Outside the temperatures had sunk to -5 C, it was dark and the pavements had turned slippery under the first thin dusting of snow. With each minute that passed, the 7 pm concert across the road in the palace chapel seemed to drift away in the stream of events unattended, on cold winter nights when the couch and a warm blanket beckoned.
The bell to the front door signalled that my husband had come home just in time to stop the slumber of bears. “Shall we go?” he asked rhetorically, infused with the heady energy of a clear winter’s night. The aperture for an evening out that had nearly shut now shot wide open, and within minutes we were making our way past the cressets that lined the path to the royal chapel.
Under the embossed dome with flickering candles inside glass holders, the discomfort of the hard wooden pews seemed the only reminder of earthliness. Thin whispers effervesced in the silence, until a lithe, pale man in a grey suit and sky blue tie broke the quiet with his shoe soles on the stone floor. He bowed to the audience, then turned to the harpsichord and sat down, laying soft eyes on the two rows of keys that had become lovers and old friends, in hours, days and years of practice.
Barely without a pause, he played the thirty variations on the opening aria, composed and published by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1741 as an antidote to insomnia for one of his patrons. By all accounts, at the outset Bach regarded this as a monotonous exercise, something like counting sheep. But maybe even the genius surprised himself.
I struggled to follow the agile fingers as they flew across the keyboards, often moving at a velocity and in contortions that made the performance seem like Olympic gymnastics. There was a call to faith in this music that challenged and sometimes even panicked me with its divergent melodies, but that always came together, acknowledging that the threads had never really been separate at all.
In the Variations I caught a glimpse of what polyphony can teach us. There is an aria, a harmonic interdependence, to which we all tend and in which we all move. If we do not recognize it, even fight it, there will be no music, only chaos and collapse. This part of who we are - every being connected, every note connected – must be acknowledged in an organized way in a score. It is the very frame by which independent rhythms and contours are set free to play. We can be who we are – the variations - if we can acknowledge that we are humans first.
"The Variations" is published as part of a new series in my blog sharing reflections on the necessity of a global identity.
What does a child living in a small Albanian town that has stood since Medieval times see as World War II grips his home? The familiar stone walls that have always stood sturdy shivering night after night under the bombings. The skies and the earth that seemed to exist in a perpetual harmonious marriage suddenly pitted against one another. Familiar figures gone mad, turning on people they have known all their lives, or suddenly lifeless in heaps on the streets. Grotesque absurdities such as the severed arm of a British airman becoming "the hand that works miracles" in a monastery, to which people in desperation make pilgrimages.
In Ismail Kadare's semi-autobiographical account, Chronicle in Stone (1971), a child's world of magical timelessness struggles to survive as the drumbeat of war intensifies.
This one will stay with me. In particular, the account of the town's medieval citadel taking back the city it had given birth to, as the townspeople seek shelter there:
The fortress was indeed very old. It had given birth to the city, and our houses resembled the citadel the way children look like their mothers. Over the centuries, the city had grown up a lot. Although the fortress was in good condition, no one ever thought that one day it would have the strength to take its offspring, the city, under its protection. That was a terrifying return to the past. It was like someone going back into the womb. (p. 188)
"It is sweet and fitting..."
One hundred years after its end, we still live in its embers. For an event, so horrific and wrong that led to so many other horrors and wrongs, perhaps we must always.
Below, a poem from one who was there, who lost all illusions perpetuated in the corrupt tales of heroic wars, and who summoned the courage to face the abyss in his poetry:
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
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.
Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
- Wilfred Owen, a poem written from Craiglockhart Hospital, 1917. Owen died in battle, one week to the hour before the signing of the Armistice one hundred years ago, today.
"You must read Austerlitz," they said, until it became like a mantra, so that inside I began to build up a resistance to the book, without even once having laid eyes on it. When too many people repeat the same sound, I seek other sounds and walk way.
Yet, like all people through the ages, even those who claim that we live in a world that can be explained, I have often wondered how much I decide and how much is preordained, and, if preordained, by what. On some days, I insist that my journeys are of my own making, and on others this insistence seems a deficiency of the will to see.
A friend finally brought Austerlitz to me, and, as an act of resistance, which today I understand as fear of self-recognition, I kept it under a pile of other books, though its haunting black and white cover seemed to fly out of the pile like a genie that cast a spell over my thoughts.
One day, when the force of what must happen became too great to be held back, I began to read and came to a passage in one of the early chapters that explained everything:
"Since my childhood and youth...I have never known who I really was. From where I stand now, of course, I can see that my name alone, and the fact that it was kept from me until my fifteenth year, ought to have put me on the track of my origins, but it has also become clear to me of late, why an agency greater than or superior to my own capacity for thought, which circumspectly directs operations somewhere in my brain, has always preserved me from my own secret, systematically preventing me from drawing the obvious conclusions and embarking on the inquiries they would have suggested to me. It hasn't been easy to make my way out of my own inhibitions, and it will not be easy now to put the story into anything like proper order." - Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (Penguin 2001), pp. 60-61
It was Austerlitz's story, but it was also mine.