it has servants enough, doesn’t it? My body, with its legs and arms, and mouth and brain. Even when we can’t do our usual kinds of work, we can bear the responsibility for our souls, by “strong activity” that Pieper describes:

“…Enduring comprises a strong activity of the soul, namely, a vigorous grasping of and clinging to the good; and only from this stout-hearted activity can the strength to support the physical and spiritual suffering of injury and death be nourished.”

Enduring, grasping, clinging… those sound sound like the realities of my days.

And he warns us: “Separated from the sphere of divine worship, of the cult of the divine, and from the power it radiates, leisure is as impossible as the celebration of a feast. Cut off from the worship of the divine, leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.”

Those of us who know how to be thankful have the power to enjoy leisure and to escape boredom: “The vacancy left by absence of worship is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom, which is directly related to inability to enjoy leisure; for one can only be bored if the spiritual power to be leisurely has been lost. There is an entry in Baudelaire’s Journal Intime that is fearful in the precision of its cynicism: ‘One must work, if not from taste then at least from despair. For, to reduce everything to a single truth: work is less boring than pleasure.’”

Oh, poor Beaudelaire! By the gifts of God throughout my life I have eyes (hmm – more servants!) to see the beauty and glory around me and to know to Whom to give thanks. So I was ready when I saw one of these by the creek! It’s a Mourning Cloak. This is not my picture, but mine were good enough for my Seek app to help me identify it:

“Happiness… even the smallest happiness, is like a step out of Time,
and the greatest happiness is sharing in Eternity.”

The plague of coronavirus that seems to cover the earth is not the only plague that afflicts us, or the most ruinous one. That many humans are unable to obtain true leisure or to enjoy it, is a terrible disease. It seems worse to me than the true laziness I surely fall into.

I know that most people I talk to are feeling at loose ends at least occasionally these days, when it might be expected that we would be able to use all this extra time to accomplish more than we do. Are we lazy, or working? Something is going on in our souls, and I think that for me it may be partly attributed to this idea that Pieper sets forth:

“Wonder does not make one industrious, for to feel astonished is to be disturbed.”

I only pray that I will be disturbed in the right direction, toward Him Who fills all in all.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

The Power of a Great Melancholy

“Automat” is a picture of sadness — and yet it is not a sad picture. It has the power of a great melancholy piece of music. Despite the starkness of the furnishings, the location itself does not seem wretched. Others in the room may be on their own as well, men and women drinking coffee by themselves, similarly lost in thought, similarly distanced from society: a common isolation with the beneficial effect of lessening the oppressive sense within any one person that they are alone in being alone. In roadside diners and late-night cafeterias, hotel lobbies and station cafés, we may dilute a feeling of isolation in a lonely public place and hence rediscover a distinctive sense of community. The lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture may come as a relief from what are often the false comforts of home. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a living room with wallpaper and framed photos, the décor of a refuge that has let us down.

In this second chapter of his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about people who travel more from an unhappiness at being home than from a desire for recreation. He includes reproductions and commentary on other paintings by Edward Hopper (whose “Automat” is the painting at the top of the page): “Gas,” “Compartment C, Car 293,” and “Hotel Room.”

The themes in the paintings here seem primarily to be isolation and loneliness, but to expand the scope of the chapter titled “Travel Places,” the author also introduces the life and writings of Charles Baudelaire, whose work was a significant influence on Hopper, it turns out.

Baudelaire

Baudelaire, who from an early age wanted nothing more than to flee from home, all his life “felt more at home in the transient places of travel than in his own dwelling.” Not that he ever seems to have escaped the restlessness he describes: “Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.”

My own childhood and temperament having made me a perpetual home-lover, I’m unable to fully understand these dissatisfied impulses, but I have done a bit of solitary traveling now and again. I liked it because I like being alone, but I also always had caring people on one or both ends of my journey, and a measure of peace knowing that the One Who loves me most was right with me. 

Otherwise, I might have said with Baudelaire:

Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here!
Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears!

I’ve struggled for weeks to write on this part of de Botton’s book, knowing that the topic is really too difficult for me, but wanting to tackle it because it’s fundamental to our existence. What line divides a peaceful solitude and a painful loneliness? Can any one of us hope to understand another person’s experience of isolation? Is loneliness an essential ingredient of human life, at least a step on our way to maturity?

In this book on travel we can’t expect to find a deep exploration of these ideas. Or even a nod to the question of whether we in the 21st century experience our loneliness any differently from Hopper’s subjects. In the whole book there is not a mention of cell phones or the array of social networking tools that seem to prevent any of us from being part of a scene such as de Botton describes in the paragraph above. Perhaps it’s a deliberate omission, and he hopes to gently propel the reader back to a low-tech experience of being alone.

But being with strangers in an airport or service station nowadays likely means being surrounded by people using electronic devices that exclude them from any here-and-now community, lonely or otherwise. We know that many of them/us are doing this in an effort to have friends, to be in community, all the while missing possible opportunities to connect with people present in the same room. How might this development change the dynamics of a place like the automat?

De Botton writes about his own bad feelings being transformed while sitting in similar place, into a “gentle, even pleasant kind of loneliness,” and he values Hopper’s paintings that “allowed their viewers to witness an echo of their own grief and thereby feel less personally persecuted and beset by it.”

Hopper – Night Shadows

As I pondered the meaning of loneliness, I thought for a long time that de Botton is trivializing it. Along the way I read various writers on the subject in hopes of understanding everything better. Of course de Botton writes from his own experience, and it must be that his own feelings are not on the level of acute alienation, nor is he destitute of support, to use some synonyms. If he had known what some people feel as catastrophic and terrifying, what John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara: The Book of Celtic Wisdom, calls “…the solitude of suffering, when you go through darkness that is lonely, intense, and terrible. Words become powerless to express your pain…” I don’t know that he would make these fairly easy remedies, such as looking at paintings and riding on trains, sound plausible.

De Botton is such a pragmatist, as evidenced by his use of religion, that if he had in fact suffered an agony of soul I would expect him to be one of the many people who tell us that loneliness is the human condition. Get over it, make use of it, learn to live with yourself and with the knowledge that you are completely alone and there is no fixing it.

Even Jesus was lonely, after all. In his darkest hour, when he might have taken some comfort from his friends at least standing by, they fell asleep and left him all alone and feeling forsaken. And this shows that he did take on the whole of the plight of being human.

It’s an aspect of our lives that we in the modern age are especially prone to and sickened by, but it’s not what we were made for. We were made in the image of God, The Holy Trinity, where all Life resides — God in three persons, a unity of Love, as Bishop Timothy Ware explains in his book The Orthodox Church:

Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Fedorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. Man, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that man can understand who he is and what God intends him to be.

God is personal, that is to say, Trinitarian. This God who acts is not only a God of energies, but a personal God. When man participates in the divine energies, he is not overwhelmed by some vague and nameless power, but he is brought face to face with a person. Nor is this all: God is not simply a single person confined within his own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom ‘dwells’ in the other two, by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union.

If all the humans you know fail in their love toward you — and they likely will — and if you feel alienated from society, from God, even from your true self, your salvation does not lie in accepting this situation as All There Is. As St. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

In the Church we can be brought into communion with the Holy Trinity and with other people who are learning to participate in that “perpetual movement of love.” This is the opposite of alienation, but we may have to go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to get there. If that’s what it takes for us to realize our need, and to become desperate enough to cry out to the only One who will never disappoint us or hurt us, we might consider it the power of a great melancholy.

This is the fourth in a series on The Art of Travel. The other posts are
Introduction
Possessing Beauty
What Van Gogh Can Do