Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Significant Dates

Every year, when the calendar reaches the date August 6, I find myself unable to forget that it's the anniversary (the sixty-third in 2008) of the first military use of atomic energy. The date has an extra edge this year because of current international anxiety about the possibility that Iran has developed or is developing nuclear armaments. Not that I have any say in the question, but I wish Iran wouldn’t develop them, just as I wish all the nuclear-weaponed nations would dismantle what they already have. I also wish the world would review what happened at Chernobyl and be less blithe about nuclear power plants. Even if we have no more meltdowns, the problem of disposal of radioactive waste remains, and I don’t believe that burying them deep in the earth is really a solution. Solar energy is the only safe future, along with the goal of engineering some microbe able to convert cellulose into a combustible substance. Every nation with the power to finance research should pursue, cooperatively, the goal of clean energy.

These notes begin with a date and I’d like to go on from there by pointing out some strange calendric coincidences in the war between the United States and Japan, 1941-1945. That began on December 7, when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Meanwhile, in the Catholic religious calendar, it's the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Most Christians wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception is the same thing as the birth of Jesus from a virgin mother. The doctrine actually says that Mary was “conceived without sin” from her mother Anna. It was developed in Roman Catholicism as a way to get around the difficulty of giving Jesus a physical inheritance tainted by Original Sin. (The Eastern Orthodox church never accepted the doctrine of Original Sin, by the way, and by the same token don’t have a Feast of the Immaculate Conception.) But to the extent that Japanese authorities understood Christianity (which Jesuit missionaries had begun to spread in Japan as early as the 17th century, despite repression sponsored by Japanese imperial authority), would they have made a distinction that few Western Christians are even aware of? If they assumed December 8 celebrated the birth of Jesus from a virgin mother, perhaps they thought it made sense to bomb Pearl Harbor the day before the feast—symbolically, a rape.

Meanwhile, among possible dates for its nuclear reprisal, the United States also chose one that figures in the Catholic calendar. August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which celebrates that moment in the gospel narratives where Jesus went up on a mountaintop with his closest disciples and suddenly became “transfigured,” glowing with an unearthly white light attesting to his divinity. If atomic fission amounts to a “transfiguration” of matter into energy, the date has a symbolic resonance. What can only regrettable to Christians is the association of Jesus’ divinity with a weapon of mass destruction that incinerated a city and most of its inhabitants.

Finally, the war ended with the Japanese surrender on V-J Day, August 14, which is not a church holiday, but precedes the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin by one day. The doctrine maintains that the Virgin did not actually die, but instead was taken up physically into Heaven while still alive. This non-biblical supposition was optional for Roman Catholics in 1945: faithful Catholics were not required to believe it, but they were allowed to. Five years later Pius XII declared ex cathedra that the doctrine was now obligatory, an indispensable component of the regular teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

I mention this partly for its intrinsic (and bizarre) interest, but it also has a bearing on American poetry. Those familiar with the career of Robert Lowell know that he converted to Roman Catholicism around 1940. They also know that he left the church at the end of that decade. He himself attributes his decision to the promulgation of the doctrine of the Assumption in his poem “Beyond the Alps,” dated 1950. “Who could believe, who could understand?” he asks in a poem both personal and historical. My guess is that he was motivated by other factors as well, for example, his non-canonical divorce from Jean Stafford and remarriage with Elizabeth Hardwick. But the poem doesn’t bring other reasons forward and concentrates instead on the historical role of the Church and the papacy, as contrasted with secular and cultural history.

These topics are on my mind because I’ve begun working on a play about Lowell in the late 1940s. Having written poems, fiction, and essays, I decided it was time to tackle the remaining genre, and on ground that was familiar. I met Lowell only twice, in the last year of his life, and Elizabeth Hardwick perhaps a half dozen times after that. But sometimes small suggestions are enough to go on, at least, I hope they are. I'm sort of feeling my way forward, so wish me luck.

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