Friday, December 23, 2011

"Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem"

What’s remarkable about “Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem” by Maya Angelou (see previous post) is that it celebrates, not the birth of the Christian “savior,” but “the Birth of Jesus Christ/Into the great religions of the world.”

The poem takes a Christian holiday and uses it to signify a universal human longing for Peace.  It speaks as a universal “we,” voicing the hunger for Peace shared by “Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim….Jew…Jainist…the Catholic and the Confucian…Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers.”

In this poem the birth of Christianity does not usher in a superior religion so much as a new iteration of an ancient hope for Peace harbored in the human heart, regardless of what religious belief that heart might be bound to or whether it is bound to any such belief at all.  The hope for Peace transcends belief and non-belief.  And in that spirit, Christmas, like most religious holidays, can speak to all of us.

A non-Christian might conceivably resent the use of Christmas as a universal symbol, as opposed to a holiday from their own belief system.  Likewise an atheist might scoff at the idea of a religious holiday representing a secular value.  Yet who can resist the appeal of “lights of joy,” “bells of hope,” “carols of forgiveness,” “absence of war,” “harmony of spirit,” “comfort,” “security,” or “a halting of hate”?

The poem not only seeks to transcend religious differences but also those of color, calling on us “to look beyond complexions and see community.”  It is easy to dismiss such grand appeals as sentimental tripe or blind hypocrisy, but that would leave us with nothing but cynicism.  Surely we would rather live with ideals to aspire to than total resignation to conflict, strife, hate, and war.  It is those ideals of peace on earth and good will to all that gives the Christmas season its universal appeal, whether celebrated as a religious or a secular holiday.

How does the form of the poem reinforce and enhance its message?  It uses unrhymed free verse, which conveys a sense of openness, with a combination of parallelism and line breaks to create a rhythmic, poetic effect.  While the rhythm is hardly regular, it fits with the irregular pattern of nature evoked in images of thunder, lightning, flood, and avalanche, which the poem uses to represent the “climate of fear and apprehension” into which “Christmas enters.”

With the entry of Christmas the poem turns from images of nature’s destructiveness to more human images of “bells,” “carols,” “faces of children,” “shoulders of our aged,” the “whisper” of a “word,” the word “Peace.” And later it is through “language” that we “translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.”  It is through our “voices” that we “jubiliate,” “shout,” and “speak” Peace into being.

The shift from natural to human imagery conveys the idea that it is our human responsibility and capability—not that of a natural or supernatural power--to achieve the human ideals of peace, brotherhood, sisterhood, and atonement.

Though the poem uses images of “light,” which invoke the natural phenomenon of the Winter Solstice, the Peace that it celebrates is a human creation.  And while the creative power of the Word has parallels to God’s use of language in the creation story of Genesis, the focus of the poem is on human voices and human speech.

Just as humans created “the great religions of the world,” so we created the dream of Peace, and so we are responsible for making that dream a reality on earth.  That would indeed be an “Amazing Peace.”

A Christmas Poem

"Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem"

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightening rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait awhile with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.

Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you to stay awhile with us
so we may learn by your shimmering light
how to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
to translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ

Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices to celebrate the promise of

We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.

We look at our world and speak the word aloud.

We look at each other, then into ourselves,
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul

--Maya Angelou

Monday, December 19, 2011

"The Gift of the Magi"

In case you can’t find the significance in “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry is sure to tell you.

As if the title were not enough, he directly compares the young couple “who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house” to the wise men “who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.”  And then he declares them “the wisest” of “all who give and receive gifts….They are the magi.”
Unwise because they sell their most valuable possessions, Della her hair and Jim his watch, so that she can buy him a watch chain and he can buy her a set of combs.  Yet wise because their love for each other is greater than their love for their “greatest treasures.”

The message is sentimental, beautiful, and hard to miss:  human love is by far the greatest gift, greater than any material gift, regardless of its value.
I have no quarrel with the message, but it might have been more effectively delivered if O. Henry had just told the story and spared us the commentary.

