20 January 2012

The Mosaic Sadness, Part 5

(cont'd from previous post)

"The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between this profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness." Andre Malraux, Les Noyers de l'Altenburg
"Humanism does not consist in saying: ‘No animal could have done what I have done,’ but in declaring: ‘We have refused what the beast within us willed to do, and we seek to reclaim man wherever we find that which crushes him.’" Andre Malraux, The Voices of Silence
To recap: The Mosaic sadness is too much with us. It is the condition of our being. It defines us, whether we choose to acknowledge its prevalence. Yet, we would be paralyzed by depression if we let the consciousness of the abyss—the limitation of our vision, the mortality of our souls, the inevitable failure of our aspirations, the delusion of our ideals—pervade our day-to-day lives. So, we repress it. We seek distraction. We obsess about things of no consequence. We "rage, rage against the dying of the light." We accede "what the beast within us will to do." Some look, e.g., to religion for a salve, a savior, if you will, transcendence. Some look to literature (and the other arts) to see how others with whom we can identify have dealt with the situation.

This is realism about who we are and our place in the universe. Or, at least, this is my own understanding of the truth about who we are and our place in the universe. But what if my understanding is wrong? What if it is limited by, say, my ignorance? What if what the human condition is not a condition at all, but merely a temporary situation? What if mortality itself has a shelf life? Smarter people than I are asking this question in scientific ways that weren't possible even 20 years ago.

Michio Kaku, whom I've noted a number of times here on WoW, believes we are only a few decades away from decoding the aging process:

Aubrey de Grey, he of the really out there ZZ Top beard and odd voice and mien, believes he's identified the seven key factors involved in aging, and has devised specific strategies for attacking each of them:

de Grey seems to be convinced that people living today will be the first to extend their lifespans to 200 years or even more. Maybe even people in their 40s and 50s now. Aging and Death, he thinks, are not necessarily inevitable.

You can find out more about de Grey here, here, here, and here for starters.

de Grey may be delusional and a crackpot, but he's got me (us) asking fundamental, existential questions. He has stirred up something like, dare I say, hope in an otherwise jaded breast. Mine may be the last generation subject to the historical, existential human condition or the first to experience something like physical immortality.

Then, I look at my kids—aged 22, 20, & 16. I wonder if—as de Grey and others who are seriously pursuing this start-up "big science" project—I wonder if my kids might, indeed, be part of the first generation to live healthily and productively for 1,000 years. And then the Mosaic Sadness returns with a vengeance as I, like Moses on Mt. Nebo, look across into the Promised Land, prepared to die unfulfilled and alone knowing I cannot go there with them.

[to be cont'd]

17 January 2012

The Mosaic Sadness, Part 4

(cont'd from previous post)

Sorry about the length of the previous post. I wanted to put up the entire chapter. I'll try to keep posts in this series shorter going forward.

So, to recap: Josh has S.A.D. [Seasonal Affective Disorder], though it is unstated. An unstated pun. Sadness, unacknowledged, is likewise a specter hanging over him—which appears, literally, in an earlier ghostly visitation (dream) scene.

How does he deal? He starts by questioning who he is—the right move philosophically: "differential man" whose ultimate end, of course, is perfect integrity, pure identity, ultimate aloneness, and death. He negotiates his way through the bustling humanity of Grand Central Station. He mourns what he perceives his condition to be—short daylight, overworked, over-stressed, confused, etc. Then comes the crucial question: "Where is the light?" Of course, true to the rules of comedy, the answer comes in the form of something woefully inadequate: the full spectrum lamp. And, ditto, it burns him. Slapstick, yo.

Josh then experiences a natural run of emotional reactions to this grievous situation: denial, anger, mindless busy-ness (running aimlessly around the halls kicking trashcans), etc. He even has an authoritarian impulse when he sees how certain associates leave their lights on and their coats on their chairs to make their bosses think they're burning the midnight oil. But then, he comes to himself; he collects his wits and sets into the task before him, despite his serious exhaustion. Even though he is not yet aware of his ultimate Mosaic sadness, he has a taste of it. His is the response of the healthy psyche: just get myself through one more day and do what I have to do to go on.

