holding to her breast the old kind world

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro:

“Because whatever the song was really about, in my head, when I was dancing, I had my own version. You see, I imagined it was about this woman who’d been told she couldn’t have babies. But then she’d had one, and she was so pleased, and she was holding it ever so tightly to her breast, really afraid something might separate them, and she’s going baby, baby, never let me go. That’s not what the song’s about at all, but that’s what I had in my head that time. Maybe you read my mind, and that’s why you found it so sad. I didn’t think it was so sad at the time, but now, when I think back, it does feel a bit sad.”

“…That’s most interesting. But I was no more a mind-reader then than today. I was weeping for an altogether different reason. When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else. I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go.”

I could make anything a body wanted

Yesterday, we finished listening as a whole family to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. It was a car trip listen, and we drove by the Mark Twain House near Hartford while hearing the last chapter. It was my second reading, and it seemed a rather bleak double satire (on both the “old” and the “new” England) by this Mississippi River boy. The critique of old England is bitter and relentless. However, I’m not sure that Yankee New England fairs any better in the end. For example, it’s hard not to read this passage without a hint of satirical critique against the spirit of “Yankee ingenuity.”

I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words. My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one—and do it as easy as rolling off a log.

In the moments after the end of the book, Nessa (14 years old) said wanted to name her first baby girl “Hello Central” in honor of Sandy and her child. Nessa was really sad to think of this mother and child abandoned in the sixth century as a victim of the dueling powers of Merlin’s magic verses the Yankee’s modern science. Both kids had some very thoughtful questions about the story. Merlin’s old sorcery powers were mocked throughout, but they seemed to come out decisively ahead in the end (banishing the Yankee through time and getting a grizzly “last laugh”). Twain was a wild and tragic fellow.

cowled with smoke and starred with lamps

Modern Elfland
by G.K. Chesterton

I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
That fell out of an angel’s wings.

I filled my wallet with white stones,
I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
And so I went to fairyland.

But lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
That telleth where she takes a town.

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone.

Not Nature’s hand had ever curved
That mute unearthly porter’s spine.
Like sleeping dragon’s sudden eyes
The signals leered along the line.

The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

I read the name above a door,
Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
And thou hast looked on it at last.’

after this cruel analysis

“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Païssy began, without preface, “that the science of this world, which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analysed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. After this cruel analysis the learned of this world have nothing left of all that was sacred of old. But they have only analysed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvellous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardour of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ of old. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque.”

…The philosophic reflections he had just heard so unexpectedly testified to the warmth of Father Païssy’s heart. He was in haste to arm the boy’s mind for conflict with temptation and to guard the young soul left in his charge with the strongest defence he could imagine.

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (p. 116), book IV (“Lacerations”), chapter 1 (“Father Ferapont”).

irresistibly impelled to welcome life with gratitude

From pages 114-115 of “Creative Vow as the Essence of Fatherhood” in Homo Viator by Gabriel Marcel (1965):

The man of today tends to establish, as far as he can, an order of things in which the words “to place oneself at life’s disposal” have literally no meaning. This is true above all in so far as he asserts the primacy of technics and technical knowledge. …Technics are seen as all the systematized methods which enable man to subordinate nature, considered as blind or even rebellious, to his own ends. But it must be noted that the point at which man’s powers of wonder are applied is thus inevitably shifted: what now seems worthy of admiration is above all technical skill in all its forms, it is no longer in any way the spontaneous course of phenomena, which has on the contrary rather to be controlled and domesticated, somewhat as a river is by locks. This admiration is tinged with a shade of defiance of a truly Luciferian character, it can hardly be separated from the consciousness of a revenge taken upon Nature whose yoke it has borne so long and so impatiently. This is particularly clear with regard to living nature. …Without any given reason, they agree to regard life itself as a “sale blague” (rotten humbug), or at least as the rumbling of threatening possibilities against which it would be impossible to take too many precautions, whereas formerly it was hailed as a revelation, or at the very least a promise and pledge of a marvelous and unlimited renewal. …It is to be noticed in passing that the development of prophylactic methods and of systems of insurance, because at bottom these correspond to analogous inner tendencies, have helped to foment in souls a spirit of suspicious vigilance, which is perhaps incompatible with the inward eagerness of a being who is irresistibly impelled to welcome life with gratitude.

both hands are stopped at noon

How have we invaded the moon? Is the moon’s light not as potent now that we have stepped upon its face? I love space exploration, but this poem is still profoundly true. Our imaginations wax dangerously rootless, shiny, sterilized and inhumane. Thanks to the student who taught me this poem today.

The End of Science Fiction
by Lisel Mueller

This is not fantasy, this is our life.
We are the characters
who have invaded the moon,
who cannot stop their computers.
We are the gods who can unmake
the world in seven days.

Both hands are stopped at noon.
We are beginning to live forever,
in lightweight, aluminum bodies
with numbers stamped on our backs.
We dial our words like Muzak.
We hear each other through water.

The genre is dead. Invent something new.
Invent a man and a woman
naked in a garden,
invent a child that will save the world,
a man who carries his father
out of a burning city.
Invent a spool of thread
that leads a hero to safety,
invent an island on which he abandons
the woman who saved his life
with no loss of sleep over his betrayal.

Invent us as we were
before our bodies glittered
and we stopped bleeding:
invent a shepherd who kills a giant,
a girl who grows into a tree,
a woman who refuses to turn
her back on the past and is changed to salt,
a boy who steals his brother’s birthright
and becomes the head of a nation.
Invent real tears, hard love,
slow-spoken, ancient words,
difficult as a child’s
first steps across a room.