Back in 1998, I read this passage at a meeting of the Sheikh Zubayr society:
LATE that night, refreshed and strengthened by a good dinner and much free laughter, Isaac Penn and
sat in the small study, staring at the fire. The heat ran around half a dozen logs that had become red cylinders of flame, changing their colors until they looked like six suns in a black universe of firebrick. Their glow was an invisible wind that irradiated the room and froze the two men in place—like deer in a forest which is burning all around them, who lift their heads to the highest and brightest flames and look into a tunnel of white light. Peter Lake
“The doctors told me,” said Isaac Penn, as if he were talking to himself, “that she would be dead in a few months. That was almost a year ago.” He glanced at an ice-covered window in which the moon had gone all astray, and listened to the wind coming off the Lake of the Coheeries as it could only there, on a midwinter night, like the roaring jet winds of Mars or Saturn. “It’s a mystery to me that she can sleep outside, in that. She wasn’t supposed to. In winter, she’s supposed to come in. But she refuses, even up here. I can never get used to thinking that my daughter is out there in that caldron of ice. And yet, in the mornings, she comes to breakfast revived after twelve hours in cold that would kill a strong healthy man. The wind and snow cover her, attack her. At first, I used to beg her to come in; but then I realized that doing what she does is what keeps her alive.”
“I don’t know.”
“I wonder,” said
, aware that he was in a warm comfortable place in a vast sea of snow and ice which maneuvered beyond the walls like a wild unopposed army. “I wonder about the others.” Peter Lake
“The thousands, the hundreds of thousands, like
“We’re all like
. She’s early, that’s all.” Beverly
“But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
“What way? Be clear.”
“The poor should not have to suffer, as they do, in their millions, and die young.”
“The poor? Do you mean everyone? Certainly you mean everyone in
New York, for in even the rich are poor. But is New York poor according to your definition? No. And yet, what’s the difference?” Beverly
“The difference,” said
, “is that small children, their mothers, and their fathers, live and die like beasts. They don’t have special sleeping porches, a hundred pounds of down and sable, marble baths as big as pools, ranks of doctors from Harvard and Johns Hopkins, salvers of roast meat, hot drinks in silver vacuum bottles, and cheerful happy families. I want Peter Lake to have these things, and would die rather than see her go without them. But there is a difference. The child I once saw in a hallway was barefoot, bareheaded, dressed in filthy rags, starving, blind, abandoned. He had no feather bed. He was near death. And he was standing, because he didn’t have a place to lie down and die.” Beverly
“I know this,” Isaac Penn asserted. “I’ve seen such things far more often than you have. You forget that I was a poorer man than you have ever been, for a longer time than you have yet lived. I had a father and a mother, and brothers and sisters, and they all died young, too soon. I know all these things. Do you think I’m a fool? In The Sun we bring injustices to the attention of the public, and suggest sensible means to correct inequities where they serve no purpose. I realize that there is too much needless and cruel suffering. But you, you don’t seem to understand that these people whom you profess to champion have, in their struggles, compensations.”
“Their movements, passions, emotions; their captured bodies and captured senses are directed with no less certainty than the microscopic details of the seasons, or the infinitesimal components of the city’s great and single motion. They are, in their seemingly random actions, part of a plan. Don’t you know that?”
“I see no justice in that plan.”
“Who said,” lashed out Isaac Penn, “that you, a man, can always perceive justice? Who said that justice is what you imagine? Can you be sure that you know it when you see it, that you will live long enough to recognize the decisive thunder of its occurrence, that it can be manifest within a generation, within ten generations, within the entire span of human existence? What you are talking about is common sense, not justice. Justice is higher and not as easy to understand—until it presents itself in unmistakable splendor. The design of which I speak is far above our understanding. But we can sometimes feel its presence.
“No choreographer, no architect, engineer, or painter could plan more thoroughly and subtly. Every action and every scene has its purpose. And the less power one has, the closer he is to the great waves that sweep through all things, patiently preparing them for the approach of a future signified not by simple human equity (a child could think of that), but by luminous and surprising connections that we have not imagined, by illustrations terrifying and benevolent—a golden age that will show not what we wish, but some bare awkward truth upon which rests everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. There is justice in the world,
, but it cannot be had without mystery. We try to bring it about without knowing exactly what it is, and only touch upon it. No matter, for all the flames and sparks of justice throughout all time reach to invigorate unseen epochs—like engines whose power glides on hidden lines to upwell against the dark in distant cities unaware.” Peter Lake
“I don’t know,” said
, confused. “I think of Peter Lake , and I’m not sure about the golden age of which you speak, which is beyond our lives, and which we will never see. Think of Beverly . How could it be?” Beverly
Isaac Penn got up from his chair to leave the room. At the door, he turned to
, who felt cold and alone. Isaac Penn was an old man, and sometimes he became dreadfully grave, as if he were in the presence of a thousand tormenting spirits. His eyes reflected the fire. They seemed unnatural, like tunnels of flame into a soul grown so deep that it must soon leave life. “Have you not yet realized that Peter Lake has seen the golden age—not one that was, nor one that will be, but one that is here? Though I am an old man, I have not yet seen it. And she has. That is what has broken my heart.” Beverly
I have two friends who are sickeningly well read. One is Peter Hovde and the other is Garner Gollatz. It was Garner who pointed out that the writer, Mark Helprin, was a neo-con. I was embarrassed, because the text could be given a flat, vapid reading as some sort of support for laissez-faire capitalism, which certainly was not the interpretation I had made of the text. Moreover, I don’t know Helprin’s work well enough to really venture what his specific agenda in writing the piece was. I will interpret the text only to extricate a certain meaning that I find useful. Anything else, he may keep.
One of OED’s nicer definitions for melancholy is: tender, sentimental, or reflective sadness; sadness giving rise to or considered as a subject for poetry, sentimental reflection, etc., or as a source of aesthetic pleasure. This feeling is one that I am first conscious of having felt early in the summer of 1996 and it has been my frequent companion since then.
It was the very end of my Fulbright year in
Melancholy is a powerful and strange emotion, so different from depression. Depression takes away your desire to live. Melancholy makes you sublimely aware of just how alive you are, of how exquisite life is. In the same breath, it reminds you that you are mortal, that you cannot capture the moment, that it will pass and, eventually, that you will die. Melancholy makes you especially present. This for me is a good thing. Like all those plagued by their imaginations, my soul’s chief passion has always been to become. Melancholy teaches me to be, to relish being, to be grateful for being, to be grateful for life.
The experience of melancholy teaches us to release irritation at the world’s persistent inability to meet up to our highest ideals and to replace this irritation with gratitude. It teaches us the importance of seeing the moment and living in it, of seeing what is good in every moment, in finding a way to let go of irritation. When I am clear-sighted (sadly, it isn’t often), I see that this is God’s plan for me. My life is an exercise in learning to understand the melancholy. If there is purpose in my life, I think it must be that.
God help me, for I’m not much good at it. But I want to be. I want to be. Help me, Lord.