Then, in a true revelation of Josh's character, he exercises what a lot of us here on internet refer to as 'the Kind': even though he's furious at his associate for her shoddy work and for abandoning it to him and for putting this additional burden on his already stressed out life, he recognizes her limitations—her personhood—and bites back on his instinctive inhumanity. He is, to my mind, a paragon here—even though he has yet to experience the great epiphany that is central to the novel w/r/t (a) the psychodynamics that have shaped his current trajectory, (b) the true ground of his being, and (c) what I'm calling here the Mosaic sadness.

[to be continued]

12 January 2012

The Mosaic Sadness, Part 3

Here's an excerpt from my novel, EULOGY. This is Chapter 23. It is late Sunday afternoon on the train from Connecticut to Manhattan. We're about 2/3 of the way through the book. Earlier, Josh Bethune (does not rhyme with "buffoon", but does with "eaten") helped his father euthanize his estranged, terminally ill mother as per her wishes. The funeral's to be late Monday afternoon. He's just found out that his father-in-law, Brad, his mentor at the law firm, is retiring and moving to London. This will leave Josh exposed to some of the politics in the senior ranks at his firm. Brad and his wife Sara are also selling off a big chunk of the family farm, including all the horses except Picaro, their wedding gift to Josh and Nina. Nina, Josh's wife of ten years, is pissed. She's also indicated she may be falling out of love with Josh. Meanwhile, Josh has an emergency motion he needs to file first thing Monday morning with the court before he has to fly South again for his mother's funeral. Amidst all these on-going crises, Josh is circling around what I've been calling the Mosaic Sadness, though here it manifests specifically as a bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder to, what I hope, is comic effect:


There was, to be sure, motion. Or the sensation of motion, call it that, rocking and irregular. I felt it in the space where my spine fused with my hips, a dull ache I guarded lest it spark again into full-fledged agony. There was wind as well, though I could neither see it nor hear it, nor for that matter feel it against my face. The landscape swept by on both sides, and but for the jostling of my body and the grinding of the steel rails the illusion of its moving past like a pair of stock scenery rolls from an old movie might have been complete. My head drooped and my eyelids sagged.

Again, as so often these days, I was alone. Nina had decided not to come back with me. She felt Picaro needed a good grooming, and, I suspect, she had a few things to say about the future of Shadowstone Fields. This was not my battle—yet. Li would drive her back into the city later. Perhaps. I succumbed to the strain and rested my eyes, knowing more would be required of them this evening.

Alone? No. That wasn't quite the term for what I felt; there were others on the train, in my car, even across the aisle from me. What was it? Lonely? Not at all. Lonely implied I needed other people to be complete. No, I was not lonely, had never really felt that way. My mind didn't seem to want to work for me. Solitary? That wasn't right either, though it was closer; still, it made one think of being in prison. I sighed aloud. The woman across from me looked up from her paperback. I rolled my eyes and smiled. I wasn't even sure there was le mot juste in English for this sense I had of myself. Singular, unique? No, no: they didn't work either; too vaunted, smacking of hubris. Alienated? Too harsh, I thought, for it was a comfortable solitude, a safe one, in which I found myself. And besides, that had legal and political connotations. Oh, what was that word? It was on the tip of my tongue, yet just out of reach like the obvious solution to a tricky clue in the Sunday crossword. It wasn't a common term. It even had some technical implications; it seemed like it was a term used in mathematics and maybe in medicine and mechanics, as well. What was it? The train rounded a broad curve. I could see the engine out ahead from my side of the window. Work, brain, work! You've got work to do in the city. A moment passed and then, the aha! moment. Yes, I remembered: differential. That was the word I was looking for. My body shuddered involuntarily, and I shifted in my seat. Differential equation: motion, points in time. Differential diagnosis: ruling out everything that the symptoms did not support. Differential gear: the unequal distribution of power to the wheels of a turning vehicle. Differential: was that the word? Differential Man: Was that what I was? Who I am? Did that somehow define my life? What I was becoming? I chased this thought, this word puzzle, this line of associations downward into an abyss of sleep. A body, an identity, forming, moving through time. An arc, a curve defining my life as I shucked off everything that was different, everything that was not me. Rejecting everything I could not use. Focusing my energies where I felt the strain. Until when? And going where?

