Et tu

Posted on December 24, 2013
Filed Under Poems, Theological | Comments Off on Et tu

Back in November, I suppose, I came across a news story about a researcher who found that he had brain activity that fit the profile of a psychopath. I thought I’d been told that we stopped trying to identify criminals by their physiology since we condemned the Germans for being better at it. But evidently Minority Report was just too implausible to worry about, so the work goes on to identify the guilty without waiting for the crime.

Perhaps one day they will discover that by some cosmic coincidence the human condition is not only fatal but also corrupt. In the meantime we must accept progress in the small steps that science offers.

I learned something about this in college. No, not in the classes, and not from the instructors. Well, perhaps indirectly. I worked in the school library in the Course Reserves department, and I remember reading one of the selections on file that talked about the characteristics of abusive men. There was a list of something like 15 characteristics, of which offenders typically had at least seven or something like that. I qualified at something like six. Maybe more; I don’t remember if I made it all the way to a bona fide criminal or just an apprentice.

No, I learned more from my friend. He is still my friend, perhaps the only friend I have kept from that time. He is a man filled with pretensions. He is a man who wishes to control the world. He is a slave of his loves and a fugitive of his fears. In him I found a man I could understand, a man in whom I could see myself. At last I could see myself: my naked scheming, my pitiable attempts to present an edifice, my tar-baby battles with the shadows I cast. He is a man I can understand, a knowledge as damning as my comprehension of Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover. It is one thing if you can understand the words; that means you are literate. But if you can understand the poem, that means you are a bad man.

Max, here’s to you, my friend!

Porphyria’s Lover

by Robert Browning

The rain set early in to-night,
       The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
       And did its worst to vex the lake:
       I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
       She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
       Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
       Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
       And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
       And, last, she sat down by my side
       And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
       And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
       And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
       And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
       Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
       From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
       And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
       Nor could to-night’s gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
       For love of her, and all in vain:
       So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
       Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
       Made my heart swell, and still it grew
       While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
       Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
       In one long yellow string I wound
       Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
       I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
       I warily oped her lids: again
       Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
       About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
       I propped her head up as before,
       Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
       The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
       That all it scorned at once is fled,
       And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how
       Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
       And all night long we have not stirred,
       And yet God has not said a word!