A second great spiritual pain is that we are powerless in relation to many things.
We will come to Niebuhr’s serenity prayer but before we do, we acknowledge that pain that makes us seek that comfort.
Powerlessness is an overlapping category. We are all powerless over the inevitability of death; however, we can extend our lives or end them. Sometimes life is ended by another’s doing. We could look at powerlessness over other aspects of suffering in a similar way: sometimes we cause our own suffering, sometimes another person or other people cause it, and sometimes it is – in a sense – fate. Adler’s category refers to how people are inclined to draw the distinction in our minds.
- 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.]
While this scene was going on in the men’s sleeping-room, the reader may be curious to take a peep at the corresponding apartment allotted to the women. Stretched out in various attitudes over the floor, he may see numberless sleeping forms of every shade of complexion, from the purest ebony to white, and of all years, from childhood to old age, lying now asleep. Here is a fine bright girl, of ten years, whose mother was sold out yesterday, and who tonight cried herself to sleep when nobody was looking at her. Here, a worn old negress, whose thin arms and callous fingers tell of hard toil, waiting to be sold tomorrow, as a cast-off article, for what can be got for her; and some forty or fifty others, with heads variously enveloped in blankets or articles of clothing, lie stretched around them. But, in a corner, sitting apart from the rest, are two females of a more interesting appearance than common. One of these is a respectably-dressed mulatto woman between forty and fifty, with soft eyes and a gentle and pleasing physiognomy. She has on her head a high-raised turban, made of a gay red Madras handkerchief, of the first quality, her dress is neatly fitted, and of good material, showing that she has been provided for with a careful hand. By her side, and nestling closely to her, is a young girl of fifteen, — her daughter. She is a quadroon, as may be seen from her fairer complexion, though her likeness to her mother is quite discernible. She has the same soft, dark eye, with longer lashes, and her curling hair is of a luxuriant brown. She also is dressed with great neatness, and her white, delicate hands betray very little acquaintance with servile toil. These two are to be sold tomorrow, in the same lot with the St. Clare servants; and the gentleman to whom they belong, and to whom the money for their sale is to be transmitted, is a member of a Christian church in New York, who will receive the money, and go thereafter to the sacrament of his Lord and theirs, and think no more of it. [Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852), Volume II, Chapter 30, “The Slave Warehouse”.]
Novels and stories:
- Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago (1957).
- Maurice Maeterlinck, “Pelléas et Mélisande” (1893): “Set in an imaginary land in medieval times, it centres on the tragic love of Pelléas for Mélisande, who is married to Pelléas’s brother. Maeterlinck emphasizes atmosphere over plot in this dreamlike fairy tale about the terrifying power of love.” “Maeterlinck was a key figure of the Symbolist movement, a literary and artistic current contemporary to Debussy and that prized metaphor and its attempts to convey a deeply interior life via evocative symbolic images or objects.”
- 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”.
- Yevgenia Belorusets, Lucky Breaks: Stories (2018): “Her characters, much like Liudmila, have not been afforded the time or space to attend to the shocks of war; life, or something like it, must go on for these women. Many are internal refugees who fled the brutal fighting that first broke out in east Ukraine in 2014, and have resettled in a Kyiv that regards them with apathy or suspicion.”
- Miguel Syjuco, I Was the President’s Mistress!!: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022): “It’s a rare novel that leaves you reeling simultaneously with admiration, exhaustion, amazement at its author’s reach and skill, and desolation at the world it spreads out before you. Add to that a dose of borderline despair for the future of our species, and you have a sense of how you’re likely to feel by the end of Miguel Syjuco’s flawed but formidable political satire . . .”
- 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
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 6 in A Minor, “Tragic” (1905) (approx. 79-93’), “remains an unsettling enigma. Completed in 1905 at one of the happiest times in the composer’s life (he had married Alma Schindler in 1902 and they already had two young daughters), the Sixth Symphony is Mahler’s most dark and terrifying work.” Three thuds from a large mallet represent three tragedies in Mahler’s life. “. . . Alma’s memoirs suggest that Mahler . . . outlined his own undoing in Symphony no. 6. This occurs in the finale, where the composer . . . described himself and his downfall or, as he later stated, the the downfall of his hero: 'It is the hero on whom the three blows of fate fall, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.'” Alma “confessed that when Mahler first played it through for her, they both wept that Mahler identified the sixth with the circumstances of his life cannot be denied. He candidly admitted that the symphony is the sum of all the suffering that he was compelled to endure at the hands of life.” Mitropoulos in 1955, Kubelik in 1968, Barbirolli in 1968, Horenstein in 1969, Tennstedt in 1983, Inbal in 1986, Bernstein in 1988, Thomas Sanderling in 1996, Herbig in 1999, Gielen in 1999, Rattle in 1999, Tilson Thomas in 2001, Jansons in 2002, Abbado in 2004 and Zander in 2012 conducted top performances.