The next thing I knew came a light tapping and then a firmer shaking of my arm: "End of the line, buddy." Which was not my name. My doze had been mercifully purged of dreams. I came to slowly, not quite sure where I was and how I had gotten here, trying to piece together what had brought me to this place. A trickle of saliva pooled at the corner of my lips.

Nina and Sara and Holly had all been standing at the fence when Picaro carried me back to the paddock. "Geez, J, I can't say I remember the last time you rode him," Nina had said.

"Whoa, boy," I reined Picaro to a stop he was probably going to make anyway. "That could be because I never have."

"You've never ridden him? Seriously?"

"Seriously. I think I would know."

"Well you look like you've been riding him your whole life," Sara said. "I certainly never would have guessed." Holly squeezed through the fence and came running up. Picaro bent his head low to touch noses with the dog.

Nina and Sara had let this remain my own personal battle. I leaned forward and clapped Picaro on his broad neck. "Good boy," I said and slid my right foot over his back. The instant it touched the ground, while I was still holding onto the front edge of the saddle, he started edging away from me, bucking his hips lightly. "You go on and be that way, big fella'. You show off for the girls. But you and I will always know what happened out there." I spoke quietly into his ear. It flicked me off like a bothersome fly. I took his reins and walked him over, despite his balky protestations, and tied him to the fence. I bent down to scratch Holly behind her ears. She had barked as Nina brought out a currycomb from the barn.

I paused at the door of the train. In the belly of the station, it could have been any time of day or night. I stuck out my head, looked left and right, not yet quite oriented, unsure which was the front of train, then eased down the metal steps. A gamut of lurid theatrical posters watched me shuffle up the concrete ramp to the station. I quickened my pace, glancing at my wristwatch. It was late Sunday afternoon, and most of the food venues were closed, but I found a place where I could grab a pre-wrapped sandwich and a tepid bottle of iced tea. I ran up the marble steps two at a time to the terminal, inhaled at the high vault, made a quick calculation of the density and likely vectors of the afternoon's listless foot traffic, marked an optimal path across the floor, and shot out, half awake. I danced and dodged the light chaos of backpacks and sneakers and shopping bags and strollers.

I dashed up the escalator steps, glided past a security station where I flashed my worn ID to be scanned by the security guard who knew me all too well, jumped in and then out of the waiting elevator, where my ears popped somewhat more painfully than usual—was I coming down with something?—then sliced through the empty hallways of my firm and swept into my office. Why did I wear these shoes? I could never get a pair of loafers that fit: they squeezed the balls of my feet and slipped up and down off my narrow heels. I kicked them off and into a corner where the heel of one scuffed the wall. My big toe protruded from one of my black socks where it had ripped against the inside of the heavy boots I had worn while running down Nina's horse.

A trim packet of papers sat lonely on the corner of my desktop, as expected: the final obstacle of my weekend. Affixed to the pile, a note in bright purple ink on a yellow square of paper in Abby's open, bubbly script informed me she would be back in an hour or so after grabbing a nap and feeding her macaw, Mr. Smithers. "I hope it's OK???" it read. And there behind my chair, in my credenza, the magic drawer that could get me through.

