A visit to Brooklyn

June 11, 2009

Near Prospect Park in Brooklyn is a place I have often visited, and which I visited again some weeks ago on my way back to New Jersey at the end of a brief trip to Long Island: the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Since my return to the Northeast in 2005 after seven years of teaching in New Mexico, I have probably spent more time at this garden than at any other place in New York City, with the possible exception of the New York Public Library; at one point I contemplated moving to Brooklyn and taking a job there, which I have not done and probably shall not do, chiefly because my horticultural skills are nonexistent. But this has not prevented me from enjoying the garden; and since it was a bright spring day, and my birthday was approaching, and I had not been to the garden in some time, I made a point of stopping there.

The scriptures, of course, speak of the first man as a gardener, someone whose original task was “to dress and keep” the garden in which he had been put (Gen 2:15) — more literally, “to work it and to keep it,” לעבדה ולשמרה, le-ovdha ve-le-shomrha, LXX ἐργάζεσθαι αὐτὸν καὶ φυλάσσειν. The same verb עבד occurs, for the first time in the Bible, at v. 5 of the same chapter, where it says that “there was not a man to till [to work, le-avod] the ground”; man is there presented as a being whose essential activity, as his name adam suggests, is to work the ground, ha-adamah, to get it to do the thing it is meant to do, i.e., produce beautiful and healthful plants. From the verb עבד is derived the feminine abstract noun עבודה avodah, “service,” which, in the Septuagint, usually gets translated by the Greek word λειτουργία, from which we get the English word “liturgy.” So it might be inferred that liturgical prayer is itself a form of gardening, a working of the ground of the heart, although, admittedly, such an inference would not hold up in a book of logic.

St. Gregory the Theologian, in his poem On the Soul, interprets man’s original employment as a gardener in a particular way. The poem speaks of God having created man to be a being partaking in both the material and the spiritual worlds, a being of a mixed constitution who, because of this dual nature, exhibits a longing directed towards both heaven and earth. Having given man this evenly balanced nature, God also gave him an internal law, and placed him “in the vales of an ever-verdant paradise, … observing which direction he’d incline” (Poem 1.1.8, De anima, vv. 101-103; PG 37, 454). As for the paradisiacal garden, Gregory says, “it is the heavenly life, it seems to me. So this is where he placed him, to be a farmer, cultivating his words,” λόγων δρηστῆρα γεωργόν (ibid., vv. 105-106). The word δρηστῆρα, in one sense, implies that Adam was placed in the garden to be a doer of God’s words, to live a life of practical virtue. But I have translated it as “cultivating” God’s words, his λόγοι, in keeping with what St. Gregory states in his Oration 38.12 (PG 36, 324B): Adam was placed in paradise “to till the immortal plants, by which is perhaps meant the Divine Conceptions (θείων ἐννοιῶν), both the simpler and the more perfect.” Man’s original, Edenic activity was, on St. Gregory’s view, to contemplate the divine reasons of things, and, by perceiving them, to catch a reflection of the glory of God.

Perhaps it was this original Adamic task that drew me to the garden in Brooklyn on that bright afternoon some weeks ago, although I confess that, in recent months, my ability to perceive the divine reasons of things has been very sporadic and limited. Perhaps I have had too many other things on my mind to fulfill that Adamic task in the proper way.

I stayed at the garden only about an hour and a half, having arrived there in the middle of the afternoon and not wanting to get caught in rush-hour traffic. In driving there, I passed by various examples of New York life and death: vast marble cemeteries; some Hispanic men playing baseball; a car with a bumper-sticker that read “Islam is the answer”; a Torah scholar, gaunt, black-clad, with a long black beard, looking strangely other-worldly, sitting on a park bench in front of a yeshiva.

