27 December 2008

Excerpts from Laxness' "Independent People"

From Brad Leithauser's introduction to Halldor Laxness' novel Independent People: "There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. ...One looks differently on the book of genius that, even in a long bookworm's life, one might not have stumbled upon."


But higher than all dealers and societies stand the dreams of the heart, especially in the autumn when dusk is falling and the clouds of the world are full of marvellous pictures....Oh, that it may never end; that it might live on to eternity in the restless splendour of its color. And thus night after night she sat watching the silent music of the clouds.
This was the first time that her soul was charmed by the power of poetry, which shows us the lot of man so truthfully and so sympathetically and with so much love for that which is good that we ourselves become better persons and understand life more fully than before, and hope and trust that good may always prevail in the life of man.
The varied life implicit in all this noise affected the bewildered child with a sad sense of her own isolation, her own insignificance; she stood outside the boundaries of life.
His being had rested full of adoration for the glory which unifies all distances in such beauty and sorrow that one no longer wishes for anything - in inconquerable adversity, in unquenchable longing, he felt that life had nevertheless been worth living.
When life is a weariness and escape impossible, it is wonderful to have a friend who can bring us peace with the touch of a hand.
Presently the smell of coffee began to fill the room. This was morning's hallowed moment. In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten and the soul is inspired with faith in the future; when all was said and done, it was probably true that there really were far-off places, even foreign countries.
Few things are so inconstant, so unstable, as a loving heart, and yet it is the only place in the world where one can find sympathy.
No one will ever be able to say that Bjartur of Summerhouses ever got the worst of it in his world war with the country's spectres, no matter how often he might tumble over a precipice or roll head over heels down a gully - "while there's a breath left in my nostrils, it will never keep me down, however hard it blows."
She lay like this for a long time, still quivering and still with a pain in her heart; no memories could comfort her any longer, terror is stronger than the total sum of anyone's happiness. She tried to think with hope of the far-off dawn, for human beings always seek some source of consolation; it is this search for consolation, even when every retreat is obviously cut off, that proves that one is still alive.
But the high heath had also a value for this man other than the practical and the economic. It was his spiritual mother, his church, his better world, as the ocean must inevitably be to the seafarer. When he walked along over the moors on the clear, frosty days of late autumn, when he ran his eyes over the desert's pathless range and felt the cold clean breeze of the mountains on his face, then he too would prove the substance of patriotic song.
He gazed out the window for a while, without accounting for the trend of his thought, staring in silence towards the mountain.
For you are all of the same high birth: God's children all of you.
Take my word for it, freedom is of more account than the height of a roof beam.
Yes, whatever a man seeks he will find - in his dog.

21 December 2008

Excerpts from Amichai, Laxness, Mendelssohn, & Yoder

Watch how the cloud sings
All you wanted to say or find.

Yehuda Amichai
--"Let the Coin Decide"

And the migration of my parents
Has not subsided in me. My blood goes on sloshing
Between my ribs, long after the vessel has come to rest.
And the migration of my parents has not subsided in me.
Winds of long time over stones. Earth
Forgets the steps of those who trod her.

Yehuda Amichai
--"And the Migration of My Parents"

Who will love the things that are naught and in vain?
I, who stand in the world like water in the rain,
I love the things that are naught and in vain.
The most wandering thing is a heart that stopped wandering.

Yehuda Amichai
--"At Right Angles: Hebrew Quatrains"

"Has the horse been spoken to?" asked the old man; and as it had not yet been done, he took an ear in each hand and whispered to it, according to ancient custom, for horses understood these things: "You carry a coffin today. You carry a coffin today."
The coffin was carried straight into the church in compliance with the minister's request and the bells were rung. Feeble was the sound they made, feeble their intrusion on frozen nature's winter omnipotence, their peal reminiscent of nothing so much as the jingle of a child's toy. And the folk came trailing out of the drifting snow and into the church, timid in the face of death, which never seems so irrevocable as when bells of such a kind tinkle so helplessly in the cold, white spaces of declining day.

Halldor Laxness
--Independent People

Every day of our life together
Ecclesiastes erases a verse of his book.

Yehuda Amichai
--"Six Poems For Tamar"

Do I think he would be 'saved'? I fancy that whosoever leads men to virtue in this life cannot be damned in the next.

Moses Mendelssohn
--"Reply to Johann Kaspar Lavater," 1769.

Before the invention of the machine, the only wealth of a people was constituted by the soil and the flocks. This is what today would be called capital. Evidently Jesus accepted voluntary poverty for the sake of the kingdom and he ordered his disciples to practice the jubilary redistribution of their capital: "all of these things, it is the Gentiles of the world who seek them. Your Father knows that you need them. Seek rather the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, because your Father has chosen to give you the kingdom; sell all that you have and give it as alms" (Luke 12:30-33). No one doubts that he said this. All that has been debated is whether this redistribution of capital was commanded by Jesus for all Christians at all times and in all places or whether it was just a "counsel of perfection" directed to the saints. Traditionally the Church has chosen the second solution, the easy one.
Comparing one day the generosity of the wealthy, who ostentatiously were throwing large offerings in the temple treasury, with that of the poor widow, Jesus exclaimed, "This poor widow has put in more than all of them. They put in from their overflow but she from her poverty has given all that she had to live!"

In modern language we can translate: "The quantity of money that one gives is of little importance. What is important is what one gives. If it only is a part of one's income, then this is not yet righteousness, goodness, and good faith."

John Howard Yoder
--The Politics of Jesus