Mahler, Symphony No. 7, sometimes called “Lied der Nacht” (Song of the Night) (1905) (approx. 77-91'): of this symphony, Leonard Bernstein observed: “The minute we understand that the word Nachtmusik does not mean nocturne in the usual lyrical sense, but rather nightmare—that is, night music of emotion recollected in anxiety instead of tranquility—then we have the key to all this mixture of rhetoric, camp, and shadows.” “As paradoxical as it may sound, this symphony does not open the heavens for its composer but rather demonstrates the problems that arise in the collision of the individual with the totality of existence. Fichte’s priority of the ego, transformed into precariousness.” This symphony has remained Mahler’s most difficult to interpret and understand. Bernstein in 1965, Klemperer in 1968, Horenstein in 1969, Tennstedt in 1987, Abbado in 1994, Boulez in 1995, Chailly in 1995, Tilson Thomas in 2005 and Kirill Petrenko in 2021 conducted conducted top performances.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique” (1798) (approx. 18-21’): “This sonata is characterized by the very short development and its tragic first movement.” “The key of C minor – often a perfect vehicle for tragic, deeply emotive music – is Beethoven’s key of choice here . . .” Top performances on disc are by Schnabel in 1930, Rubinstein, Gilels, Rudolf Serkin in 1945, Richter in 1958, Horowitz in 1963, Gould in 1967, Kovacevich in 1973, Goode in 1993, Brendel in 1994, and Schiff in 2006; and live performances by Annie Fischer and Zimerman.
Claude Debussy, Pelléas and Mélisande (1902) (approx. 155-165’) (libretto), from the play of same name by Maurice Maeterlinck, presents a tragic story of lovers parted; they die and life’s woes pass to the next generation. “In his play, Maeterlinck shows us that 'nothing can change the order of events; that, despite our proud illusions, we are not master of ourselves, but the servant of unknown and irresistible forces, which direct the whole tragic-comedy of our lives. We are told that no man is responsible for what he likes and what he loves-that is if he knows what he likes and loves-and that he lives and dies without knowing why.” “Characters speak casually while the forces of nature drag them to the bottom. The forest swallows the hunter, the ring symbolizing fidelity and stability drops into a bottomless well. We are drawn to a dark cave and later to the deep vaults of the castle. Characters strive to see sunlight or even moonlight as the darkness swallows them. We hear the sea in the distance, the great water that swallows everything. Even Mélisande’s beautiful long hair descends from the balcony to drown and ensnare Pélleas in delirious, irresistible, and forbidden love.” “Despite its full length, the plot is brief, incidents few, characters simple, setting vague. In keeping with Maeterlinck’s symbolist creed, the whole tale unfolds with inexorable logic. Golaud, a hunter, finds Mélisande in a forest and brings her home, where her attraction to his brother Pelléas ripens as Golaud’s jealousy swells. Golaud slays Pelléas, fatally wounds Mélisande, and is left to ponder the inexplicable meaning of it all, as Mélisande’s newborn takes her place in the cycle of life.” Performances with visuals are conducted by Boulez, Langré, and Andrew Davis. Best recorded audio-only performances are conducted by Truc in 1928 (46’), Désormière in 1941, Inghelbrecht in 1951, Ansermet in 1951, Ansermet in 1964, Baudo in 1978 ***, Karajan in 1978, Abbado in 1991, Casadesus in 1996, and Roth in 2022.
- Thomas Larsen writes that Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 (1936) (approx. 8-9’) "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.] It can also be heard more broadly.
- Giuseppe Verdi, La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) (1861) (approx. 155-170’) (libretto): on how we are all at the mercy of everything around us. However, “a single, unfortunate happenstance drives characters to lifetimes of incomprehensible behavior.” “Don Alvaro (tenor) – an Incan prince in disguise – accidentally kills his girlfriend Leonora’s (soprano) father, the Marquis of Calatrava. He throws down his gun, which promptly goes off and shoots the old man, who hangs onto life just long enough to curse his daughter. Don Carlo di Vargas, her brother (baritone), vows to find both her and her lover, and kill her. Leonora puts on a monk’s robe and becomes a hermit living in a cave. We don’t see her again until the end.” Excellent performances are conducted by Walter in 1943, Molinari-Pradelli in 1955, Mitropoulos in 1960, and Sinopoli in 1987); and performance with video conducted by Gergiev at Mariinsky (Part 1; Part 2).