And forgive me if I find the buying and selling of hair somewhat discomforting, to say the least, but maybe that’s because of my daughter’s recent meeting with the rather strange proprietor of Leila’s Hair Museum in Kansas City (  Beyond that, though, hair is traditionally associated with power and sexuality.  Think Samson and Rapunzel.  Is there a subliminal and, no doubt, wholly unintended message in Della giving up her power and taming her sexuality?  Does she turn herself into the traditional submissive, modest wife of the Victorian era, sacrificing her independence and assertiveness on the altar of love and marriage?  Or am I stretching it a bit?
And Jim, selling his father’s watch.  Would it be a stretch to see that act as symbolic of an Oedipal killing of the father?  Probably.  But, if you see it that way, then, perhaps his newly shorn Della is, Oedipally speaking, a substitute for his, no doubt, very proper Victorian mother.

Now we’ve really gone out on an interpretive limb.  You can be the judge of whether “The Gift of the Magi” is a sweet, simple, sentimental story of love and sacrifice or whether it masks a representation of darker depths hidden in the human psyche.  In any case, Merry Christmas! (Or, should I say "Bah, Humbug!"?)

Friday, December 16, 2011

"A Christmas Memory"

When I read this story by Truman Capote as a teenager, it didn’t make much of an impression.  Reading it again recently, I dismissed it at first as a “nice, sentimental story,” but really nothing of significance.

I know better than that though.  There is always something of significance to be found in the texts that humans produce, even if they are unintended, sometimes especially if they are unintended.  In “A Christmas Memory” there is, of course, the irony of the seven-year-old boy and the 60+-year-old woman, who is “still a child,” being best friends, and there is the pathos of the two marginalized family members clinging to each other’s companionship.  But beyond irony and poignancy, where is the significance to be found?

In rereading and rethinking the story, I noticed that while the first-person narrator is called by the nickname “Buddy,” we don’t know his real name (though we assume it is the author), and the woman, his distant cousin, is never named.  Buddy refers to her throughout as “my friend.”  The other “relatives” in the house are also unnamed, but they are the ones who seem to occupy the center of the household, in which Buddy and his friend are outsiders.
The lack of names for the relatives can be explained from the perspective of the narrator and his friend:  “…though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole too much aware of them.”  But why the lack of specific identity for the two main characters?  Perhaps their namelessness underscores their status as near outcasts in the family (at least in their eyes).  Could part of the significance lie in the importance of belonging and community, even if it is a family community, to individual identity?  As Buddy and his friend turn to each other to reinforce their sense of self, we recognize the formative power of relationships.  Though their family situation is sad, the two characters experience great joy and delight together.

And it is this irony which brings us to the larger significance of the story.  While there are religious references in this “Christmas” story, there is no mention of Christ’s birth, though such a reference would fit well with the larger pattern in the narrative of life and light emerging from darkness.
Christ’s birth, however, is less important than the season of the natural year, the darkening days, the coming winter solstice, and the return of the sun’s light.  The most meaningful religious pattern in the story is more pagan than Christian.

This pantheistic theme is reinforced by the most explicit religious reference in the story when Buddy’s friend exclaims, while gesturing toward “clouds and kites and grass”:  “I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself.  That things as they are…just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him.  As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”
And, years later, when Buddy learns of his friend’s death, on a December morning, it is the kites they made for each other their last Christmas together that he imagines “rather like hearts…hurrying toward heaven.”

Like the rebirth of light in the midst of winter’s darkness, it is the memory of human joy and delight two unlikely friends created together that somehow brightens the reality of death and loss.
Thus does “A Christmas Memory” reenact the ancient mythic theme of spring emerging from winter, light from darkness, and life from death.  Such is the significance of the story, and in that spirit, I wish you all a most Happy Winter Solstice!

Monday, December 5, 2011

"The Invisible Man"

This short story is one of a series of Father Brown detective stories by G. K. Chesterton. See my "Dracula I" blog post (September 2010) for an overview of the genre invented by Edgar Allen Poe.

The typical detective story begins with a scene of relative normality followed by the crime and an investigation by an unconventional detective, who uses his/her, special powers of deduction and observation to solve the crime.

One part of the appeal of the genre is the contrast between rational order and the irrationality of the crime. Historically, the detective story participates in a cultural debate over human nature. Is it rational or irrational? If both, which is stronger? In the gothic tale, the protagonist may escape the irrational forces, but those forces remain unexplained and/or undefeated. In the detective story, on the other hand, the rational powers of the detective overcome the irrationality of the crime. Psychologically, the irrationality creates anxiety, which is relieved when the superior detective solves the mystery and restores the reader to rational order.