At the garden, I bought three cheap books (two on recycling and one on composting), had lunch (a bowl of split-pea soup), and then walked around, observing the plants and the people. The boughs of a dark Canadian hemlock hung down over the walkway: a beautiful tree, but poisonous (remember Socrates). Two women in the rose garden wore hats that reminded me of those seen in photographs from my grandmother’s day. Mothers pushed their baby-carriages and talked on their cellphones. I stopped for awhile at the Japanese pond, one of the most beautiful spots in the garden, a place where people invariably take pictures and have their picture taken; a wooden, covered shelter there extends over the water, from which one can gaze down upon the goldfish swimming below, which gather when they see a tourist, knowing from experience that tourists frequently ignore the sign that tells them not to feed the fish. Some visitors there were speaking Modern Greek; a Spanish woman, who pronounced her “c”s as “th”s, was telling her young daughter, in Spanish, to behave.

I also took a walk through the “Shakespeare Garden,” a small enclosure that apparently contains specimens of all the flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It was in that garden, some two decades ago, that I bumped into the elder sister of a friend of mine from college. Elaine Gluckman always impressed me as a kind and gentle person, a sort of Leah to her sister’s Rachel. She told me there, with evident joy, about her upcoming marriage. About a year later I learned that she had died in childbirth; her son survived, and has been raised by his father. Perhaps she was actually the Rachel (cf. Gen. 35:16-20).

There are many things I do not understand. Perhaps the greatest attraction of a botanical garden is that plants do not say anything. They challenge one’s assumption that all of life is susceptible to analysis and explanation. If one is to perceive the λόγοι of plants, their speech, in which they declare their nature and show the divine glory, one clearly has to go about it in a different way than is usually done in this world of instant information and constant self-assertion. One has to learn great patience, something I still lack.

God willing, at some point I will attain that necessary patience and humility, so as to perceive God’s reasons, and God’s glory, in plants and people. For the present, much of what I ought to understand seems strange and inexplicable.

The miseries of Facebook

March 16, 2009

A number of old friends of mine sent me invitations over the weekend to sign up for Facebook. I did so, and already feel it was a stupid mistake. I have too much to do to waste my time in “social networking,” scribbling pleasantries and explaining to people in two or three sentences what I’ve done over the past thirty years of my life; mostly I’ve done nothing, and am doing nothing at present. When people hear that, they think I’m being antisocial. Perhaps; but I’ve got work to do, and Facebook is a distraction I can ill afford. I think I’ll delete the account tomorrow.

Anastasia Baburova

March 10, 2009

Some weeks ago, I clipped an obituary out of The Economist, dated February 7th 2009; it has been sitting on my desk, and, on Saturday, I began thinking about why I had kept it there. It reports the death of a twenty-five year old Russian journalist named Anastasia Baburova, who, on January 19th, was shot in the head in the center of Moscow, in broad daylight, moments after a friend of hers, Stanislav Markelov, a human-rights lawyer, was also shot and killed. It is unclear whether the assailant targeted her from the start or if he shot her because she intervened to protect her friend. Her death comes at a time when the case of another murdered Russian journalist remains unsolved, that of Anna Politkovskaya, who angered the Russian government by her critical reporting of the war in Chechnya and, like Baburova, worked for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

At the top of the Economist obituary, there is a photograph. It shows a scene from a nighttime street demonstration, presumably in Moscow; three men are pictured, apparently listening, with varying degrees of attention, to a political speech; the one in the middle, a young man with Slavic features, holds up a white sign, on which is pasted a black and white photograph of Ms. Baburova.

Not long after this article appeared, I saw, on the television, a short news piece on this case. A brief scene was shown from Anastasia Baburova’s funeral: her mother was seen approaching the bier; next to it was this same photograph.

It must be said that the Russians are a people who know some things about icons. Whether the photograph of Anastasia Baburova has an iconic character is perhaps debatable, but it is certainly a very striking picture. In a single image, it says something about a whole life.

