Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, Episode 183. The last we heard of our hero when we closed out the previous episode was of him, after pondering a while the larger questions of life and considering a range of answers, attempting to play a part on the guitar that got him and many others like him, turfed out of music shops worldwide in the late sixties. This was not any sort of answer, even though the title of the song with the contentious intro was Stairway to Heaven. So, we will join him again. There he is, head still bowed over his guitar, hands clasped around the neck, as if in prayer. But we know better. He is just catching some well-earned zzzz’s. He stirs. He sets the beautiful blue guitar back on its stand and re-commences his pacing about the apartment.
The answer. Always less important than the questions and assumptions preceding it. In the beginning was the word. And I’ll bet it was punctuated with a question mark. And I’ll ask a question: who here can remember a world without TV? I can: through a quirk of fate that washed me up on a small desert island that did not have access, in my formative years, with the cathode ray tube that has beamed its reality into homes across the western world since before most of us were born. Books and life and people formed me. And film- a gracious washing of a huge screen with larger-than-life colour and character and story while we sat, a community of aficionados, bound in the gentle dark by popcorn and projectiles- those bits of candy fired in unseeable arcs to bounce off the heads of enemies or strangers.
But TV back then was a mundane artefact, squatting in the corner killing conversation and inventing worlds of soap and gameshows and sponsored sport. Thankfully I am too old now to speculate on its latest morphing into the active-matrix screen on laptops and a billion pixels on computer monitors. Being no expert, I can confidently assert- this is not an advance. No question mark- Therefore suspect! How much has been written on, about, for and against, television. And how much is worth consuming, even once. My usual default is poetry and here is something from a poem by Howard Nemerov that I find worthy of more than one repetition: its title is A Way of Life
It’s been going on a long time./For instance, these two guys, not saying much, who slog/Through sun and sand, fleeing the scene of their crime,/Till one turns, without a sound, and smacks/His buddy flat with the flat of an axe./Which cuts down on the dialogue/Some, but is viewed rather as normal than sad/By me, as I wait for the next ad/It seems to me it’s been quite a while/Since the last vision of blonde lovelinesss/Vanished, her shampoo and shower and general style/ Replaced by this lean young lunk-/head parading along with a gun in his back to confess/How yestereve, being drunk/And in a state of existential despair,/He beat up his grandma and pawned her invalid chair./But here at last is a pale beauty/Smoking a filter beside a mountain stream,/Brief interlude, before the conflict of love and duty/Gets moving again, as sheriff and posse expound,/Between jail and saloon, the American Dream/Where Justice, after considerable horsing around,/Turns out to be Mercy; when the villain is knocked off,/A kindly uncle offers syrup for my cough.[play Pandora’s Box]
Horror movies, the howling werewolf, black-cloaked vampires with preternatural strength, swamp monsters, assorted trolls, goblins and giants from grim folk tales peopled?…no, creatured my hungry, youthful imagination fed by books and movies that seem quaint today beside the chic- ironic, yet puerile, slayer in designer clothes wisecracking to befuddled, barely-comprehending adults as demons explode in colourful pixels against the point of her postmodern wooden stake. Another generation’s hunger for information about the dark side is nourished by a flashier special- effects menu than was available to mine. And those years of feeding at the table of horrors wasn’t preparation enough to enable me to comprehend the real horrors that lurked in recent history.
I remember when Eichmann was captured by the Israelis and tried in Jerusalem. I looked in vain for the mark of the Beast on those bland features. I had read The Scourge of the Swastika by Lord Liverpool, and stared at stark photographs of black-booted sinisters, some smoking nonchalantly, standing over pits of murdered people. Could this bespectacled clerk be the author of so many deaths? Yes. At the behest of his Master. In concert with others of his bureaucratic kind who were in on the secret. Aided and abetted by the minor functionaries who enable the infrastructure of modern society. Made possible, finally, because so many people could look away and later deny any knowledge.
But the answer still doesn’t make sense. All our resources of language, all our intelligence, sensibilities, sensitivities, imagination fall short of the task. And even our greatest poets despair at delineating the horror that was the Holocaust- still the pattern par excellence for the bland-featured sociopaths who have a plan that doesn’t include so many on this earth and whose solution is every bit as final as that proposed at the Wanersee Conference so many years ago. This unspeakable horror was captured by that great poet, Paul Celan, in his poem The Fugue of Death, which broke the bounds of language to try to shout out to an unhearing universe what it was like to articulate the truth:
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall/we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night/drink it and drink it/we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there/A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes/he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete/he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he whistles his dogs up/he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in the earth/he commands us now on with the dance/Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night/we drink in the mornings at noon we drink you at nightfall/drink you and drink you/A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes/he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete/Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there/He shouts stab deeper in earth you there you others you sing and you play/ he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are his eyes/ stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on for the dancing/ Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night/we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at nightfall/drink you and drink you/a man in the house your golden hair Margarete/your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents/He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a master from Germany/he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you shall climb to the sky/then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there/Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night/we drink you at noon death comes as a master from Germany/we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and drink you/a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue/with a bullet of lead he will hit the mark he will hit you/a man in the house your golden hair Margarete/he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a grave/he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a master from Germany/your golden hair Margarete/your ashen hair Shulamith [play Paul]
I have supped full of horrors. And I am glad that my dish has been, largely, vicarious. My mind is not filled with the scorpions tyrants have to contend with nightly. C.S. Lewis, author of those innocent, those enabling fictions, the Narnia tales, also wrote The Screwtape Letters during the dark years of the Second World War. His readers, avid for more insights into the Satanic mind, were disappointed when he called it quits. He could no longer bear the burden of dwelling imaginatively in those dark regions. He feared for his very soul. And rightly so. Human life needs light and love and natural things and if this means a quotidian existence where one has to forgo the depths of Faustian knowledge and the heights of Elysian experience, then, so be it. Limits are, often, not so much limiting, as lifesaving, after all.
I think Carol Ann Duffy put it so well in her poem, Prayer– here’s an extract: Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer/utters itself. So, a woman will lift/her head from the sieve of her hands and stare/at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift./Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth/enters our hearts, that small familiar pain/;then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth/in the distant Latin chanting of a train./ Although I cannot pray, a prayer uttered itself, when I started to remember a childhood, when I started to take a part in the childhood of my children, and, although I doubt I will be given the gift of participating in the childhood of my children’s children, I was content. I was set down in the middle of the twentieth century and I got out of it alive. [play Ballroom of Romance] [play Coda sting]
He is swaying to an internal music. Thankfully he is not dancing any more. And again, he paces and stops from time to time to take in the magical cityscape beyond the tall windows of his Manhattan apartment. He smiles at some thought he has had as he slowly walks back and forth in front of a scene that does not seem to tire him. Perhaps citizens, native to this city, have grown used to the impossible concatenation and arrangement of lights crammed into such a small space: but not our protagonist who has not been here for very long and, as we all know, won’t be here for very much longer. But then, when you come to think about it- which one of us can guarantee our here-ness in the very next instant?
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition