LIFE IS WORTH IT
A strange thing this world:
one day I will exit without having said it all,
those moments of happiness, those incendiary high noons,
the endless black night with its blonde tearings…
Maybe nothing is as precious as we think.
Others will come—their heart just like my own;
others who know how to touch the grass and say I love you,
dream in the evening where voices die down.
Others will make the journey just like myself
—smile at the sight of a child,
turn around when hearing their name whispered,
while yet others will turn their gaze to the clouds.
There will always be a trembling couple
for whom this morning will be their first dawn;
there will always be the water, the wind, the light
—after all nothing passes away but the passer by.
In the end there’s one thing I can’t understand:
this fear of dying people harbor inside,
as if it were not sufficiently marvelous
that at a given moment the sky looked so tender to us…
Yes, I know this might seem too short at times;
that’s how we are made: that joy and pain
escape from the overrunning cup like lying wine
and to our thirsts the whole sea is but a foretaste.
Still, despite the terrible times
—a load heavy on the back and a devastated heart—
always this impossible choice between being and having been
along with the wrinkle its pain leaves around the mouth…
Yet, despite the war, the injustice, and the insomnia
during which you grudgingly carry the little fox in your heart
—its name, bitterness—and God knows I have done my part
carrying it forever in my heart like child abducted…
Despite the evil of men and the ridicule
at one’s faux pas, despite the monstrous reasons
presented to you in order to imprison
all that you love and think worth dying for…
Despite the cursed days, deep as bottomless pits,
despite those nights endlessly fixed on hatred,
despite the enemies—companions of our chains—
(My God, My God, they know not what they are doing)…
Despite old age and when suddenly your heart gives up on you
with those nearby ready to attach responsibility to everything,
and yet indifferent to the very thing that’s eating you inside,
—the plain old story of using you to get a revenge of their own—
Despite all cruelty and the filthy rubbish
they throw at you, without even knowing in what school’s name,
despite the crazy ideas we thought we have suffered from
without being able to find consolation in an injury or cry…
All this hell… Despite all nightmares and hurts,
separations, mourning, bearing masks
and what not… yet, all that one wanted
with his whole heart was his naïve trust in azure…
Despite it all, I tell you, this life was such
that to those who want to listen to me—for to such I am speaking—
without having on my lips another word except for ‘thank you,’
I would say that despite it all, life was beautiful.
Translated from the French by Youlika Masry, Dec. 24, 2010
Had we not known anything about Louis Aragon (c. 1887-1982)—the poet, essayist, novelist and political activist whose oeuvre encompasses the whole ethos of the 20th century—we could have easily taken him for a modern Ecclesiastes poetically debating the issue of man “under the sun” before taking the leap to the azure that leads him to the triumphant conclusion that life is beautiful!
Indeed, right after his most promising title about the worthiness of life the poet delves into his doubts over the value of the ephemeral by undermining the very beauty of things beautiful (those “incendiary high noons” or the “black nights with blonde tearings”) in a manner reminiscent of the best known quote from the Ecclesiastes “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (12:8). Maybe “nothing is as precious as we think,” Aragon continues to discredit beauty in a downward path of thinking, thus hoping to minimize the impact of its loss. And then he boldly unveils the root cause of this state of mind which is no other than the humanist’s conception of life as a mechanistic, monotonous repetition that reduces every accomplishment to insignificance, incarcerates man in the closed circuit of the predictable eternal return and robs him of any hope for true Eternity, the Eternity of God’s Heavenly Kingdom. The poet’s “others will make the journey just like myself” finds its perfect analogue in the Ecclesiastes—the inspired book of error as Ray Stedman once called it—where it is similarly stated that “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh” (1:4); “the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be” (1:9)
Behind it all—be it in the Ecclesiastes of the Scriptures or in the version of any modern Ecclesiastes—is of course the issue of terminality, the reality of death, man’s burning question. In typical modern fashion the poet begins dealing with the thanatotic in an ironic naïveté type of mode. “I can’t understand this fear of dying people harbor inside,” he announces from the start while excluding himself from having been equally perplexed by it. The Ecclesiastes of the Scriptures would not resort to the device of irony because in the Word of God even the man under the sun is never totally out of the orbit of God as is the case with modern man, especially when, like Aragon, he operates from within the framework of a spokesman for communism. The most we find in the book of the Ecclesiastes is the admission of man’s inherent inability to understand the reason for death, since “no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” (3:11).
Aragon’s reply to this issue of man’s fear of death is paradoxically his praise of the same beauty he had belittled a verse or two ago on account of the fact that it does not possess lasting qualities. “..[A]s if it were not sufficiently marvelous / that at a given moment the sky looked so tender to us…” Naturally this kind of response falls flat on its face as it succumbs to the vanity of vanities reasoning that every approach devoid of a vision of the Eternal necessarily entails imprisoning man in the short circuit of the eternal return of the same, itself reason par excellence for despair.