- Henryk Górecki, Lerchenmusik, Recitatives and Ariosos for clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 53 (1986) (approx. 43’)
- Aleksandr Glazunov, Le Chant du Destin (Song of Destiny), Op. 84 (1907) (approx. 19’)
- In his String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat Minor (1974) (approx. 34-40’), Dmitri 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]
- Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Op. 29 (1932) (approx. 165-175’) (libretto), is a story of marital unhappiness, prison and death, and “a cry for help – a plea for personal freedom, and for the rights of the individual to be respected.” “The title character, a childless merchant’s wife, Katerina Izmailova, lives grimly in a grim burg. . . . To escape her surroundings, and to enact vengeance on her besotted, cheating husband, Katerina takes Sergey, a laborer at a flour mill, as her lover after he sexually assaults her.” Here is an excellent audio-recorded performance conducted by Rostropovich in 1979; and part 1 of a performance with video conducted by Jansons in 2006 *** (Part 1; Part 2).
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) (1890) (approx. 170-195’) (libretto), is about the luck and unluck of life: “The opera is the story of a (literally) haunted man, Herman, who is addicted to gambling and to discovering the secret three cards that will supposedly win him a fortune.” Here are audio-recorded performances conducted by Melik-Pasheyev in 1950, Fedoseyev in 1989, and Gergiev in 1995; and performances with video conducted by Simonov in 1983, and Marton in 2022.
- Pēteris Vasks, String Quartet No. 1 (1977, rev. 1997) (approx. 18’); String Quartet No. 3 (1995) (approx. 27’); String Quartet No. 4 (1999) (approx. 29-35’): these three works are full of conflict and anxiety.
- Alfred Schnittke, Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra, Op. 136 (1979) (approx. 23-25’): the protagonist-piano stands alone in a sea of anxiety. “The juxtaposition of . . . seeming tonality, a blanket of soft harmonies against an almost grating dissonance makes for an interesting soundworld, one that Schnittke uses to great effect.”
- Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Flute Concerto (1989) (approx. 15’): the music evokes a bird trying to escape and hide from predators (first movement), then survive (second movement).
- Walter Piston, Flute Concerto (1971) (approx. 15’)
- George Frideric Händel, (Il delirio amoroso) (The Delirium of Love), HWV 99 (1707) (approx. 36-40’) (lyrics begin at p. 7): “. . . Chloris dreams that she descends, Orpheus-like, into Hades to bring back the deceased Thyrsis, who never requited her love when he was alive. He rejects her even in Hades, but she generously takes him to the Elysian fields anyway.”
- Grigori Frid, Piano Quintet, Op. 72 (1981) (approx. 30’): the work reflects Frid’s life in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
- Nils Henrik Asheim, Grader av hvitt (Degrees of White) (2007) (approx. 18’): the music accompanies a “confessional text, (which) is spoken by a woman who is speaking to us as she freezes to death”.
- Sergey Rachmaninoff, Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor (1892) (approx. 12-15’): “Rachmaninoff had a precarious and emotionally fraught childhood. His father dissipated the family fortune and they had to move several times, his sister died in a diphtheria epidemic, and his parents separated.”
With a vocal style reminiscent of Archie Roach, Kutcha Edwards sings of vulnerability. His albums include:
- “Circling Time” (2021) (48’) – Edwards writes: “In telling my story, I believe I’m telling my family’s story. Within the structure of family there are members whose role it is to protect country. For others it’s to protect the memories such as photos. I believe I have been given the responsibility to protect my family’s Songline . . .”
- “Blak and Blu” (2012) (46’), “is all about the search for reconnection to past, family and culture. Born into an Aboriginal community on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales, Kutcha is among those displaced by the Stolen Generation. This is Kutcha's soul, his culture and his pain.”
- Gary Burton, “A Genuine Tong Funeral” (2016) (44’): 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” (2021) (66’): “The soprano castrato Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, born in Siena around 1735, led a life that was colourful even by the standards of his profession. Jailed for debt on more than one occasion, he held a magnetic appeal to women, an attraction that led to a notorious scandal when he married a young pupil in Dublin."
- Kristina Fialová, “Lady Viola” (2021) (56’): an elegiac tone characterizes this album and the works on it.
- Arooj Aftab, “Vulture Prince” (2021) (52’): recorded after her brother’s death – her sadness is palpable.
- Natsuki Tamura, “Summer Tree” (2022): High-pitched, abrasive and ominous sounds signify hostile forces – insects, microorganisms – attacking a magnificent tree, which struggles to survive.
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Steve Earle, "Pilgrim"
- Franz Schubert (composer), "Der Erlkönig" (The Erlking), D. 328b (1815) (lyrics) - he could not save his son.
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 . . .”