Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Epiphany and the Dead

Today is, in the Roman Catholic cycle of holy days of obligation, the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany notionally commemorates the revelation of Jesus to the Magi (which under the proper approach did not happen on Christmas Day) and so, symbolically, to the gentile world. As children we always knew this as 'Old Christmas Day' and it marked the formal end of all matters Christmas. The tree was down by this day and school commenced and the trudge the year begun.

This is one of these things I know from being brought up Catholic which my daughter will never know being brought up in deeply secular household. In most things I firmly believe unmooring ourselves from the burdens of religion (organized or not) is a good thing and is largely the way of the world in Canada. Yet I do feel a sense of regret at the loss of culture that will go with this over time.

One of the greatest short stories in the English canon is Joyce's "The Dead" which is set (mostly) at a party held in Dublin on the Feast of the Epiphany and in the protagonist's hotel room thereafter. It works on many levels capturing the feeling of an adult party; the feeling that we all have of discomfort about our place in the world and finally the sequence of moments, thoughts and emotions that finally lead to the main character having an understanding first about how little we know about the interior lives of the people in our lives and second to the indifference of the world to human affairs. Thus "The Dead" happens on Epiphany and ends with an epiphany. Will this mean as much to my daughter and her friends or will this be all no more personal than Greek mythology is to most?

The Dead ends with what I think is one of the most beautiful passages of writing in the English language (Joyce is hard on middles but brilliant on ends, read Molly Bloom's soliloquy at the end of Ulysses for example):
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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1 comment:

Anne said...

Wonderful column Robert. The Dead, both as a short story, and the movie by Huston, are two of my all time favourites and you capture why so brilliantly here.
And I share with you the worry that while it feels right to reject the religion of our heritage and not raise our children with it, I do not want them to be ignorant about how, as Yeats would say 2,000 years of a rocking cradle have infused all of western society.
I remember travelling through Europe at age 21 with a secular girlfriend, who knew next to nothing about any of the stories and myths of the Christian religion and so much of European history -- the paintings, the churchs, the conquests, had no resonance for her.
The challenge is to raise our kids with the understanding, but not the dogma.
Happy new years.