The second great spiritual pain is powerlessness. We will come to Niebuhr’s serenity prayer but before we do, we acknowledge that pain that makes us seek that comfort.
- Richard Bernstein, China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014): “In 1945 American officials in China were trying to achieve three impossibly conflicting aims: prevent a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang regime and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party; keep the United States out of any civil war that might occur; and stop the Communists and their Soviet backers from seizing control of northern China from Chiang’s government, a World War II ally. The third aim could not be accomplished without violating the second. But the second could not be seriously violated because America was, understandably, tired of war.”
[Forced to fetch water from a spring in a woods at night, Cosette in her fear illustrates helplessness, as a child at the mercy of uncaring adults. Her premonition that she will be forced to return again presents a metaphor for a life.]
The darkness was bewildering. Man requires light. Whoever buries himself in the opposite of day feels his heart contract. When the eye sees black, the heart sees trouble. In an eclipse in the night, in the sooty opacity, there is anxiety even for the stoutest of hearts. No one walks alone in the forest at night without trembling. Shadows and trees--two formidable densities. A chimerical reality appears in the indistinct depths. The inconceivable is outlined a few paces distant from you with a spectral clearness. One beholds floating, either in space or in one's own brain, one knows not what vague and intangible thing, like the dreams of sleeping flowers. There are fierce attitudes on the horizon. One inhales the effluvia of the great black void. One is afraid to glance behind him, yet desirous of doing so. The cavities of night, things grown haggard, taciturn profiles which vanish when one advances, obscure dishevelments, irritated tufts, livid pools, the lugubrious reflected in the funereal, the sepulchral immensity of silence, unknown but possible beings, bendings of mysterious branches, alarming torsos of trees, long handfuls of quivering plants,--against all this one has no protection. There is no hardihood which does not shudder and which does not feel the vicinity of anguish. One is conscious of something hideous, as though one's soul were becoming amalgamated with the darkness. This penetration of the shadows is indescribably sinister in the case of a child. Forests are apocalypses, and the beating of the wings of a tiny soul produces a sound of agony beneath their monstrous vault. Without understanding her sensations, Cosette was conscious that she was seized upon by that black enormity of nature; it was no longer terror alone which was gaining possession of her; it was something more terrible even than terror; she shivered. There are no words to express the strangeness of that shiver which chilled her to the very bottom of her heart; her eye grew wild; she thought she felt that she should not be able to refrain from returning there at the same hour on the morrow. Then, by a sort of instinct, she began to count aloud, one, two, three, four, and so on up to ten, in order to escape from that singular state which she did not understand, but which terrified her, and, when she had finished, she began again; this restored her to a true perception of the things about her. Her hands, which she had wet in drawing the water, felt cold; she rose; her terror, a natural and unconquerable terror, had returned: she had but one thought now,--to flee at full speed through the forest, across the fields to the houses, to the windows, to the lighted candles. Her glance fell upon the water which stood before her; such was the fright which the Thénardier inspired in her, that she dared not flee without that bucket of water: she seized the handle with both hands; she could hardly lift the pail. In this manner she advanced a dozen paces, but the bucket was full; it was heavy; she was forced to set it on the ground once more. She took breath for an instant, then lifted the handle of the bucket again, and resumed her march, proceeding a little further this time, but again she was obliged to pause. After some seconds of repose she set out again. She walked bent forward, with drooping head, like an old woman; the weight of the bucket strained and stiffened her thin arms. The iron handle completed the benumbing and freezing of her wet and tiny hands; she was forced to halt from time to time, and each time that she did so, the cold water which splashed from the pail fell on her bare legs. This took place in the depths of a forest, at night, in winter, far from all human sight; she was a child of eight . . . [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book Third – Accomplishment of a Promise Made To a Dead Woman, Chapter IV, Entrance On the Scene of a Doll.]
- Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago (1957).
- Emma Donoghue, Room: A Novel (Little, Brown & Company, 2010).
- Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City (Riverhead Books, 2010).
- Skip Horack, The Eden Hunter (Counterpoint, 2010).
- Bruce Machart, The Wake of Forgiveness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).
- Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling (Riverhead Books, 2013): “ . . . a deep meditation on fate and death” told in a “strikingly quiet” style
- Kevin Barry, Night Boat to Tangier: A Novel (Doubleday, 2019): “In the desolate ferry terminal of the Spanish port of Algeciras, two battered old Irish drug smugglers . . . await the appearance of Dilly Hearne, Maurice’s long-vanished daughter, rumored to be traveling that night between Algeciras and Tangier. As they wait . . . they reminisce, drifting back through their vivid lives as partners in crime, intimate friends and treacherous rivals.”