Goddammit! It was barely five and darkness had swept across the sky outside my windows. I vowed to go to the office manager next week and demand a Southern exposure. As soon as I got this funeral thing behind me. This was when my job was most difficult. This was when it hurt the most: the onset of the short-daylight days of the long winter, the receding end of a nigh-on endless weekend, a pile of work in front of me. Most of the firm would return tomorrow morning from a 'weekend' in the sense most people understood: two days away from the office, off of work, spent restfully or in recreation or spiritual uplift with families and friends. I would be pulling myself through the morning, bedraggled and spent, trying to kick-start a week's momentum on the wave of their renewed enthusiasm.

Out my window, a lone falcon, a regular in these bleak midtown skies, hovered over the twilight roofs of the lower buildings, its wings extended, still-seeming for a second. Two. Then, folding and tucking them into its body, it plunged on a sharp, accelerating diagonal until it disappeared below the crenellated parapet of the yellow-stone building where I had seen the solitary woman packing her boxes last night. Perhaps a gimpy, louse-ridden pigeon, or an unsuspecting rat, would be shredded into a meal for its young.

My coffee-maker sucked the last drops of purified water from the reservoir through the heating coils and dribbled them across a thick cone of grounds. Bubbling and steam and the sharp aroma of dark-roasted beans: the false dream of energy. I felt the dull stiffness in my back. I sat down and bent low, my head between my knees, grabbing the insteps of my socked feet. I held them for a minute, took several deep long breaths, felt the pull on my lower back. These stretches, stopgaps really, would have to do until I could see my osteopath later in the week. After the funeral. I rose up, closed my eyes, and leaned my head against the backrest. The spinning world settled to a point just behind the bridge of my nose. Concentration. Concentration. What energy I had left I needed to bring to bear on the brief in front of me. The silence of this place, the loneliness—yes, that was the word for this—would allow for that.

Where is the light? Where is that light? The thought intruded on my meditation, came to me from nowhere, took hold and wouldn't let go. Several winters ago, at the urging of an ad in some forgotten glossy magazine, I had bought a full-spectrum lamp. Now where did I put that thing? Yes, yes. I put it in my 'Miscellaneous' file drawer last spring. Under my three-hole punch and a box of "from the desk of" memos. I took it out, saw the bulb was intact, and plugged it in. Yes. It still worked. Once again I bent over. Grasping the cuff of my left pant leg, I tucked with my thumbs and pulled it about halfway up my calf. I tucked again and pulled the fold until it was even with my knee. As the legs of my jeans were loosely cut, I then made a series of smaller folds to bring the bottom edge above my knee. This had the effect of tightening its grip on my thigh. I repeated the exercise for my right leg and pulled my socks off. They were damp and smelly. I threw them in the corner with my shoes. When I stood, the fold on my right leg slid below the crease of the back of my knee. I rolled it up tighter and higher like I had done as a boy when I wanted to wade into the stream behind my house with Amy and Jason to gig frogs or net minnows. It seemed, according to the ad, certain receptors behind our knees were sensitive to sunlight. And these in turn were keyed into our circadian clocks. The idea here was to trick these sensors into believing there were more hours of sunlight than there really were. If the theory held, I could fool my body out of its usual hibernal drowse and into a state of springlike wakefulness. I had done this regularly during the winters for several years now when I was here at the firm by myself. I could not swear it worked, but I persisted in the hope. As bad as I felt, it was worth a shot. The faux sunlight glowed warm and comforting on the backs of my knees. My toes wriggled freely. I took a small amber bottle from the drawer of my credenza, shook two small white pills into my palm, and popped them onto my tongue. I drowned the alkaline taste on the back of my tongue in a black wash of coffee. My stomach gave a reflexive, anticipatory pang.

Outside, the wind whirred low, hugging the edge of the building. I stood there, skimming the brief. What the hell was this? I flipped the pages. "Abby? God damn it!" Where was she? I reached over and banged the wall joining our offices with the heel of my palm. "Abby? Get in here!" The framed diploma on my wall rattled. My stomach clenched, my jaw tensed. My eyes narrowed to tight slits. I stalked to the door and over to Abby's office next door. My left pant leg sagged down my calf.

