Joseph Bottum is my favorite among Christian writers; I read him religiously, as it were, for a decade before we met, and before he asked me to join the masthead of the monthly magazine First Things in 2009. The fact that he is a close friend, therefore, has nothing to do with my admiration for his work; I have several close friends who write badly, and admire any number of writers whom I abhor as human beings. His Christmas meditation “Angels I Have Heard on High” was a holiday delicacy to be savored. Jody has heard angel voices singing, “high in the wind, across a western meadow frozen stiff and covered with the fallen snow.” I wish him many more such blessed encounters.
Jody is now writing Christmas carols, and we’ve been corresponding about the form, from an aesthetic vantage point, to be sure. The great poet of Spain’s Golden Age, Lope de Vega, wrote a marvelous song in which the Virgin Mary responds to the glory of angels ruffling the palm trees by asking them to hold onto the branches and quiet down; her child, she explains, is already exhausted by the world’s suffering and needs to rest. The juxtaposition of maternal ordinariness and supernatural splendor is a successful poetic conceit. Christian poets work wonders with angelic encounters, and Lope’s famous Christmas meditation is sublime. One really must read it in the original: with its Romance meter (comparable to our ballad meter) and unrhymed alliteration, the poem bestrides the divide between sublime and secular in technique as well as content.
By pure coincidence, the conversation around the Shabbat table last week at Hong Kong’s modest Israeli synagogue, Shuva Israel, centered on angels as well. Jews sing “Peace onto you, ministering angels” before Friday night dinner, on the basis of an ancient homiletic that two angels accompany a Jew home from synagogue on the eve of Shabbat:
Peace upon you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High,
of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Come in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Bless me with peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High,
of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
May your departure be in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Note that the appearance of the angels is a scheduled weekly occurrence, to be welcomed, but nothing to get excited about. The odd thing, though, is that the angels are asked to leave. One hears many explanations for this, but I like best the one proposed by the Chofetz Chaim, the leader of observant Jewry in Eastern Europe during the interwar years, and recounted last Friday by a young Israeli rabbi. When the high priest entered the Temple’s Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he went in alone–not even an angel dared accompany him into this most holy place. The recreation of the Temple in the Shabbat table of a Jewish home is so holy that even the holy angels cannot abide there; after they have done their job of accompanying us home from synagogue they are politely asked to go away.
The Holy of Holies in Judaism is found in the most ordinary things of life once they have been dedicated to the Holy One, blessed be he. The Shekhinah (the Indwelling of God) resides on the Shabbat table, and in marital relations between husband and wife. Such things surpass the holiness even of angels.
The holiness of the sanctified ordinary, to be sure, doesn’t always make for compelling poetry; as a latecomer to Jewish observance I tend to sniff at the poetic merits of the classic songs sung around the Shabbat table, although some of them, drawn from the Psalms, are hauntingly beautiful.
Poetry, at least poetry as the West knows it, requires enchantment; to enchant itself implies the use of song, and in a sense the two are consubstantial. Lope de Vega and the other poetic geniuses of the Spanish Baroque lived in a world of enchantments (Francisco de Quevedo is the other great name that comes most to mind). They were the champions of chivalry, honor, purity of blood, and what Jody calls the “metaphysically dense” world of medieval Catholicism. That probably explains why they hated Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote with a poisonous passion. Lope wrote a sonnet portraying Cervantes as a Jew-sow snuffling through pig feces for his material. Quevedo was one of the inventors of the paranoid notion of a world Jewish banking conspiracy, back in the 1630s.
For those who propose “Jewish” art, here’s a paradox: art itself demands a sense of enchantment, yet the Jews are the great disenchanters. When Max Weber (as Jody reminded me) spoke about the “disenchanted” (entzauberte) world, he quoted Friedrich Schiller’s poem “The Gods of Greece,” which mourns the loss of the colorful panoply of pagan gods, complaining, “Einen zu bereichern unter allen/Musste diese Götterwelt vergehn” (“to enrich One among all of them this world of gods had to perish”). When we entered Canaan we were under orders to “destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.”
There is a distinctly Jewish style of writing, as Erich Auerbach argued in his famous discussion of the Binding of Isaac in “Mimesis”: It is metaphysically thin, bereft of physical description, reduced to the sparest of narrative. That is why Franz Rosenzweig thought Franz Kafka’s style biblical. One encounters this kind of style in SY Agnon and a few other Hebrew writers, but it is hard to sustain. And music, the most abstract of the arts, lends itself to a distinctly Jewish portrayal of the bi-directionality of time. The sort of “Jewish culture” promoted by, for example, Commentary magazine has nothing to do with Judaism and little enough to do with culture, but that is the quibble of a cranky old man: it is hard to find classical musicians who care about Judaism or observant Jews who care about classical music, and the intersection of the two sets well may be empty.
The great Baroque poets of Spain hated the crypto-Jew Cervantes for exactly the right reasons: the enchanted world of Don Quixote exists only in his own delusions. Not giants and knights, but the small problems of the ordinary folk whose paths join at the inn at the conclusion of Quixote Part One are Cervantes’ concern. Franz Rosenzweig’s cousin Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put the matter quite well in “Out of Revolution”:
By their persecution the Gentiles defy this challenge from the side of Eternity and finality. They always accuse the Jew of provocation, because although he is quite capable of playing Red Indian out of love for his neighbors, he is incapable of any of their idolatries, and though he can shed his blood for his country, he will always feel that no skyscraper, no man-of-war, no Venus of Cnidos, and no glory of arms is more important than the tears of the widow or the sigh of the orphan.
I quoted this in a old Christmas essay entitled, “Sympathy for Scrooge.”
Of course, Cervantes is beloved today while Lope and Quevedo are known only to bored schoolchildren and specialists (although a bit of Lope, like his wonderful Christmas song, survives in Spanish popular culture). The likes of Lope and Quevedo destroyed Spain as a great power during the 17 century and left it a laughingstock. Every once in a while a talented poet will come along and try to stir the ashes of the old enchantment, for example the stupendously talented Federico Garcia Lorca. It throws off a few sparks, and dies out again.
Heinrich Heine, Germany’s greatest lyric poet after Goethe, well understood the link between enchantment and poetry. He wrote a lighthearted but learned survey of German folk beliefs, “Elemental Spirits,” and provided much of the material for 19th-century exercises in the supernatural, from Adam’s ballet Giselle to Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman. No Christian or pagan ever portrayed elves more convincingly or uncannily, especially in the poem “New Love” in its musical setting by another Jew, Mendelssohn. Enchantment was getting nowhere in Germany, to adopt an old joke, until the Jews got behind it.
Heine’s mature work, though, is an exercise in disenchantment, for example the satirical epic Atta Troll, which better documents the great clash between Jewish disenchantment and Western poetry than any other work.
My essay on Atta Troll can be found here. Heine was a bad Jew, to be sure; he converted in order to get his “entrance card to European culture,” and although he returned to Judaism on his death bed, he never did so in a public and decisive fashion. But he lived the tension between art and Judaism in a uniquely vivid way. He wrote on his deathbed:
Away with the heathen music! Let the pious sound of David’s harp accompany my song of praise. Let my hymn resound, “Hallelujah.”
At this time of year we wish our Christian friends joy with their angels, but ask them to understand why we politely but firmly ask our angels to leave our home. The sanctification of the simplest things in life has sustained us these 3,500 years.