On another level, the conflict between the rational and irrational is akin to the conflict between good and evil, with the power of evil ascendant in the gothic tale and overcome by the power of good in the detective story. Unlike the religious representation of good and evil as angelic or demonic in traditional morality narratives, in the gothic tale and detective story, evil is represented either by human psychology and behavior or by the secular supernatural, such as monsters, ghosts, etc.

Unlike the typical detective story, “The Invisible Man” begins with a kind of bizarre courtship narrative in which a young man, Angus, enters a confectioner’s shop and proceeds to propose to the young woman who works there. She then tells her “suitor” of two other rivals for her affection (described as “freaks”) who had previously proposed to her. She had refused both of them with the excuse that she would never marry anyone who had not made his own way in the world. One of those rivals, Welkin, she claims is haunting her. She has heard his voice and his laugh but can’t see him. Just after receiving a letter from the other rival, Smythe, announcing his success as an inventor of household machines for doing domestic chores, she clearly hears the invisible Welkin say, “He shan’t have you though.”

As Miss Hope is telling this story, Smythe arrives, presumably to renew his suit, and announces that a message written on “stamp paper” has been pasted on the glass outside the store. The message reads, “If you marry Smythe, he will die.” It is the same writing as in a series of threatening letters Smythe has been receiving. All thought of courtship disappears at this point, as Angus offers to solicit the help of a brilliant detective friend to solve the mystery.

The two men stop at Smythe’s residence and discover another threatening note: “If you have been to see her today, I shall kill you.” Angus goes to fetch his detective friend, leaving four others—the janitor, the doorman, a chestnut seller, and a policeman—to keep an eye out and make sure no one enters Smythe’s door. When he returns, however, not only with the detective but also with the detective’s friend, Father Brown, they discover that Smythe has been murdered. All four of the watchmen swear they saw no one enter.

In the end, Father Brown, solves the mystery. Welkin, it seems, had disguised himself as a postman, delivered all the letters himself, put up the message on the store window, walked past the four watchmen, stabbed Smythe to death, stuffed his corpse in a mail sack, and disposed of the body in a nearby canal. The “invisible man,” as Brown says, was only “mentally invisible,” as no one notices a postman coming or going or carrying a large bag.

Mystery solved, the “detective” goes back to his rooms, Father Brown takes a walk with the murderer, presumably to reform him, and Angus goes back to courting Miss Hope.

Most everything in this story is bizarre, from the opening courtship, to the story of the two rivals, to the “invisible man,” to Smythe’s domestic inventions, to the crime itself, to the brilliant “detective” who doesn’t solve the crime, to the priest who does.

What does this detective story contribute to the historical debate over human nature? To the reader’s psychology? To the theme of good and evil? Considering that the most rational character is Father Brown, a priest, who presumably relies as much on faith in the supernatural as on rationality, the story seems to suggest that everyday “reality” and “rational order” are not that much more rational than the criminal and the crime. Considering how outlandish the story is as a whole, it is more likely to create hilarity than anxiety in most readers. Similarly, it is rather difficult to take it seriously as a moral conflict between good and evil. It might make more sense to see the story as nothing more than a spoof on the detective story genre.

Some readers might seek a religious message in that the brilliant detective turns out to be a priest, who has enough faith in humanity to seek the criminal’s reformation. However, the priest’s powers of detection are purely secular in nature and his faith in the criminal’s humanity might be as bizarre as anything else in the story.

One common feature of the detective story genre is the “double,” that is the detective and the criminal somehow mirror each other, or the notion that “it takes a thief,” by which the detective internalizes the criminal’s psychology. Although “The Invisible Man” does not suggest that Father Brown and Welkin are doubles, it’s curious to consider the possibility of a priest having a criminal psychology.  A twist on the "double" in this story is that Angus's "detective" friend is a reformed criminal.  He just doesn't solve the crime in this case.

Another common feature of the detective story genre is the sidekick.  In this case, however, the sidekick, Father Brown, not the detective, solves the crime.

Perhaps the story is designed to defy the reader's exptectations: it starts out as a courtship narrative and turns into a detective story, the victim of the crime is entirely unsympathetic, the criminal and his methods are rather ludicrous, the "detective" could be a "double" but doesn't solve the crime while the sidekick does, the priest is the most rational and realistic character of all, and the criminal might be amenable to reform (perhaps then able to become a detective in his own right and make an honest way in the world!)

In any case, whether taken seriously or as a “take off” on the genre, “The Invisible Man” is an entertaining variation on the popular detective story.