- Susan Abulhawa, Against the Loveless World: A Novel (Atria, 2020): “A Beautiful, Urgent Novel of the Palestinian Struggle”.
- Arthur Phillips, The King at the Edge of the World: A Novel (Random House, 2020): “Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Muslim physician and an endlessly forbearing man of sweet goodness, rapidly becomes the innocent victim of these diplomatic exchanges. His downward-spiraling life is a series of incidents in which he is exploited as a pawn in a game of international political chess.”
- Atticus Lish, The War for Gloria: A Novel (Knopf, 2021) is “heartbreaking in its portrait of a mother and son facing her mortal illness”.
- Alphonse Mucha, Fate (1920)
- Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)
- Théodore Géricault, The Wreck (1821-24)
- Francisco Goya, The Shipwreck (1793-94)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Carl Orff called his Carmina Burana a scenic cantata, in which he presents scenes of springtime, on a lawn, in a tavern and the court of love, before returning to the theme of the introduction, which holds that fortune is the "empress of the world." The insistent percussion in the introduction and the finale cement the main theme. Here are performances conducted by Previn, Jochum and Ozawa.
- Mahler, Symphony No. 6 in A minor (“Tragic”): This is Mahler at the wailing wall. Three dulls sounds from a large mallet represent three tragedies in Mahler’s life.
- Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36: of his symphony, the composer wrote that “the fanfare first heard at the opening (‘the kernel, the quintessence, the chief thought of the whole symphony’) that stands for Fate’, with this being ‘the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness ... There is nothing to be done but to submit to it and lament in vain’.” (performances conducted by Mravinsky, Sanderling, Rozhdestvensky [Lenigrad, 1971], Rozhdestvensky [Lodon SO] and Karajan)
- Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (performances conducted by Karajan, Mravinsky, and Bernstein) presents a similar personal theme as the fourth, as does:
- Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathétique”) (performances by Zimerman, Kovacevich, Schnabel and Fischer)
- Thomas Larsen writes that Samuel Barber's Adagiofor Strings "captures the sorrow and pity of tragic death." [Thomas Larsen, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Pegasus, 2010), p. 7.] I hear it a bit more broadly, expressing the sorrow and pity of everything we lack the power to prevent.
- Verdi, La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny): on how we are all at the mercy of everything around us (performances conducted by Votto, Kazushi and Capuana)
- Górecki, Lerchenmusik, for clarinet, cello and piano, 53 (1986)
- Glazunov, Le Chant du Destin (Song of Destiny), Op. 84 (1907)
- In his String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat Minor (1974), Shostakovich wrote every movement “in the same extremely difficult key of E-flat minor” and forced “the players to spend time with their fingers on the “black” keys (in piano parlance) . . . to give the music an aura of greater fragility and vulnerability . . .” [Gerard McBurney, from the notes for this album]
- Puccini, Il tabarro (1883): circumstances overwhelm every character.
- Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932): a story of marital unhappiness, prison and death.
- Tchaikovsky, Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades), about the luck and unluck of life
- Vasks, String Quartet No. 1 (1977, rev. 1997); String Quartet No. 3 (1995); String Quartet No. 4 (1999)
- Schnittke, Piano Concerto (1979): the protagonist-piano stands alone in a sea of anxiety.
- Zwilich, Flute Concerto (1989): the music evokes a bird trying to escape and hide from predators (first movement), then survive (second movement).
- Piston, Flute Concerto (1971)
- Händel, Da quell giorno fatale (Delirio amoroso), HWV 99
- Frid, Piano Quintet, Op. 72 (1981): the work reflects Frid’s life in Stalin’s Soviet Union
- Gary Burton, “A Geniune Tong Funeral” album: according to the liner notes for the album, this “is a dramatic musical production based on emotions towards death . . .”
- Peter Whelan, Tara Erraught and Irish Baroque Orchestra, “The Trials of Tenducci: A Castrato in Ireland”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Steve Earle, Pilgrim
Film and Stage
- The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällen), about the futility of vengeance
- Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en Spegel), about a woman’s descent into madness
- Zhivago, a romance thwarted by circumstances. As some critics observed, the film can be taken to trivialize human suffering but a rejoinder is also true: each of our lives is caught in the vortex of social, economic and political conditions.
- Freaks, on life as a macabre sideshow, and how we are all freaks
- Robert Frost, “Quandary”
- Pablo Neruda, “I’m explaining a few things”
- Pablo Neruda, “Ode to the Artichoke”
- Theodore Roethke, “The Storm”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Willard Fluke”
- Seamus Heaney, “Keeping Going”
- Wallace Stevens, “Valley Candle”
Books of poetry:
- Hoa Nguyen, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure (Wave Press, 2021): “In these works, home is a place ransacked by Western violence . . .”