"God damn it," I banged open her door. "What is this shit?" Her office was empty, as I should have known it would be. Her ashtray spilled over onto the high clutter of casebooks and files atop her desk. Where the hell was she? I flung the papers to the floor at the front of her desk and stormed off down the hall. At this time on the weekends, this was my own personal race course. I made a circuit around the hallways on my floor, cursing Abby, cursing the work I would have to do to set the brief right, cursing my fate. I careened around sharp corners. I pounded random walls. Light spilled from a few open office doors. Invariably, a book was open on the desk or a jacket was draped over the office chair; associates trying to give the illusion they were still at the office. I turned off lights and slammed doors. Bedcheck. They were fooling no one. I made a mental note of the names and marched on. An empty trash can or two found itself upended.

My anger carried me downstairs. I took the steps two then three at a time. I made a circuit of that floor then went down another floor. Made another circuit. And down and around again. And again, talking to myself the whole time, thinking through what needed to be done to the brief. All the way to the bottom floor of the firm where the proofreaders and word processing pool were, finally coming to myself. I was winded but I barged around the floor in my bare feet and Huck Finn trousers. I knew I must have looked ridiculous, so I slowed up and took a quiet lap around the floor. Though I really didn't care what those people thought of me. Finally, I rounded back upstairs to my office and dropped into my chair. I could feel the blood racing through my body, pounding in my chest and wrists and temples. It was like the firm was my own private gym.

I collected my wits and took a sip of coffee, which by this time was becoming bitter. I downloaded Abby's draft from the server onto my hard drive and dug into the night's worth of revisions. After a moment, though, I stopped. Something wanted my attention. First, I smelled something faintly sulfuric but couldn't figure out what it was. Then I felt the heat from my sun lamp against my calf. Then and only then I felt the fair skin of my naked calf burning. "Yeow!" I leaped up out of my chair, banging my knee on the underside of my desk drawer, and let out a yelp. I reached down and turned the spectrum lamp off. I guessed the lesson here was not to fuck with rhythms of the body. I shoved my pantlegs down and soldiered on, shaking my head at my own idiocy.

Okay, what had to be done here? I settled back into my chair. We needed the judge to act now. Abby's mechanical brief did not convey the necessary sense of urgency. My phone chirped.


No answer. "This is Josh Bethune. Hello?"

The dial tone insulted my ear.

"Dammit." I slammed the phone down. My anger reignited in my frustration. Okay, now concentrate. The language in Abby's statement of facts needed to be spiced up. All the facts were there, all right, but I wanted the judge—or his clerk or whoever was reading this damned thing—to spit when he read the name 'Berker'. I wanted him to feel visceral disgust. Hers was bland, lifeless. Too objective. My phone chirped again. I pushed the speaker button.

"What is it?"

"Josh?" Abby's voice was timid, low.

"Ianelli. Did you just try to call me?" My voice was louder than I needed it to be.

"Um, no."

"Well, goddammit, somebody did."

"It wasn't me. I was just calling to let you know I'm on the way in. I've had a couple hours sleep."

"Don't bother," I said. A silence passed between us. She knew I was pissed. She waited for me to jump in on her. "Why don't you get some sleep and come in early? Five or five-thirty, so we can pull all the exhibits together and make some copies and get it downtown before the judge gets in." I relented, not letting my own pique destroy her confidence. I needed her.

"Okay. Thanks, Josh. I really could use some sleep."



[Critical comments welcomed.]

11 January 2012

The Mosaic Sadness, Part 2

[cont'd from previous post]

The Mosaic Sadness is the emotional condition of our mortality. When we realize failure is our destiny—incompletion, disappointment—it is the inevitable response. At the end of life, we may, however, get a chance to look back at all our successes and our failures and realize how puny they all are. And, if we are as fortunate as Moses, we may catch a glimpse of the Promised Land on Canaan's side, to wit: what fulfillment, satisfaction, liberation, community, and success might look like. What the future might hold.

