It was hard not to think of all this—of the Iliad with its grand funereal finale, of the Odyssey strangely pivoting around so many burials, and of course of “Antigone”—as I followed the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s unburied body over the past few weeks. I thought, of course, of canny politicians eyeing the public mood, and of the public to whom those politicians wanted to pander. I thought even more of the protesters who, understandably to be sure, wanted to make clear the distinction between victim and perpetrator, between friend and foe, by threatening to strip from the enemy what they saw as the prerogatives of the friend: humane treatment in death. The protesters who wanted, like Creon, not only to deny those prerogatives to an enemy but to strip them away again should anyone else grant them—to “unbury the body.” I thought of Martha Mullen, a Christian, who insisted that the Muslim Tsarnaev, accused of heinous atrocities against innocent citizens, be buried just as a loved one might deserve to be buried, because she honored the religious precept that demands that we see all humans as “brothers,” whatever the evil they have done.
This final point is worth lingering over just now. The last of the many articles I’ve read about the strange odyssey of Tsarnaev’s body was about the reactions of the residents of the small Virginia town where it was, finally, buried. “What do you do when a monster is buried just down the street?” the subhead asked. The sensationalist diction, the word “monster,” I realized, is the problem—and brings you to the deep meaning of Martha Mullen’s gesture, and of Antigone’s argument, too. There is, in the end, a great ethical wisdom in insisting that the criminal dead, that your bitterest enemy, be buried, too; for in doing so, you are insisting that the criminal, however heinous, is precisely not a “monster.” Whatever else is true of the terrible crime that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is accused of having perpetrated, it was, all too clearly, the product of an entirely human psyche, horribly motivated by beliefs and passions that are very human indeed—deina in the worst possible sense. To call him a monster is to treat this enemy’s mind precisely the way some would treat his unburied body—which is to say, to put it beyond the reach of human consideration (and therefore, paradoxically, to refuse to confront his “monstrosity” at all).
This will serve as a bridge between my last post- an anecdote about faith and art by Tobias Wolff- and my next - an excerpt about the burial of the Boston terrorist by Daniel Mendelsohn.
That night—to some extent, that picture—changed [my friend Rob’s] life. He enrolled in Bible classes at the church, and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The same night sent me in the opposite direction, at least for a time. But would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.
And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. One night, I was reading the last lines of “Little Gidding” to a friend, my voice thick with emotion, and when I looked up he was staring at me with kindly amusement. “So,” he said. “You really like that stuff?”
Every poet, consciously or unconsciously, holds the following absolute presuppositions, as the dogmas of his art:
(1) A historical world exists, a world of unique events and unique persons, related by analogy, not identity. The number of events and analogical relations is potentially infinite. The existence of such a world is a good, and every addition to the number of events, persons and relations is an additional good.
(2) The historical world is a fallen world, i.e. though it is good that it exists, the way in which it exists is evil, being full of unfreedom and disorder.
(3) The historical world is a redeemable world. The unfreedom and disorder of the past can be reconciled in the future.
It follows from the first presupposition that the poet’s activity in creating a poem is analogous to God’s activity in creating man after his own image. It is not an imitation, for were it so, the poet would be able to create like God ex nihilo; instead, he requires pre-existing occasions of feeling and a pre-existing language out of which to create. It is analogous in that the poet creates ￼not necessarily according to a law of nature but voluntarily according to provocation.