Friday, April 22, 2011

The Invisible Wall

When Harry Bernstein was born in an impoverished Lancashire mill town on May 30, 1910, most Europeans’ day-to-day lives had more in common with Londoners of Shakespeare’s time than with Americans of today.  And that’s really the first thing that hits you while reading this centenarian’s compelling memoir – or is it a novel? –  The Invisible Wall.  The story opens in 1914 on the eve of the First World War and runs through the early 1920s when the author and his family move to America.  It is a time before most people had indoor plumbing, garbage removal, electricity, cars, radios & televisions, or supermarkets.  Bernstein was born in the twilight years of the Gilded Age: on the other side of modern machine-based warfare, on the other side of the Russian Revolution, and on the other side of the violent and irrational ideologies that those two events spawned.  And yet this very different world existed within the lifetime of a still-living author.

             The main plot, however, centers around a phenomenon that is just as true today as it was then:  religion poisons everything.  (Shout out to the immortal Hitch.) The “invisible wall” of the book’s title refers to an imaginary boundary line that runs down the middle of a single street in a poor neighborhood – a wall that keeps the formerly Russian and Polish Jews on one side of the street and the Christians on the other.

The wall is strong but not impermeable.  On Friday nights, for example, the Jewish families hire a “fire goy” – a Christian neighbor who comes over and tends to their fireplaces.  Tending a fire was forbidden to Jews on the Shabbos.  Armistice Day, as another example, became an occasion for mingling and genuine good will between the two communities.  But on most days, for most people, religious bigotry was the order of the day.

            As a long oppressed minority, the Jews suffer the worst of it.  But the bigotry and fear of “the other” definitely run both ways.  And very intensely, it turns out.  When ‘arry’s oldest sister Lily falls in love with a Christian lad named Arthur, and worse, marries him in a secret secular ceremony, their mother is required by her religious faith to regard Lily as dead.  Not just disowned, which would be bad enough, but dead.  She actually goes into formal ritualized mourning, something called “sitting shiva,” which involves seven days of sitting and praying in a darkened room in her stocking feet.  Her Jewish neighbors, equally appalled by this horrifying turn of events, visit her in her mourning state as if comforting a woman whose daughter had been burned in the flames of the Spanish Inquisition.

            The birth of Lily and Arthur’s child, after some initial reluctance, finally brings a lukewarm reconciliation to the two families.  They even manage to throw a block party in celebration of the event.  This leads to a single day of reveling on which the two sides of the street find themselves drinking, dancing & socializing together.  Bernstein leaves no room for doubt, however, that all this happy-go-lucky getting along is short-lived.  In an epilogue, he describes his return to the neighborhood in the early 1960s.  Only one of his old neighbors is still living there.  In fact, the neighborhood is about to be bulldozed to make room for a new public housing project.  That neighbor, a Christian named Anna Greene, describes how, after ‘arry moved to America in 1922, not much really changed in the neighborhood.  The invisible wall continued to separate the neighbors into opposing communities of religious suspicion and fear.  

            If our age is more enlightened and tolerant, it is not easy to see.  At least the Jews and Christians on Harry Bernstein’s street were capable of kindness towards each other in dire circumstances.  Today’s newspapers are full of uninspiring examples of our intolerance:  preachers burning the Koran, right-wing evangelists pushing their faith on Jews at the Air Force Academy, demonstrations against Islamic Centers in New York, banning the burkha in France, and on and on.  Just this week, Time magazine offers a feature piece on an up and coming mega-church evangelical preacher who is teaching his flock to reject notions of eternal punishment and hell.  The responses of most right-wing Christians to his warmly titled book Love Wins have not been, shall we say, ecumenical.

Want to be really appalled?  Check out CNN’s documentary Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door: 

Once again, religion poisons everything.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Second Coming

In August 1914, the supremacy of Western civilization was taken for granted by most Europeans –  kings and commoners alike.  Over a period of four centuries, Western man had watched his culture, technology, religion and manners spread across the entire globe.  Before the First World War, few doubted that the people of this little continent, sprouting off the Asian landmass like an unruly weed, would continue to dominate world affairs and convert non-Western peoples to Western ways of living and thinking.
In 1919, looking back on the recent carnage of the First World War, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats penned one of his most well known works – The Second Coming – a dark meditation on what it must feel like to witness the final days of a golden era.  Over a period of four years, the West nearly committed suicide, and in the process, discovered the dark side of its celebrated scientific and industrial prowess.  When it was all over, Europeans lost much more than millions of their young men.  They also lost the sunny optimism and confidence that had been central to their worldview.  Violent and irrational ideologies like fascism and communism captured the European imagination, displaced the pre-war liberal consensus, and led directly to the even greater carnage of the Second World War.
The psychological trauma of modern machine-based war permeates every line of The Second Coming.  In the first stanza, Yeats laments what the war had done to Western society.  There is a palpable feeling of futility and hopelessness, as if the human race has finally proven itself incapable of maintaining enlightened civilization:  “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
In Christian theology, the “second coming” refers to the return of Jesus Christ to the Earth during the “end times” and the establishment of a New Jerusalem.  This is understood by Christians as a glorious moment in history.  Indeed, it represents the end of history.  In the second stanza of the poem, Yeats alters this traditional conception of “the second coming” and describes the awakening of a monstrous beast – in the form of a sphinx (body of a lion; head of a man) – whose coming symbolizes the beginning of a new dark period of human history.
Yeats ends the poem with a question:  “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”  It is a question we might paraphrase as follows:  How will our own comfortable age end?  Nuclear holocaust? Environmental catastrophe?  Financial collapse? A Third World War?  Writing in 1919, Yeats was apparently haunted by a premonition that the end of the world was at hand, or at the very least, that a new terrible age was dawning.  For all too many (for example the six million victims of the Nazi Holocaust), his dark prophecy proved true.
Like any great work of art, Yeats’ poem speaks to something universal and timeless.  Without to much difficulty, one can imagine St. Augustine reading – and being moved by – The Second Coming as Roman civilization collapses around him and he flees for safety from the barbarian hordes invading from the north.  The poem also captures what probably millions of Americans felt in the first days and weeks following September 11, 2001 – a feeling that anarchy had been loosed upon the world. 
Yeats’ vivid imagery continues to terrify as we consider new nuclear threats from “somewhere in the sands of the desert” (Iran?).  For him, the apocalypse comes not from any inherent malevolence in the universe but from the complacency of the many (“the best lack all conviction”) in failing to deal with an energized minority who are “full of passionate intensity.”  When we consider the “passionate intensity” of radical Islam, The Second Coming becomes both prophecy and warning.

The Second Coming, by W.B. Yeats (1919)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?