Franz Kafka was exquisitely aware of this condition. It marks much of his best, most enigmatic, writing. And it plagues his later diaries.
"Of all writers Kafka was possibly the most cunning: he, at least, was never had! To start with, unlike many modern writers, he wanted to be a writer. He realised that literature, which was what he wanted, denied him the satisfaction he expected, but he never stopped writing. We cannot even say that literature disappointed him. It did not disappoint him – not, at any rate, in comparison with other possible goals. For him, literature was what the promised land was for Moses. ‘The fact that he was not to see the Promised Land until just before his death is incredible,’ Kafka wrote about Moses in his diary. ‘The sole significance of this last view is to show how imperfect an instant human life is – imperfect, because this aspect of life (the expectation of the Promised Land) could last indefinitely without ever appearing to be more than an instant. Moses did not fail to reach Canaan because his life was too short, but because his was a human life.’ This is no longer a mere denunciation of the vanity of one ‘aspect of life’, but of the vanity of all endeavours, which are equally senseless: an endeavour is always as hopeless in time as a fish in water. It is a mere point in the movement of the universe, for we are dealing with a human life." G. Bataille, "Should Kafka Be Burnt?" in Literature and Evil @ 152.
On Kafka's view, per Batille, this Mosaic sadness is our existential situation: the water in which we qua fish swim. An ironic, violent, trickster god denies us our heart's desire despite our faithfulness to this god's calling, and only because of our finite humanity—a finitude into which this selfsame god has capriciously flung us (out of, I might add, pique). It is a profoundly religious point of view: nothing we can do can or even should move the great god. And that's probably as it should be.

Though it should not be a call for self-pity. If this life were the paradise of the Promised Land, there would be no need to strive to better ourselves or our condition. Aspiration would be irrelevant, rendered moot by perfection.

This is entirely in keeping with the theory of literature I've put forth on this blog under the Label Ur-story. Dealing with this existential situation of Mosaic sadness—the recognition and acknowledgement of our mortality—is the substance of literature, and I've attempted to show how a number writers have adressed it.

In the notion of Mosaic sadness, we find the convergence of both theology and literature. It is at the root of what it means to be human, and at the same time it implies our limitation.

We do not live forever. We will not live forever. Some god has decreed it. We can, however, imagine what it might mean to have eternal life, to reach the Promised Land. However, if we are true to ourselves and our situation, we must acknowledge and learn to cope with the foundational sadness that is our essence.

Religious traditions have tried to provide a salve, a consolation, in the form of a Heaven or a Paradise in an afterlife. Look beyond this cruel situation: hope lies in the great beyond. This is their ultimate interpretation of the existential quandary.

Literature details the varied responses of flawed human beings within the finitude of this life to this situation. Get angry. Go to war. Take intriguing journeys. Suffer and moan. Laugh. Love. Seek clues to solve great mysteries. Imagine an alternate reality. Dream the future.

But what if Canaan isn't all it's promised to be?

The Kafka diary entry quoted by Bataille is dated October 19, 1921. Not three weeks later, Kafka sinks even further into existential despair. On second thought, what if the Promised Land is not all it it's cracked up to be? And the wilderness is still Wilderness? In his diary entry of January 28, 1922, he writes:
"...I am already a citizen in this other world, which is related to the ordinary world as the wilderness is to cultivated land (I have been forty years wandering from Canaan), look back as a foreigner, am of course also in that other world—that I have brought along as paternal inheritance—the smallest and the most anxious one and am only capable of living there because of the special organization there, according to which even for the lowliest ones there are exaltations that come like lightning, of course also millenial shatterings that crush like the weight of the sea. Should I not be thankful in spite of everything? Would I have had to find my way here? Could I have not been crushed at the border through 'banishment' there, combined with refusal here. Was not because of my father's power the expulsion so strong that nothing could withstand it (not me)? Of course, it is like a reversed wandering in the wilderness and with childish hopes (especially with regard to women): 'I shall nevertheless perhaps remain in Canaan' and meanwhile I have been in the wilderness for a long time, and there are only visions of despair, especially in those times when even there I am the most miserable one of all, and Canaan must represent itself as the only land of hope, for there is no third land for human beings."
Kafka's sadness is double: "Canaan requires conformity, and the desert, which may provide refuge from the misery of Canaan, cannot protect against despair and illusory hopes." B. Goldstein, Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness @ 63-64.

