Archive for the 'The Sublime' Category

On the Edge of Silence

January 9, 2022

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”    

Albert Camus 

It was just around three o’clock on an overcast afternoon and I was taking my Sunday constitutional.  I had just crossed Houston Street when I heard the sirens coming from all directions.  A moment later at 1st Ave and 2nd   St   when the cop cars sped past me going the wrong way in a one-way street, I knew that whatever was happening was very serious, indeed.    I walked in the direction they drove to see the flashing lights of cop cars join the flashing lights of cop cars that had already arrived.  

 There too was as an engine of the FDNY.  The street was blocked.   The vehicles were now cramped together on the corner of A and 2nd St and they had all silenced their sirens.  In fact, despite the fact that a crowd of perhaps 30 people had gathered there, drawn by the flashing lights or curiosity or morbidity or whatever, the entire block, citizen and civil servant, seemed to be enveloped in a very un-New York City silence.  

All eyes were frozen on a young man standing on his fire escape five flights above the sidewalk.  

He was pale and wearing shorts and a tee shirt, on the tall side, perhaps 35 years old.  What became immediately and chillingly clear was that standing in front of all of us was a fellow soul who, for whatever reasons had been driven to the place where life itself had become unbearable – “not worth living,“ in the words of Camus — and a permanent solution to that intolerable   state seemed to be just a little movement away.   One move and then for the young man, a very different kind of silence.  

The window to the right of the man was open and one could hear, just barely, muffled voices emanating out of it.  Perhaps even a conversation was taking place but, despite the silence, it was impossible to make out a single word.  From time to time the man moved a step or so in either direction or stood tall or reached out to the grab the fire escape. Most of the time he was absolutely motionless.   Meanwhile the murmuring from the window continued as did the silence in the street below.

At one point the window below the murmuring suddenly opened and a cop filled the square.    For a moment he stuck out his head and studied the man on the platform above him, the man whose life it was his job to save.  Then, just as suddenly he retreated back into the darkness.  

Somewhere close to where I stood, just barely audible I became aware of a woman I could not see reciting the Hail Mary in Spanish.  She would finish it and then begin again, adding to the bizarre sense that something almost sacramental was taking place.      

A young African American who wandered into the scene asked me, almost in a whisper, “What’s going on?  Was the man threatening to jump? “

“Yes, “ I answered, adding for whatever reason, “ It’s a hard world. “ 

“Yes, “ she replied. “ It really is. “  

Then we watched in silence.  

Once or twice I exchanged glances with the man to my right but said nothing.  

The murmuring continued and the man seemed to respond. Slowly, very, very slowly and in fits and starts, he  crawled head first into his window.   I had no idea how much time passed.  Time seems bendy in such moments.  How long was I there?  Five minutes ?. Eight minutes at most ?  And yet somehow it seemed much, much longer.   

All I know was that, at last, he vanished into his window.  He was safe.  And, in some sense that I did not consider until later, so were we.  We, those who for whatever reason had gathered beneath him, were not to be witnesses to a primal struggle that ended in horror, not to witness a violent rejection of the sacrality of life, not to be told in the most graphic possible language that ‘Life was not worth living.”  

I turned to leave.   The young woman I spoke to touched my arm and looked into my face.   

“Be safe, “ she said.  Be safe.”      “You too, “ I said..    “Be safe.”  

The  man to my right also met my eyes.  He said nothing.  He was not, I understood,  the talking type.  He nodded his head and patted me on the back in  some sign of some kind of solidarity   and walked east into the  remains of his day.    

 And with these little gestures from two strangers I almost certainly will never see again, I was moved.  I was moved because we strangers had shared something;  something that could have gone terribly  wrong and yet, for reasons we will never know, any more than we will know the reasons that drove the man to the edge,   did not  and would not .

We shared a moment of curiosity or concern or empathy, or fear, or understanding or even recognition or some combination of all of these —  but it was something shared; something deeply human and   even primal was felt and shared by the three of us and I suspect, on one level or other, every other person there.   

As I walked on and reflected it occurred to me that we had inadvertently shared in something sacred: the sparing of a human life,  asking  Camus’s ultimate philosophical question and answering  “yes.” 

In a in a city ravaged by covid and savage inequality,  in a country where trust and empathy are considered by many to be the characteristics of suckers and losers, in  a world committing global suicide in plain sight and in slow motion, I’ll take it.   

With gratitude, I’ll take it.   

Red Brick New York

July 6, 2013

Red Brick New York

For some reason, for a long as I can remember I have found red brick buildings to be both beautiful and (somehow) comforting. Yesterday afternoon while running errands, such buildings seemed suddenly to be all over the place. For some reason, that kind of sensation is given every by and by and when it is, it’s very pleasant.

5th Ave and 23rd

5th Ave and 23rd

The Chelsea Hotel

The Chelsea Hotel

The Bigelow Building

The Bigelow Building

New York Public Library formally a courthouse and women's detention center.

New York Public Library formally a courthouse and women’s detention center.


A dwelling.

A dwelling.

Spending Bloomsday with Ms B./ Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy Read by Eunice Wong

June 16, 2013

Nora Joyce, the inspiration for Molly Bloom

Nora Joyce, the inspiration for Molly Bloom

Today is Bloomsday, the day lit lovers the world over celebrate James Joyce’s massive masterpiece Ulysses which takes place on June 16, 1904. It is on that same Spring day that the novel’s anti-heroic hero Mr. Leopold Bloom, he “who ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls, ” leaves his modest Dublin home for a walk and some kidneys and encounters, among other things, just about everything.