“The evil of men” is the next negative thing in Aragon’s list that may lead one to devalue life and voice the ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ aphorism and this is in perfect harmony with the Ecclesiastes’ assertion that “there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not” (7:20). Similarly Aragon does not exempt himself from evildoing as he admits candidly that he is a “companion in chains” with the rest of the evildoers and that he does know first hand how “the little foxes of bitterness” keep him awake at night and have an absolute grip over him, the way an abductor has over the adducted victim. Yet, it is one thing to be sincere with oneself by recognizing one’s own share in the evil of the world and quite another to know THE WAY to God’s mercy and forgiveness for oneself, which in turn makes forgiving others possible as well, as the parable of the king and the two servants in the gospel of Matthew—where the king who forgave his servant’s big debt to him naturally expected him in turn to forgive his fellow servant’s much smaller one to himself—clearly implies (18:23-35). But forgiveness is treated with contempt by the poet and he quotes with disdain Jesus’ own words from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Only a haughty attitude could refuse to receive pardon for oneself or to view the pardon given to other wrongdoers as a poor excuse but such is indeed the attitude of the humanist where man is the measure of all things.
One very fine insight Aragon has about the evil in the world can be found in the verse where man in a condition of utter physical feebleness—“his heart literally giving up on him”—does not find in those standing by the compassion or empathy he desperately needs at that moment, whether it be expressed in consoling words, mournful silence or crying. Instead, the poet insightfully remarks, oftentimes the sole preoccupation of such bystanders (pretty much like in the case of Job’s friends) is to discover and denounce the causes of the evil at hand in a very narcissistic way, i.e. by giving voice to grievances of their own over matters whose memory was awakened by the current sick man’s tragedy. In other words such bystanders are literally “using” the unfortunate man’s predicament as an opportunity to voice complaints of their own. In this gross egotism and total absence of love for one’s neighbor Aragon does not explicitly include himself—as he did earlier with the evil of bitterness—perhaps because, despite the humanist’s most honest commitment to sincerity, the claim to one’s personal merit can always sneak in imperceptibly so that man may finally appear to some degree “worthy” in his own eyes. After all, it is not by digging deeper and breaking all the fortresses of defenses that man can come to fully know his condition of total depravity but with the help of God who alone can search the heart effectively. “I, the LORD, search the heart, I try the reins,” we read in Jeremiah (17:10), something which certainly is not part of the humanist’s agenda.
“All this hell…” This is how, in conclusion, Aragon summarizes the view of life of every “man under the sun,” perhaps preparing in this fashion for his own leap to the conclusion that despite all this “life is worth it” to be more powerful and dramatic! The only thing that can counter such hell in the poet’s vision is man’s desire to entertain a “naïve trust in azure… (la croyance imbécile à l’ azur).” The reader is certainly enchanted by the approach to the Divine in such beautiful imagery as the word “azure” points to (the expanse of the skies, the seas…); and he is touched by the fact that after such a gloom and doom presentation of the poet’s Weltanschauung Aragon does in the end seem to make the leap of faith. But first and foremost the reader is moved by the faith, the “trust” that the poet puts in the dimension of the Eternal to validate the whole hellish experience of life, if viewed only from the humanist’s point of view. For trust is more than a mere “intimation of eternity.” Trust requires putting all of one’s life in reliable hands; it presupposes closeness between the parties, knowing one another, loving one another. For it is only when life is lived sub specie aeternitatis that life as a whole gains meaning and significance and becomes precious, sacred, beautiful.
Moreover, such trust does not come from the toolshed of the rational mind, from probing and dissecting, from humanistic methologies. It comes from a second naïveté frame of mind where man, like a modern alchemist, adds prayer to his labor (orare cum laborare) and envisions his individual existence as part of a larger whole, the world of God, which he can access only if he lays down his intentional pursuit of meaning by secular means alone and allows for God to reveal Himself to him, in other words if he trusts God. Only such an outlook can give man the elation of escaping the loneliness of his fragmented and alienated existence. The poet does convey to us this kind of elation when concluding his poem with the phrase “despite it all, life was beautiful” but we have no way of knowing from this one piece of literature whether his trusting God also includes a full awareness of the total human depravity and of God’s marvelous plan to rescue fallen man by way of the Great Salvation through the Messiah’s mediation. The only thing we can be certain of from a Biblical standpoint is that God has promised that the Living Water will always be supplied to those asking for it and recognizing who the Supplier is, just as it was supplied to the Samaritan woman by the well for the asking (John 4).
Interestingly the Book of the Ecclesiastes also concludes by validating life through the evocation of the Eternal but in what seems to be a more external way. In the “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13), even if we were to interpret fear as respect and veneration, the proximity of man and God is missing in a way that is not missing in the “faith” and “trust” concepts of the poet which subsequently allowed him to voice an exaltation rather than a mere toleration of life. It is of course true that throughout the Old Testament the commands of God’s Law were never meant to be external to man but grafted upon the table of his heart in a most intimate way (Prov. 7:2-3 & 1:3); but the Ecclesiastes is not the place where such relational immediacy and intimacy is expected to be found. Besides, when the rationale for the advice to man to live under God’s Law is given it is based on the sole reason that “this is the whole duty of man.” The King James Bible has been criticized for misrepresenting the Hebrew original by supplying the word “duty” which does not exist in the Hebrew Bible. However, what the original literally says is that “this is (verb missing) for every man,” something which is not far from the understanding that this is man’s “portion”, “share” or “duty.”
Reading a secular piece of literature under the lens of the Living Word may well be just an exercise in biblical contemplation. The truth of the matter is that, according to the Scriptures, life on this earth can only be exalted when the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom sheds its light on it and makes it sacred. It is not lived for the glory of man but for the glory of God, which gives it an entirely different meaning and direction. Death, the death of the human body, is followed by the resurrection of the believers, for as by Adam death entered the world, by Christ the dead shall be made alive. Death per se shall be the last enemy to be destroyed by Christ for God has placed all things under the Redeemer’s feet. And as we read in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, “[w]hen all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (15:26-27). Such reinstatement of the original plenitude can only fill man with deep gratitude and it is not surprising that this is exactly the way Aragon concludes his poem: “without having on my lips another word except for ‘thank you’ / I would say that despite it all, life was beautiful”.
Youlika Masry, Summer 2014
THE FRENCH ORIGINAL:
QUE LA VIE EN VAUT LA PEINE
C’est une chose étrange à la fin que le monde
Un jour je m’en irai sans en avoir tout dit
Ces moments de bonheur ces midis d’incendie
La nuit immense et noire aux déchirures blondes.
Rien n’est si précieux peut-être qu’on le croit
D’autres viennent. Ils ont le cœur que j’ai moi-même
Ils savent toucher l’herbe et dire je vous aime
Et rêver dans le soir où s’éteignent des voix.
D’autres qui referont comme moi le voyage
D’autres qui souriront d’un enfant rencontré
Qui se retourneront pour leur nom murmuré
D’autres qui lèveront les yeux vers les nuages.
II y aura toujours un couple frémissant
Pour qui ce matin-là sera l’aube première
II y aura toujours l’eau le vent la lumière
Rien ne passe après tout si ce n’est le passant.
C’est une chose au fond, que je ne puis comprendre
Cette peur de mourir que les gens ont en eux
Comme si ce n’était pas assez merveilleux
Que le ciel un moment nous ait paru si tendre.
Oui je sais cela peut sembler court un moment
Nous sommes ainsi faits que la joie et la peine
Fuient comme un vin menteur de la coupe trop pleine
Et la mer à nos soifs n’est qu’un commencement.
Mais pourtant malgré tout malgré les temps farouches
Le sac lourd à l’échine et le cœur dévasté
Cet impossible choix d’être et d’avoir été
Et la douleur qui laisse une ride à la bouche.
Malgré la guerre et l’injustice et l’insomnie
Où l’on porte rongeant votre cœur ce renard
L’amertume et Dieu sait si je l’ai pour ma part
Porté comme un enfant volé toute ma vie.
Malgré la méchanceté des gens et les rires
Quand on trébuche et les monstrueuses raisons
Qu’on vous oppose pour vous faire une prison
De ce qu’on aime et de ce qu’on croit un martyre.
Malgré les jours maudits qui sont des puits sans fond
Malgré ces nuits sans fin à regarder la haine
Malgré les ennemis les compagnons de chaînes
Mon Dieu mon Dieu qui ne savent pas ce qu’ils font.
Malgré l’âge et lorsque, soudain le cœur vous flanche
L’entourage prêt à tout croire à donner tort
Indifférent à cette chose qui vous mord
Simple histoire de prendre sur vous sa revanche.
La cruauté générale et les saloperies
Qu’on vous jette on ne sait trop qui faisant école
Malgré ce qu’on a pensé souffert les idées folles
Sans pouvoir soulager d’une injure ou d’un cri.
Cet enfer Malgré tout cauchemars et blessures
Les séparations les deuils les camouflets
Et tout ce qu’on voulait pourtant ce qu’on voulait
De toute sa croyance imbécile à l’azur.
Malgré tout je vous dis que cette vie fut telle
Qu’à qui voudra m’entendre à qui je parle ici
N’ayant plus sur la lèvre un seul mot que merci
Je dirai malgré tout que cette vie fut belle.
Louis Aragon in Les yeux et la mémoire – Chant II – 1954 .