25
Dec
11

is elegance a language we don’t understand?

“The gospel is a language I do not understand, when it opposes my passion”
Abelard to Heloise
I know this is not the most candle-lighting, stocking-stuffing, nor hymn-singing tribute this Christmas morning, but the Incarnation itself  offers an opportunity to give voice to our passions. The Christ child himself invests mortal humanity with an elegant love language, showing us that flesh and spirit need not be eternally at odds.
In recent weeks I have read the letters of Abelard and Heloise, a couple separated by circumstances, writing eloquent prose about their conflicts; I have read A Wild Surge of Guilty Passsion by Ron Hansen,  which contains letters less elegant, yet offers a glimpse of a man wrestling with spirit and flesh; I have read The Scarlet Letter, another depiction of humans caught between fleshly desires and spiritual ones, as if they need always be in conflict; and I have read Marilynne Robinson’s piece in Tin House on Beauty, in which the elegance of language, and the inevitable sadness of human lives, are merged in her idea about writing’s ability to speak to us in our humanity, somewhere between beasts and angels.
Perhaps what we lament when the holidays are over is the passing of something more elegant: an imagined time, a gospel language we understood, because it didn’t oppose our passions, but mingled with them somehow. Would the world be better if our worldly and spiritual loves were once again synonymous, united, similar to the way the baby in a manger suggests a hopeful innocence? Though our lives might be more “whole” or holy in such a case, the drama and tension that fill symphony halls or theaters would be absent if music and plays were devoid of a conflict of passions.
The Incarnation could even force us to doubt our convictions about elevated style and diction being appropriate to high subjects such as theology and love. As you read and watch and listen this holiday, attune yourself to the passion of characters, composers, musicians, authors–hear love in their language. In what way is there good news in art that calls you to expression of things you are passionate about?
A play I have been reading with a drama production in mind, “Holiday”, brings back such elegance…of language, of thought, of love, of ideals. But beyond single texts, I am curious which combination of texts speak to you in language differently than they might in isolation. Even my Dad’s Christmas gift to me, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, suggests Romeo and Juliet to me differently than they appear in my 22nd reading of their story as I regain it for my freshman English class, investing their bodies with new spirits. Now, whether a romantic comedy or a tragedy or a Hawthorne romance, everything involving a couple or a question about the role of passions (The Lady’s Not for Burning) in life is open to new reading because of the other open books on my table.
I hope your joy in reading increases this coming New Year!
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