Moses at least had hope—for his people, if not for himself.

Poor, deluded Moses.

(to be continued)

[Yay! The YouTubes!]

"Marquee Moon"
I remember
how the darkness doubled
I recall
lightning struck itself.
I was listening
listening to the rain
I was hearing
hearing something else.
Life in the hive puckered up my night,
the kiss of death, the embrace of life.
There I stand neath the Marquee Moon Just waiting,
I ain't waiting
I spoke to a man
down at the tracks.
I asked him
how he don't go mad.
He said "Look here junior, don't you be so happy.
And for Heaven's sake, don't you be so sad."
Well a Cadillac
it pulled out of the graveyard.
Pulled up to me
all they said get in.
Then the Cadillac
it puttered back into the graveyard.
And me,
I got out again.

09 January 2012

The Mosaic Sadness, Part 1

"This is the land I vowed to Abram, Isaac, and Jacob," Yahweh said to him. "'To your seed I will give it,' were my words. It is revealed to your eyes, though your body cannot follow." Moses, servant of Yahweh, died there, in Moab's land, following Yahweh's word. Now he buried him there, in the clay of Moab's land, in a gorge facing Beth-peor: no man has ever seen his grave, to this day. (The Book of J @ 178 (trans. David Rosenberg)
[Moshe was 120 years old when he died, with eyes undimmed and vigor undiminished." (Deuteronomy @ 34:7 CJV]
This passage depicts the death of one of the truly great world-historical (or mytho-historical, or both, depending on your point of view) figures of the ancient Near East. A reluctant, ironic leader, at least three of the world's great religions venerate him as the founder of monotheism—Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Aten excepted. According to the Bible, he negotiated, organized, and led the great exodus of a loosely knit band of Semitic tribes from Pharoanic slavery and, in exile in the wilderness, forged their identity as a nation in thrall to the great god Yahweh. Shepherd, fabulist, magician, miracle worker, liberator, prophet, law-giver, judge, political leader, murderer, warrior/general: these titles have survived five thousand years attached to this man we know as Moses.

In the passage here, Yahweh leads Moses to the top of Mt. Nebo and shows him the proverbial Promised Land—the lands of the Covenant that Yahweh had promised to the Israelites' racial progenitors, Abram, Isaac, and Jacob, in antiquity. Yet, He tells Moses he may not enter this country. The Book of J does not specify why, but later redactors, editors, and commentators allow it is because Moses disobeyed Yahweh in some petty, self-serving manner. There, looking out over the Jordan River, Moses died alone and unremarked in some anonymous ditch.

Moses, whose eyes were unclouded, could see the Promised Land, and even though he was still active, Yahweh refused to let him enter. A congenital stutterer, Moses had mustered all his persuasive powers to negotiate the liberation of the people and serve as their leader, all in service to Yahweh and in reliance on His promise. He remained true to his calling, even though at times his temper and ego got the better of him, and led the people to the very cusp of Canaan.

It's been said there's nothing worse than to die sad and alone. The sadness Moses must've felt there at the end of his life as he looked out over the Promised Land—allegedly 120 years old—knowing he could not go in; the deep disappointment Moses must've felt when he realized Yahweh had no intention of keeping His promise vis-à-vis Moses despite his lifetime of dedicated service; the overwhelming grief that must've consumed Moses in his loneliness as he tumbled into a gorge and died: this is what I shall call 'The Mosaic Sadness.'

(to be continued)