Three years ago about this time, I went into New York City to attend an exhibition of Russian art at the Guggenheim Museum, meeting there my friends Bill Ney (who writes the blog The New Combat) and Brother Robert Smith. There are many things that I remember from this exhibit, which was the last time I saw Brother Robert while he was still well. One would have thought that the examples of early Russian iconography, e.g., the Andrei Rublev paintings and the large Deesis panel from the Kirillo-Beloezersk Monastery, would have left the deepest impression on my mind; but I have to say that this was not so. (In any case, I always feel vaguely awkward when viewing icons in a museum, where they are meant to be seen as art and where one is not supposed to venerate them.) The paintings that I in fact spent the most time looking at were four, all of them from the mid-nineteenth century onward. The first, though not the earliest, was a huge mural from the early 1960’s, an example of Socialist realism, titled “Builders of the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station” by the artist Viktor Popkov. The painting, which is permanently on exhibit at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, shows four muscular construction workers and a diminutive woman, taking a lunch break. I spent a long time looking at it, trying to decide whether it was ugly or beautiful; in the end, it seemed to me that the artist, although commissioned to do the work for a political end, had succeeded in conveying something of the humanity and self-respect of these people, who stand looking at you or looking the other way, not pretending to be other than what they are. (Brother Robert, I have to say, didn’t like it.) The second painting that caught my attention was a mid-nineteenth-century portrait of a Russian girl, red-haired, probably between 15 and 17 years old. She looked utterly normal and utterly happy to be alive; it did not seem, in looking at the painting, that what I was looking at was a girl who lived a hundred and fifty years ago. A third picture, another painting from the nineteenth century, was a portrait of a lady, dark-haired, dressed head to toe in what must have been a riding uniform. There was a curious, forceful purposefulness to her gaze and gait, which held my attention for a long time, as I wondered who she was and what she was up to. Brother Robert came by and asked what I saw in the picture; I wasn’t quite sure myself, and pointed out to him the rich colors; he said, “Ah yes, the colors…” or something like that. It seemed to me that seeing beauty in a painting (or, perhaps, in anything else) is somewhat like getting the point of a joke: the experience is not easily communicable, it tends to become compromised in the act of explaining it. For my own part, I show my lack of aesthetic sensibility by the fact that I take more interest in the persons and things depicted than in the depiction as such.

The fourth picture at the exhibition that caught my attention was a contemporary painting, and a disturbing one. It was an allegorical representation of contemporary Russia as a disheveled, probably dissolute woman careening through the snow in a mad troika, a boyfriend at her side, the frantic horses being pushed to the limit; behind them, in close pursuit, follow demonic hounds. I wasn’t quite sure what the painting was saying, but it seemed to be saying something true. The absolute, prostituting pursuit of wealth and immediate enjoyment seems to be a mad joyride, with disaster directly on one’s heels.

Perhaps that was the Russia Anastasia Baburova lived in and wrote about; perhaps it was also that Russia which killed her. I get the sense, in seeing her photograph and reading the few translated excerpts from her blog, that she was a fundamentally honest young woman, who loved life and people and hated fascism, which she saw spreading in her society like some poisonous mold or fungus. She doesn’t appear to have been particularly religious; perhaps she didn’t live long enough to feel a need to be. She reminds me, in some ways, of another Anastasia, the Natasha of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of my favorite characters in all of world literature, someone whose faults, such as they were, always resulted from an overflowing superabundance of life and too great a faith in the basic goodness of humanity. A less calculating, utilitarian personality can hardly be imagined. My impression is that Anastasia Baburova was that sort of a person. That Russia should still be producing such people tells me that that land has not yet completely lost its ancient greatness of soul; that it allows them to be murdered tells me that its soul is not in good health — although, as an American, I realize that I must not throw stones at other people’s houses.

A retraction

January 28, 2009

I have removed from the web my last post, an essay occasioned by the murder of children last week at a nursery in Belgium. It was too depressing, and in the end did nothing but stir up bad memories.

