Ironic Advent 2015 Meditation #4: Bummer Advent
I don’t know if people say bummed out anymore. Well, more precisely, I don’t know if other people still say it. I say it. And I said it several times today. In back to back classes—British Lit and World Lit. Of course, I get used to students staring at me like I’m crazy (especially when I’m acting out the role of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner like I was today), so I’m not sure if their empty gazes meant that they didn’t know what I meant by bummed out or if they were just sick and tired of waiting for class to be over. I did get an email from a colleague the other day, responding to my note saying I had to miss a meeting, which just said “Bummer.” But, after all, he’s a member of the intelligentsia and probably talks like that all the time.
Anyway (or as Jennifer Lynne Ricke says, anyways), I was talking about the way certain works of literature seem designed, at least to some degree, to bum you out. Or induce a downer, if you will. Or take the pep out of your step. Or slap you upside the head. Or, remind you that you live in a fallen, flawed, undependable universe, dude, if you insist on philosophizing. The works in questions were Ozymandias, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Candide. Can I get a witness?
This topic was not in my lesson plan for the day. Come to think of it, I’ve never had a lesson plan for any day ever. But still, let's just say that I didn’t have bummer written in the margins of my books or in my notes or anywhere. It was just a spontaneous overflow of powerful teaching when we analyzed the state of mind and heart of the so-called “wedding guest” at the end of Mariner, and the intended “mighty” audience of Ozymandias, and the intended butt of the satire in Voltaire’s Candide—that would be pretty much all of humanity since the dawn of time, I think, especially German and Dutch humanity. These authors WANT to take away our false optimism (Candide), our arrogance (Ozymandias), and even our trust in the state of things as they are (Mariner) by reminding us of the world’s mutability, humanity’s inexplicable moral lapses, and the downright horrors that attend the lives of “featherless bipeds with a soul” in this “the best of all possible worlds.” Bummer Dude.
How can this be salutary? For that matter, why am I using the word salutary in an ironic Advent meditation? I really can’t think of a better word to make my point, and even if I could I would stubbornly resist using it because I like the sound of salutary. These literary works intend to be, or at least pretend to be, I think, salutary despite their harsh effects. And, in doing so, they exemplify and embody a belief that literature, and other cultural works, can give us pleasure (one quality usually included in most definitions of art) even while leaving a nasty taste in our mouths (or whatever metaphor makes sense here—perhaps a grating noise in our ear). Sweet things are good. Happy noises make us happy, sometimes. And everyone who knows me well knows that I love comedy, especially the overwhelmingly joyous and redemptive comedies of Shakespeare (despite their dark patches).
But. Sometimes a poem, a song, a story, not to mention talk with a friend (or an enemy), a newscast, or any number of other things can hurt or sting or just obstruct the flow of what we think ought to be smooth reality. AND THAT CAN BE A GOOD THING. In the Ancient Mariner, the “wedding-guest” was just trying to go a friend’s wedding when the old sailor accosted him, fixed him with his hypnotic gaze, and told him his strange story of sin and guilt and slooooow redemption. At the end, the wedding guest skips out on the happy day’s events, “a sadder and wiser man.” And the Mariner stalks off in search of his next victim/patient. For his disturbing story, we are meant to see, disturbs in order to teach difficult wisdom.
This Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, just after we lit the first candle and sang a wonderful Advent song (the utterly brilliant and moving 9th Century evening hymn, “Creator of the Stars of Night”), we stood up to be cheered by the good news of the Gospel. Something surely about Mary and an angel. Maybe a begat or ten. Or some other news that is good in the way that we want good things to be good. Something Ricky Bobby, for example, would like. Instead, we hear Jesus totally bumming out his disciples. Whoa, Son of Man, what a downer! Why you messing with my Advent bliss? How about some peace, love, and beatitude, bro . . . I mean, Rabbi?
You probably know what he said already, so I won’t belabor it. Wouldn't want you to lose your Advent buzz from the Advent chocolate you get in your Advent calendar. But it went a little something like this:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. (when are we doing “Silent Night”?)
People will die of fright (did he say die of fright? what about chocolate?)
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world . . . .
For that day will assault everyone (salt? . . . what?)
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.” (what about candles?)
This is not what we expect our good news to be. Sounds WAY like some Old Testament prophet thing that I’d rather not understand anyway. Of course, truth be told, I do this Advent thing every year, so I should be ready. But it doesn’t get any easier. I suppose that’s why we do it every year. People think I do ironic advent because I don’t like warm, fuzzy feelings and chocolate. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH. I Like ‘em all. Bring ‘em on. I’m just trying to explicate some texts, a liturgical tradition, and a little something I like to call . . . reality.
Come to think of it, I did see a few stunned looks on the faces of students today. A few of them had never thought about the fact that they could be stunned by a poem or a story. Stunned in the painful way not the Facebook way [as in, this story will STUN you because it is STUNNING, and after all this is FACEBOOK, etc.].
And they probably also never thought that they would have a professor who claimed that such an experience could be salutary. OK, maybe they just weren’t following me. But please, dear Ironic Advent audience member of mine (may I call you that?), please follow me. I am SORRY as heck that neither Advent or Christmas is going to end this year (as it hasn’t ended the previous 2000 or so years) with peace on earth, happy New Year’s, or a playoff appearance for the Chicago Bears. In fact, it’s worse than that. Human arrogance, stupidity, and malice might just keep showing it’s ugly head. There might even be yet another shooting incident, like, maybe in San Bernardino, California. Alright, I actually wrote this after hearing about that one. I'm so sorry. Every time that happens, I want to apologize to someone.
You want this to be a good Advent? And I’m talking to myself more than you, believe me. The way to wait is not to wait. I mean the way to get ready for Advent is not to wait for something that’s going to happen in exactly so many days from now (or many, many years in the future when the little baby will come back as a big King and all that). Instead of that do at least several of the following (the first two I assume, the others take a bit more will power): Light a candle. Sing a hymn (especially Creator of the Stars of Night). Empty out your refrigerator and give it all away to someone who needs it. Or just fast for awhile until you figure out a new way of relating to food. Ring the bell. No, really, I mean ring the bell for Salvation Army. Find someone who needs the kind of love we say comes to us in the Incarnation, and do your best to be that. Find a situation that needs the justice of the Son of Man and find some way to do justice.
It will probably be slow going, like the Ancient Mariner's slow redemption. That's not all bad. One negative recommendation: don’t post on Facebook that everyone else should love or bring justice like Jesus. That might seem like what Candide does, but it isn’t really (and I don't have time to explain it). Well, I guess go ahead and do that if you’re going to write a formal sonnet that people will still read in 200 years, or a long ballad in pseudo-medieval style, or the greatest extended satire in the literary tradition. But not if it’s just going to be more Facebook crap. That’s what worries me. I should know.
Also, you might consider confessing to someone, preferably not a wedding guest. That sounds like a downer, I know. But it might have a salutary effect. Or, it might just bum you out. Or both.