Man Without Qualities

Thursday, March 07, 2002

A Canticle of The Sun

In The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, one of the lesser-known stories of Edgar Allan Poe, a mesmerist (hypnotist) places the eponymous patient in a mesmeric trance just before he is about to die, thereby locking for weeks the patient’s soul within a body no longer capable of sustaining life. The story recalled itself to me yesterday morning, when one of my favorite relatives collapsed from a heart attack across her breakfast table, the prelude to a now common scenario in which the extent of the damage to the brain is vast, but the answer to whether true death has occurred appears trapped in a kind of linguistic crystal. Can a beautiful person come to this kind of end? Her soul’s escape denied by iterated total internal reflection within a prism of medical terminology?

As she lies dying, and a room for her on which we lavished such care and expectations stands empty, there is plenty of time to think. Is it as stupid to plan for the arrival of a seventy-seven year old woman as it is for a seven-month fetus? But old people are supposed to die – it can’t hurt this much. As the Marschallin of Der Rosenkavalier says it “When we are living our lives away, time is absolutely nothing. And then, suddenly, there is absolutely nothing else.”

There are two poems that have also presented themselves. Neither was written originally in English, and neither has what I consider a completely satisfactory translation. So, with all that unleashed time, I have prepared a version of each, working from existing translations. One poem was written by a Christian saint, the other by a Roman emperor who was anything but saintly.

Animula, blandula, vagula

Little, gentle, wandering soul,
My body’s guest and friend,
To what far places are you borne?
Naked, cold and pale.
As the warmth and joy of life,
You loved so slips away.

The Canticle of The Sun
[Saint Francis]

Thank you, God, for brother sun, whose radiance gives us the day and a glimpse of your own face.
Thank you, God, for sister moon, and for the shining stars of heaven. you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Thank you, God, for brother wind, for fair and stormy seasons and every kind of weather, which nourish all that you have made.
Thank you, God, for sister rain, so useful and humble, precious and pure.
Thank you, God, for brother fire, who lights our night, beautiful and playful, robust and strong.
Thank you, God, for mother earth, who sustains us with fruits and herbs, and flowers of many colors.
Thank you, God, for those who forgive their fellows for love of you, and patiently bear their sickness and other trials.
Thank you, God, for sister death, who comes to us all, but only once to those who live in your power and love.

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