Shopping incident

November 28, 2008

At the bookstore where I work, I spoke with a customer this afternoon as she was purchasing a book. She asked if there had been any incidents in the mall adjoining the bookstore; I told her I didn’t know of any. Then she mentioned that, this morning, a man was trampled to death at a store in New York City, as a huge, frenzied crowd rushed to buy high-definition TVs.

Black Friday” indeed.

Thanksgiving Day

November 27, 2008

Almighty God, who turnest the heart of the fathers to their children, and the heart of the children to their fathers: Receive, we pray Thee, our unfeigned thanks for the good land which Thou hast given us. Forgive our transgressions; cleanse us from things that defile our national life, and grant that this people, which Thou hast abundantly blessed, may keep Thy commandments, walk in Thy ways, and fear Thee. Be gracious to our times, that by Thy bounty both national quietness and Christian devotion may be duly maintained. Let Thy work appear unto Thy servants, and Thy glory unto their children; and let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish Thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands, establish Thou it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A prayer from The Book of Common Worship: Approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadephia, 1946), p. 112.

James G. yesterday wrote and asked if I would be posting regularly to this blog again, and how my translations are going. I thought I would answer him here.

What I can say is that I would like to begin writing for this blog again, but, for reasons to be explained, it is unlikely that I shall be able to produce material at the rate I was doing before. The chief cause of this is that I have taken on a job at a bookstore; on most days, it leaves me with little time or energy for writing. That situation has also affected my work on John Bekkos: I have not, in fact, gotten very far on it over the past three months, and at times it seems like the Bekkos work is a ship drifting in thick fog further and further out to sea. It is not an ideal situation; however, given the current state of the economy, and of my own finances, it seems to me best to continue at the bookstore.

(The bookstore at which I work here in northern New Jersey is one of these vast megastores that, along with the internet, have been so effective in putting small, independent booksellers out of business. By and large, the people I work with and for are decent, intelligent, and caring; and there is a certain satisfaction that comes from helping people find the texts they are looking for. There is also a certain unhappiness that comes from seeing how much vile trash is actually bought and sold. Last week someone asked me if I could recommend to him a book that is “new and exciting”; I told him that I only read things that are old and boring. He asked an example; I said “Aristotle.” He wasn’t interested.)

Apropos of nothing

October 3, 2008

Yesterday evening my father and I intended to cook a pizza, and turned on the oven, not knowing that a potholder had somehow inadvertently been left inside it or had fallen into it by mistake. Some time later, an acrid, probably poisonous, gas filled the kitchen and began seeping into the rest of the house. When my father became aware of this, he astutely took the smouldering potholder out of the oven and threw it out the back door, onto the concrete steps. We opened windows, turned on electric fans, and (upon my suggestion) went out and ate a pizza at a restaurant. When we returned, the house still reeked, but parts of it were tolerable, and my father and I sat down in front of a television set and watched the vice-presidential debate between Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

This morning, although the fans were going all night, the smell is still pretty severe — a lung-burning smell that, I find, also produces symptoms of nausea. I haven’t gone outside yet to look at the charred potholder; I wonder what on earth it was made of.

A brief notice

June 14, 2008

I have been in Chicago most of this week, and will be in Washington, D.C., most of next week, attending conferences. I did not bring a laptop, and my access to computers during this time is very limited. Accordingly, for the time being, I do not plan to post to this blog, or to answer comments, or to comment on anyone else’s blog; also, my e-mail correspondence will necessarily be at a minimum. I intend to celebrate Pentecost tomorrow at a Greek church in Aurora, Illinois, and to spend Sunday night and most of Monday on a train.

Wishing readers of this blog a blessed feast.

Prayer request

June 3, 2008

Please pray for the healing of my sister, Ann, who was recently found to have cancer on her liver. Pray also for her husband, Vinny, and their three sons, Michael, Nick, and Dan.