Tuesday

Jul. 10, 2012

Covenant

by Tennessee Williams

If you are happy, I will give you an apple,
if you are anxious, I will twist your arm,
and if you permit me, I will be glad to hold you
close to my heart forever and do you no harm.

If I am happy, will you give me an apple?
If I am anxious, you may twist my arm.
And if you would like to, I would like you to hold me
close to your heart forever and do me no harm.

This is a bargain, only two can make it.
This is a covenant offered with desperate calm,
it being uncertain that lovers can drive out demons
with the gift of an apple or the twist of an arm.

"Covenant" by Tennessee Williams, from Collected Poems of Tennessee Williams. © New Directions, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The world's first commercial communications satellite was launched 50 years ago today, in 1962. It was called Telstar 1. AT&T owned it, but it was part of a multinational project to experiment with satellite communication across the Atlantic Ocean. The satellite itself was about three feet in diameter, with an array of square solar panels over its surface. NASA launched Telstar from Cape Canaveral, aboard a Delta rocket.

It's the birthday of Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil, France, in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (originally translated as Remembrance of Things Past and, more recently, as In Search of Lost Time) (1913-27). It's Proust's own life story, told as an allegorical search for truth. The most famous scene in the book occurs early on, when the narrator dips a bit of a madeleine in some tea and experiences a profound sense-memory of his childhood:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? [...] And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

That really happened to Proust, although in his case it was a much humbler and less poetic piece of a rusk — a twice-baked, dry biscuit or cracker — rather than a madeleine that triggered the memories.

He had started the book as early as 1905, but he kept setting it aside. Finally, he realized that he had to do two things first: He needed to purge his writing of all his literary influences, which he did by writing a series of parodies for Le Figaro in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, and others; and he needed to clarify what the novel's philosophy would be. He accomplished this by writing an essay stating that the artist's task is to access and revive long-buried memories. He experienced his "rusk epiphany" in January 1909, and he began the novel the following June. He produced the first volume, Swann's Way, in 1913, publishing it at his own expense after several publishers rejected it; the book begins, "For a long time, I went to bed early." Proust spent the next decade working on the rest. He was proofreading and copyediting the final three unfinished volumes on his deathbed in 1922.

Today is the birthday of John Calvin (books by this author), born in Noyon, Picardy, France (1509). He experienced a religious epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533, in his early twenties, when, he said, "God subdued my soul to docility by a sudden conversion." Calvin embraced Protestantism at a time when that was a dangerous thing to do; in 1534, two dozen Protestants were burned at as heretics in France. He took up a nomadic lifestyle for the next several years, traveling throughout France, Italy, and Switzerland, finally settling in Geneva.

In 1536, Calvin published Institutes of the Christian Religion; it was intended for a general readership and laid out the foundations came to be known as Calvinism, or five principles that spell out the word TULIP:

Total depravity: all people are born sinful.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.
Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.
Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.
Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.

Word got around, and he made a name for himself among religious reformers; when he passed through Geneva, the pastor of the city prevailed on him to stay around a while and help with the new church. William Farel, the pastor, wouldn't take "no" for an answer, and even swore a curse on Calvin if he refused. Calvin stayed for a year and a half, and although Geneva was ripe for religious reform, there was still conflict between Calvin, who wanted to install a theocracy, and those who wanted less drastic reform. Calvin was driven out of the city and went to Strasbourg. He returned three years later, and he spent the rest of his life in Geneva. He wasn't popular with everyone — some people set their dogs on him, or sent him death threats, or disrupted his sermons — but he persisted in spite of failing health, saying, "What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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