One of the few things that Bloom does not encounter (even if his thinking returns to her continuously) is his wife Molly Bloom. Molly, for her part, is to cuckold Leopold that very afternoon with one Blazes Boylan, a Dublin dandy, (even as her thinking continuously returns to her husband.)

In between these two events just about everything in the world except the end of it takes place. Some of it is very, very sad. Much of it is very, very funny.

Structurally, Joyce designed Ulysses to contain every literary form in existence but he saved the one that is arguably the most intimate – the soliloquy — for Molly, to whom he gives the last 30, 000 or so words.

This Bloomsday my wife and I had the joyfully exhausting experience of hearing Molly’s soliloquy read by Eunice Wong at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project on Bleeker Street. Wong’s performance was nothing short of magnificent.

The soliloquy, on one level a stream of consciousness recapitulation of Molly’s day, and on another an endless riff on sex, death, menstruation, politics, theology, the female body, the male body, faith, betrayal and, above all, love, is nothing short of symphonic and as such demands an interpreter of enormous emotional courage and breadth to do it justice. Wong, as Molly, pondered, exclaimed, wept, laughed, whispered, whistled, sang, farted, giggled, danced, cooed, and much more throughout, did it justice. She also displayed Olympian level stamina in the process. An Asian American, Wong chose not to employ a Dublin accent, but rather than take away from Molly’s Irishness, her performance heightened the universality of Joyce’s monumental creation: the sublime Molly Bloom.

Wong was humbling to watch. And also hilarious. And also beautiful.

In short, her rendering of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy was art of a very high order and we were grateful to have experienced it.

Mr. Joyce and his  guitar

Mr. Joyce and his guitar

New York Sublime

June 5, 2013

St John the Divine Cathedral above the maple trees and ball field of Morningside Park in Harlem.

St John the Divine Cathedral above the maple trees and ball field of Morningside Park in Harlem.

Visiting Dorothy

May 27, 2013

IDDVisiting Dorothy

And so on Memorial Day Weekend I went to visit my Ma and together with my wife and child went to visit the grave of Dorothy Day, the astoundingly bold and beautiful co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. My mother, a devout Catholic who raised and fed eleven children largely on her own after my father’s untimely death at age 52, has a soft spot for Day as well as a similar sensibility.
Dorothy Day raised one child but fed untold thousands of men and women whom she perceived as nothing less than children of God, but not before she spent years as a hard drinking journalist of a decidedly anarchistic bent. Day was the acting editor of The Masses when it was shut down by the U. S. government and she was arrested for picketing Woodrow Wilson’s White House for women’s suffrage. Day was also known for hanging out with the likes of Eugene O’ Neill and Kenneth Burke, both of whom it is said, she could drink under the table.

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Quite a feat, given the thirsts of such crazed Irishmen. But that was nothing to what she would do in years to come.

While she was still young, Dorothy underwent a crisis of meaning, brought forth, in part, by her experience of having an abortion. This crisis resulted in her conversion to the Catholic Church, hands down the most historically repressive of all Christian denominations and at the same time the church with the richest intellectual and cultural legacy. In short, a complicated institution to say the least. Some of Dorothy’s friends were lopsided with shock at her conversion, some considering her mad.

Mad she was and mad she remains in the context of the culture of what William Blake called “Selfhood” in which she was raised and which rages on in ever greater ferocity and diabolical intensity in our own time, when in 1932 she met the enigmatic Peter Maurin. Together they embarked on a project based on the Sermon on the Mount which was both very simple and very radical: to build a “ society in which it will be easier to be good.” Five months later, at a May Day rally in Union Square, the first Catholic Worker newspaper was sold. The price of the paper in May of 1932 was one penny. Catholic Workers were selling copies of the paper this May Day in Union Square. The price of the paper in May of 2013 remains one penny.

You figure it out.

Around the same time Dorothy opened the first Catholic Worker hospitality house in which anyone who showed up was fed, no questions asked. There are now over one hundred spread out in cites all over America. God only knows how many thousands and thousands of despised and desperate souls were fed by Dorothy and those who came after her.

Moreover, there is but one rule: To proselytize was and remains forbidden.

This work of the Catholic Workers is strangely taxing. The people who come to eat are sometimes crazed and often filthy. They are the Unwanted. The Weak. The Failed. They embody the most damning of all American insults: they are the Losers. Their mere presence calls all kinds of metaphysical and theological questions into mind. One must have iron faith. One must have limitless compassion. One must make your breathing and believing one or you may well run out the door in horror.

Dorothy did this work for almost 50 years, on top of her non-stop political activism, until her death in 1980. Her work continues all over America, all over the America demented by greed and the need for power over others, debased by degenerate forms of religion preying on the weak and keeping them so, degraded by a culture where “all that is sacred has become profane. ”

Some time ago I was speaking with the writer Jim Douglass, author of JFK and the Unspeakable and The Non-Violent Cross, who runs a Catholic Worker hospitably house with his wife Shelly in Birmingham, Alabama, when he said something about Day that startled me. I did not know that Jim had actually known Dorothy and when I realized he did I asked him what she was like. Jim paused for what felt like a long time and at last he said simply, “ Dorothy was a lover.”
I was shocked and asked him what on earth he meant by that. Jim went on to say that when you are in love with someone, you see only the good in that person, only the potential in that person. That, said Jim Douglass, was how Dorothy Day saw the world.
I think of those words from time to time or rather they swim into my consciousness to haunt or invite or inspire depending on my mood and my strength at the time of their always unexpected arrival. They bespeak of a spiritual state I can only call sublime. They describe a spiritual power of which I am in awe.

Dorothy Day was a Catholic anarchist. Such a thing is an absurdity, something that should not logically exist. But then so is the sun. And so is the soil. And so a song. And so a frog. And so you. And so I. And so all.

But here we are.

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