The Dead


Sometimes those of us cursed with Irish blood just end up a drunken, crying mess at the end of the night.

“What,” my friend asked a religious the other night, “is the difference between being sad and having a spirit of sadness?” He replied that a spirit of sadness permeates everything you do and that it leads you to live your life completely without hope. Where (diagnosed, clinical) depression fits into all of this, I think, is a post for another day. The friar’s words caught my attention. Last night I convinced some of my friends to watch The Dead, the film adaptation of Joyce’s short story in Dubliners. One friend astutely pointed out that everyone but Gabriel seems to miss something, have a lack or a wound that they mourn over, and at the end he laments that he has never felt such deep love for someone or something. But the Irish approach, as I’ve come to know it through generations of sadness in my family, is quite dangerous. It leaves you always trying to escape, discarding the present completely. It plunges you into a world of drunkenness and emotions and stasis. It’s everything I’ve written that Christians should not do.

There’s a deep romantic beauty to the Irish outlook on life, and yes, I tear up when Greta talks about Michael Furey and during Gabriel’s last speech when he sees so little difference between the living and the dead. But ultimately Joyce’s characters are stuck in a quagmire they believe they have no control over. In a perverse way it can be fun to throw one’s hands up, say “life is terrible,” and then drink oneself to the point of oblivion. But this is not sustainable, because nostalgia becomes one’s god, and when it comes to gods, the human heart has a limited capacity for how many it can worship.

God is never powerless unless we force him to be. Nothing shall be impossible for him. The past, present, and future can all be healed and glorified through him, but we can’t cling to sadness because it feels good and safe and familiar. That is part of the lie that sadness tells us: that only fools are happy. It’s not so. Foolish are the ones who have let their lamps burn out because they no longer wait in expectation of the Bridegroom. The wise rejoice because they know the hour is close at hand.


Another Poem

Recited in John Huston’s “The Dead,” although I don’t think it appeared in the original Joyce:

Donal Og

Translated by Lady Augusta Gregory, from an eighth-century anonymous Irish poem


It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday
and myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother has said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

The Things We Read

For Hyacinth, on his birthday:

“It is a curious emotion, this certain homesickness I have in mind. With Americans, it is a national trait, as native to us as the roller-coaster or the jukebox. It is no simple longing for the home town or country of our birth. The emotion is Janus-faced: we are torn between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.” -Carson McCullers

“She stood in front of the mirror a long time, and finally decided she either looked like a sap or else she looked very beautiful. One or the other.” -Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Öd’ und leer das Meer

“When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

“do you love him Caddy

do I what

she looked at me then everything emptied out of her eyes

and they looked like the eyes in statues blank and unseeing and serene”

-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (Quentin’s section)

Why is nostalgia so dangerous? Because it sees time as the enemy, something to be conquered. Quentin kills himself not because he is depressed or worried about the future but because with time Caddy’s deflowering will become less and less meaningful to him. The longer she is gone, the more time makes the painful memories hazy, the less he will care–she will not devastate him as she once did. She will no longer be everything to him. When she journeys away from the space of their shared innocence, she starts this movement toward an apathetic future. With time must come healing and growth. They are mad who bring time to a stop, who try to keep things in their places, the Miss Havisham’s of the world for whom memory is a means of escape.

Nostalgia is dangerous because it is tempting. Even as I write this I feel something being uprooted, and it is uncomfortable and painful to let go. But God is now here– in the present to be sought anew. The saints faced the moment at hand, they did not get stuck on glory days or lost loves (well, perhaps they did, from time to time, but it didn’t define them). Nostalgia makes novels great, but what does it do to the soul? If we do not let God heal our memories, work in our pasts, they can keep us trapped. They can lead us to despair of or doubt his mercy.

Time is no enemy, because it is the path by which we are led home. Christ is our destination and our sweet companion along the way. When we say during Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus!” we do so with great hope. My wounds do not define me, my sin does not define me–my Lord is the Lord “who is coming into the world” (John 11:27), and therefore, I must be here to greet him, I must allow him to orient my whole being, past and present, toward his triumphant arrival. I must allow him to sanctify my past. He will, I know, dispel the darkness from the most painful corners of our minds. Lord Jesus, Savior, come!