Since childhood, my personality has been marked by an undercurrent of a haunting yearning sometimes referred to in its extreme forms as “melancholy”, very much like what C. S. Lewis called “joy”. I have always chalked it up to my Scottish heritage, but I imagine a lot of other ethnicities (I’m thinking particularly of Russians) can claim the same. I’m not prone to depression or anything, but I’ve always been attracted to haunting music, mystical stories — anything that might be referred to as sad beauty.
It’s something I’d love to stir up in whichever of my children are like me. To that end, when I tuck my children in each night, I’ve begun to complement “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” and “Seek Ye First” with some old Scottish folk songs/ballads I know, such as “Loch Lomond” (stay with me — this is going somewhere):
By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomon’
Where me and my true love were ever wont to gae
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomon’
Oh! ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
For me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomon’.
The allusion to death is oblique enough there, isn’t it? But the sadness that’s there is made more potent by combination with such a beautiful Gaelic melody.
Another song whose melody I find absolutely mesmerizing is “Lowlands” (the version in a minor mode), an old sea shanty that evidently originated in the foreboding dreams of sailors long away at sea that they took as ill omens concerning their loved ones at home. “I dreamed a dream the other night/Lowlands! Lowlands away, my John/. . ./And then I knew my love was dead/My lowlands away.”
Then there’s Bonnie George Campbell:
Hie upon highlands and laigh upon tay
Bonnie George Campbell rode out on a day
He sadled, he bridled, and gallant rode he
And hame [i.e. home] cam his guid horse
But never cam he.
Of course, I won’t be singing any of the later verses that speak of the bloody saddle — at least not at bedtime! But the thought of doing so does remind me that people in older cultures gained an awareness of the gruesome nature of war much earlier and more vividly than we do with our sanitized and cartoonized versions.
I got to thinking about my early attraction to the bittersweet, my acknowledgement of the inevitability of hardship, and my love for humanity’s attempts to cope with sorrow through expression as in these songs, and not through suppression or denial. Indeed, in bygone days it was much harder to deny sorrow than it is in modern day America, where a broken arm is sometimes about the worst thing a child can imagine happening to someone. But when I compare myself with so many others in my religious tradition, I see a definite contrast.
The broad community of evangelical faith with which I am most familiar does not duly acknowledge sorrow and suffering. They regularly deny it and suppress it: this is evident in their contemporary Christian music stations advertising their wares as ”positive, encouraging” music. I understand that they offer this as an alternative to hopeless, purposeless music that they find destructive; without hope, suffering can indeed be devastating, and wallowing in it is not going to help anyone. But what I find is that they actually miss out on engaging negative topics by offering stock slogans as their solution. Another evidence is that they’re suspicious of down-to-earth efforts at meeting needs, spurning social concern because they think that the black in this world is challengeable only by their white: the gospel.
Now, I do think there is relief for our personal struggles to be found in turning to God, but the impression given by so many of these believers – which they themselves seem to accept – is of a dramatic “before Jesus” and “after Jesus” photo that is not commonly fulfilled in a way relevant to most people’s life experiences. Many if not most of these believers end up in practice denying the potency of problems such as uncertainty, fear, and suffering rather than acknowledging them as mainstays of our existence with which we need help and for which we need to offer help beyond the formulae and platitudes. When they chalk up everything unpleasant to a Fall long eons ago it has the effect of filing it all away for a fix long eons away. Just “praise the Lord” and get on with it (where “it” means praising the Lord and trying to get others to.) The Ned Flanders stereotype came from somewhere, you know.
But the denial of problems doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s typified most obviously in the blind trust they place in the Bible and in their tradition’s interpretation of it. They steadfastly renounce all who would peel back the veneer for just a moment to admit that, by any reasonable definition, there are problems with their inerrant answer book; to do so would mean that they’d have to live in a world that’s not black and white. This is clearly intolerable.
This leads me to consider that there’s no coincidental correlation among those of us most mesmerized by haunting beauty and precious sorrow, those who truly come to grips with difficulties, suffering, and hardship as integral to the human experience and make the best of them, and those of us who are willing to grapple with a living faith as it exists in a grayscale world, with no hope for certainty, no inerrant guide to the world, and only a mystical inkling that, at bottom, things might really make sense after all.
All of this is closely intertwined with what Keats called “Negative Capability.” As Keats described it, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” he might be described as having negative capability. He associated it with great poets, for whom a deep-seated sense of beauty permeates all they do, such that beauty is evident, or even most evident, where there is pain. Negative capability is often used these days to explain someone who is content to find value in life even while embracing uncertainty in the most fundamental aspects of our existence, and who will be satisfied to enjoy the journey even when guaranteed no safe arrival.
Here I think we see another commonality between the atheists who suffer no exception to their rationalistic epistemology and conservative Christians who will countenance no challenge to their epistemology founded upon the divine perfection of Scripture. I could never be comfortable either place.
My thoughts turn yet again toward Abraham (regardless of questions of his historicity), whose patriarchy I claim. He was called out by a mysterious deity and followed Him with implicit trust from a familiar land to a strange land. God’s test of faith during the Mount Moriah incident should scandalize the conservative Christian because it consisted of challenging Abraham to trust Him even when it contradicted systematic theology. Keats described the great poets as the exemplars of negative capability for whom “the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” The faith of Abraham was this: he never let Beauty leave his sight despite the changing scenery, uncertainty, doubts, and conflicting information he was given. I gladly call him Father Abraham.
I wonder what other correlations that can be drawn. For instance, I’ll bet that many of us who continue on our religious journey even after having our systematic faith exposed as a paper mâché bulwark are likely to be the type most enamored of fantasy and science fiction. Thoughts?