Thursday, March 31, 2016

Let me speak

In "Performing the Problem of Suffering" today, we covered two things which initially seem entirely unrelated - the ancient Christian "Office of the Dead" and Joni Mitchell's song "Sire of Sorrow: Job's Sad Song." I lectured about the first, and one of the TAs led the discussion of the second. I shouldn't perhaps sound so surprised - I put the syllabus together, after all! - but the resonances surprised me. Here are two.
The first resonance concerns which passages from the Book of Job found their way into the Office of the Dead and into Mitchell's song: speeches of Job - omitted are the frame story (including the pious blandishments of its Job), the divine speeches, even Job's name. The Office braids these speeches with Antiphons and Psalms; the singer of "Sire of Sorrows" is hounded by a trio of other voices, whose words come largely from the friends. But in both cases the plaint doesn't move to a conclusion or release, and the voice moves between protest and the wish never to have been born. (The Office's Job looks forward to posthumous vindication in the eighth of nine readings before slipping back into despondency.) Job's words are used but no specific story - or backstory - is implied. It is everyman/everywoman confronting the opacity of suffering and fate, speaking out of the bitterness of her/his soul. In my discussion section we read aloud the nine texts of the Office, then listened again to "Sire of Sorrow": the texts overlap to a remarkable extent. I don't know if Mitchell was aware of the Office (unlikely, I should think) but the reflection in the other direction is more interesting still. Whatever we are tempted to observe about the power and effects of one of these we should consider in the context of the other, too. How could, why would an ancient liturgy have drawn communities' attention to such universal experiences of despair? Religion's deeper than its critics think!
The second resonance came out in connection with reflection on the power of repetition. The Office has a broken arc - it ascends to confidence in a Redeemer then falls back into despair, back also chronologically (from ch 19 back to ch 10). This is remarkable and suggestive on its own. But the Office wasn't something one heard only once. The arc ascends and breaks, ascends again and breaks again, again, and again, and again. Being part of a community one of whose important liturgies was the Matins of the Office of the Dead meant encountering the ascent, and the break, in the context of enduring cycles of ascents and breaks. In a way the moments of hope and despair are witnesses to each other, just as, I argued, the participants in the liturgy were, whether they intoned the readings or the antiphons. The voice - Job's, though unnamed and mixed with the Psalmist's, at once everyman and Christ, too, facing mortality - is perhaps that of the defunct. The vocalizers and responders are yet among the living, but, knowing of the enduring cycles of the Office, aware they will one day be on the other side - but still inside the practice. Even in the different, more solitary and silent context of a Book of Hours, the Office offers a stable language, a stable voice - a stable "I" - for those moments when people are most undone by terror or grief. These are claims I made in my book, though it was fun to have a chance to make them again, and with a live audience! But quite new was then turning to a consideration of the work a song like "Sire of Sorrow" might do for someone who listens to it, turns to it, or recommends it to a friend. The power of repetition, the TA pointed out, is built into the very structure of most songs, with their verse - refrain - verse - refrain structure.
I imagine no small number of fans of "Sire of Sorrow" are unaware of the song's origins in the Book of Job, or indifferent. The case for no small number of auditors of the Office of the Dead may have been the same. No matter. Wherever they started, these words reverberate onward, in small and large cycles.
I imagine no small number of fans of "Sire of Sorrow" are unaware of the song's origins in the Book of Job, or indifferent. The case for no small number of auditors of the Office of the Dead may have been the same. No matter. Wherever they started, these words reverberate onward, in small and large cycles.

No comments: