Suffering and Poetry
Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
In his essay, "Ecce Homo," Xavier Le Pichon talks about his mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s. He explains that she was aware of her memory loss long before she was diagnosed. After her death, he says he came upon some of her diaries, which revealed how she tried to hide her memory loss.
Le Pichon relates this discovery to a poem his mother taught him, “Le Vase Brisé" ("The Broken Vase"), written by 19th-century French poet, Sully Prudhomme. In his essay, Le Pichon remembers the poem like this:
"The vase where the verbena is dying
Was cracked by the blow of a fan.
The blow barely grazed it
As no noise revealed it.
But the light bruise
Biting the metal each day
With an invisible but sure hand
Slowly progressed around it.”
The original French version of the poem, published in 1865, was slightly different. I asked poet Robert Archambeau to translate it. He recommended that his colleague at Lake Forest College, Jean-Luc Garneau, read both the French and English versions of the poem, and talked about Sully Prudhomme — his background, his style of writing, and what he may have been trying to say about suffering in his poem.
It’s interesting to connect Garneau’s comments about Sully Prudhomme to Krista’s interview with Xavier Le Pichon. As Garneau says, Prudhomme, along with a few other poets, started the Parnassian School of poetry, a style of writing that rejected sentimentality for scientific precision and detachment. Prudhomme’s poem centers around the idea of fragility — a vase that was cracked by the slightest breeze from a fan. It’s a crack that not only goes unnoticed, but also renders the vase unable to keep its flowers alive. Garneau points out Prudhomme’s scientific distance in the line “the vase is broken: do not touch,” which, he says, suggests suffering should not be interfered with.
When I hear Garneau discuss the poem, I think about Le Pichon describing how he felt he was so immersed in his scientific pursuits that he was not able to see the suffering of others, and that it is through “walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. You know, they teach you a new way of being.”
Later in his interview with Krista, Le Pichon recalls what it meant for him to see his mother experience Alzheimer’s: “My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease and I could see what the suffering was and that requires from us to invent a new way to deal with this person, with the suffering, to make their life possible, humane. And at each age you have new challenges and you have to face them. And this is how we build the humanity. The humanity is given to us at the possibility of old age, at each birth, and it has to be constructed. It has to be built. It is hard work.”
As Garneau describes what Prudhomme was communicating through the poem, it strikes me as contradictory to Le Pichon’s belief in facing suffering, engaging with it — his idea that fragility is “at the heart of humanity.” I’d be curious to hear more thoughts about how this poem connects with the show and why it surfaces in Le Pichon’s writing.
But, it’s not just “The Broken Vase” that captured Le Pichon’s attention. It is clear from “Ecce Homo” that Le Pichon sees suffering and poetry as intimately linked. He writes:
"As humans are confronted to suffering and death, as mirrors of their own suffering and death, they are confronted to their own fragility and vulnerability and this confrontation forces them to go beyond themselves by entering into a transcendent world that can be metaphysical, artistic and (or) poetic. This has probably been the origin of metaphysics, of art and poetry, which give us the capacity to project ourselves beyond the immediate reality of the difficulties of our life."
A Question From Behind the Glass
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
Most of the time, Krista is not physically in the same room with the person she’s interviewing. This was the case during her recent conversation with geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon, who lives in southern France. She spoke with him from Studio P in Saint Paul while he was an ocean away in another studio in Aix-en-Provence.
A typical Krista Tippett interview lasts 90 minutes, give or take. Mitch, our senior producer, usually handles audio engineering while others take turns transcribing in real-time. In this photo you can get a sense of the set up. This image was taken by Trent on the day of the Le Pichon interview and here you see me transcribing while Colleen listens in the back. Mitch is taking notes and John Scherf, the technical director, makes sure that everything goes smoothly with the recording.
Krista (pictured at right) is situated in the studio while the rest of us listen in the control room. A soundproof glass panel separates us.
As Krista enters the last stretch of the conversation, she’ll usually pause to ask if there’s a question “from behind the glass.” This is our opportunity as production staff to contribute a question or two.
In her conversation with Le Pichon, I noticed that he became animated when Krista first referenced an emerging wave of research on the science of altruism. Le Pichon responded that in addition to altruism, scientists also need to study compassion and empathy “otherwise they will not understand anything. They need to go beyond that.” From there, the conversation took another turn to Dorothy Day and the San Francisco earthquake and then to 9/11. When the behind the glass moment came, I asked if Krista could revisit her earlier discussion about the science of altruism, compassion, and empathy.
You can hear their exchange in the audio clip above. Here Krista mentions that Le Pichon has written about a proposed research study with a colleague on vulnerability and fragility. I couldn’t remember where Krista found this reference so I went back to some of the materials Le Pichon originally forwarded. In one essay he sent, entitled “The Sign of Contradiction,” he references a colleague named Dominique Lambert who teaches at Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur, Belgium.
Le Pichon writes:
"…we have pleaded for a scientific research program that will try to consider the importance of the fragility and vulnerability of humans in the development of humanity. As I have implied in this short essay we believe that vulnerability and fragility played an essential role in the origin and development of humanity. We believe that the implicit and sometime explicit denial of this fragility and vulnerability in our modern societies put us in great danger of losing the meaning and value of human life."
I haven’t been able to find much about Professor Lambert’s research on fragility and vulnerability beyond this link. If more surfaces, I’ll post it here. Or, if you’re familiar with his research, let us know!
Photos by Trent Gilliss using his hand-dandy Nokia N95!
The Heart Progressively Gets Educated
» download (mp3, 4:43)
Trent Gilliss, online editor
After one works on this show a while, you hear a particular statement or example given by one of Krista’s guests and can’t help but hear echoes from previous interviews. These connections make the world more intimate, smaller. These glimpses also give me a fresh angle of looking at that same memory or story and creating new meaning out of it.
This is exactly what happened in Krista’s conversation with Xavier Le Pichon.
Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa at the Maryhouse office in New York City on June 17, 1979. (photo: Bill Barrett)
Krista cited Dorothy Day’s experience of witnessing the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which immediately made me hearken back to Paul Elie’s conversation, as the impetus for her founding of the Catholic Worker:
Ms. Tippett: You identify with all of these people. I think in each of them there is one sort of vital religious question or yearning around which their pilgrimage hinged. What would you say that is in Dorothy Day?
Mr. Elie: Well, she’s the person who could always imagine society better than it is. It stemmed from her experience in the San Francisco earthquake. She was an eight-year-old girl. She lived in Oakland. She stood on the street watching for the next few days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. And for the rest of her life, she just thought, ‘People helped each other. Why can’t we just keep doing that? Why can’t society be organized so that we can help each other a little more, so that that stranger who asks for food, that I actually recognize that that person is a brother or sister to me in a way?’ So she had a reformer’s imagination of how the world might be other than it is.
Ms. Tippett: You know, what’s so interesting to me about that image of her standing before the San Francisco earthquake, seeing how people could love each other and help one another, you can dismiss that, you can say, ‘Well, that’s one of those extreme moments in life, we’ve all seen that. There’s crisis and then it passes.’ But then what she went on to do is to create communities of that same kind of crisis and intensity on a day-to-day basis with the poor.
Mr. Elie: Well, that’s right, and it’s partly out of the recognition that it doesn’t have to be merely the crisis moments that call forth that love in us, and also the recognition that, at some moment, everyone is having a crisis of that magnitude.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, that the crisis is among us all the time.
Mr. Elie: Yeah. And that you have to be there when the person is having his or her crisis, and not wait for the city to burn down.
Ms. Tippett: So here’s this reading from the postscript. She says: “We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, ‘We need bread.’ We could not say, ‘Go, be thou filled.’ If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread. We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded. We were just sitting there talking and someone said, ‘Let’s all go live on a farm.’ It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened. I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not easy always to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight. The most significant thing about the Catholic Worker is poverty, some say. The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone any more. But the final word is love. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”
Why did you send me that piece of hers?
Mr. Elie: Well, it’s one of the most powerfully written things that she did, and as the postscript to her autobiography, it’s one that obviously she considered important and representative. But what it really gets at is something that I think you were pointing toward in all the remarks of the past few minutes. She thought it possible for society to be different than it is because she thought that we’re naturally oriented toward love, we’re made to love one another. That’s natural, and strife and war are a deformity of that. But what we’re created for is to love one another, and to love one another in community. So she was trying to make clear in that passage that though she was a radical and formidable organizer, it was not a programmatic effort that got the Catholic Worker going. It was people doing what came naturally, which was loving one another in community and talking about it.
That was reward in itself, but Le Pichon carried the thought of immersing oneself in the suffering of others — living and understanding the others’ joy and sorrow — and, as you’ll hear in the audio clip, ended with “the heart gets progressively more educated.” That helps me think about empathy and caring in a whole new light.
The learning process is a growth curve; we have that ability to acquire knowledge, but it’s incremental and it needs to be fostered. That same potentiality applies to caring for others even if we can’t relate deeply at first. I need to grow that part of myself and not judge myself too harshly when I fail to act as compassionately as I would like.
My capacity for love and forgiveness is not fully mature, and I like that thought — that I just might be slightly wiser and kinder as I grow older even as my ability to remember and acquire new knowledge is on the decline.
Shifting Plates, Shifting People
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
This week we’re wrapping up production on our program with French geologist Xavier Le Pichon, which will be released on podcast this Thursday. Krista and Le Pichon cover a wide range of topics — from his childhood in French Indochina to underwater plate tectonic research in submersible vehicles, to life in a spiritual community aiding the disabled in southern France.
With such a wide scope, there seems to be countless jumping off points to different ideas throughout the conversation. One of those points is Le Pichon’s mention of what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers referred to as the “Axial Age” — the period between 900 and 200 BCE when many of the great spiritual traditions of the world began. As Krista mentions, the Axial Age is also central to Karen Armstrong’s recent book, The Great Transformation (preview above). Armstrong has been a guest on our program before, when she spoke to Krista about the roots of her “freelance monotheism.” Armstrong writes about the “Axial Age”:
This was the period of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Jeremiah, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius, and Euripides. During this period of intense creativity, spiritual and philosophical geniuses pioneered at an entirely new kind of humane experience.
What I found most engaging about Le Pichon’s conversation with Krista is his ability to link seemingly disparate parts into a unified whole — an ability which he links to his daily prayer routine. It’s in this spirit that I see his worldview and Karen Armstrong’s book connected in unexpected ways. They both deal with the grander, sweeping evolutions of our world — Le Pichon with the shifting of our planet’s tectonic plates and Armstrong with the spiritual evolution of the human race. And while geology might seem unrelated to spiritual evolution, perhaps by sheer scale alone they share a unique vantage point of the human race.