Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hope for Easter Sunday

Severus Alexander 222-235  SPES PUBLICA
More than two centuries before the last of the Severan dynasty, probably in the time we call Imperatorial (unless it was actually Augustan) a figure meant to embody Hope (Spes in Latin, Elpis in Greek) was created for Rome.  As a personification it ought not to be too naturalistic, especially in the Late Hellenistic / Late Republican period when Neo-Attic or downright Archaizing or Classicizing or Egyptianizing, especially after 30 BC, were fashionably meaningful in their own right.
It actually was based on the type of a Kore, a maiden statue, holding a flower as a modest offering, and holding her skirt to keep it from being soiled; a Kore was an adolescent girl, the adumbration of the young wife and mother soon to be.  Think of Iphigeneia.
By the time of Severus Alexander it still was true to type but had gone through many repetitions without reference to the whole of the original idea.  Often we see that the die-engraver was not quite certain what sort of flower she was meant to hold.
I was thinking of the literal Germanic meaning of Lent, and of Spring as re-birth, and of Hope as springing eternal.  I was remembering how, at the end of World War II, when I was eleven , the Charter of the UNO (as the UN was called at first) meant to me that the unthinkable horrors of the War were over, and Humanity was ready to establish institutions to guard against recurrence of Man's inhumanity to Man.  Still our ally, Russia's Dmitri Shostakovich had written a March for the United Nations,  easy to sing and sung by our whole school: United Nations on the march, with flags unfurled, Together fight for victory, a free new world (as I recall: it was shortly much less popular).  But they would rebuild Coventry Cathedral, we read, and many other things, though not the Eremitani Chapel.
Before I was quite sixteen, we were at war in Korea.  Before I was thirty, JFK had been shot.
But it has been only in the last two years, when I have had time to read works that one ought to have read earlier, that I realized how Thucydides really felt.  And it just happened that I was reading not only 19th-century political essays but the Federalist Papers and had to live with some simple truths of politics, always divisive, always compromised (in the worse sense of that word), always lying and calling it 'spinning'.  And that we are not alone.  There but for the grace of nous or God or the Name of your choice, if Nature can be named, there go all of us.
So here I am, right back where I was in my university student days, believing that to do good is to try to avoid doing harm, simply, and trusting only true artists and true scientists, and them only if they can't be bought.  We didn't think we were apathetic, but we knew we weren't True Believers, and we did not trust the Flower Children.  Yes, they were pretty.  But so is that Archaistic, reality-evading figure of Spes that the Roman Empire clung to.
And yet, before the Tetrarchy, Spes became rarer and rarer, and Apollo ceded to Sol, and (even when the same attributes were used) Diana ceded to Sol's sister, Luna.  We name things as we are comfortable naming them
Concordia was hammered home relentlessly, and Providentia was insisted upon...
I have been thinking, meditating you might say, and I think I can live and die happily without that sort of a Hope.  It is enough to look at things and collect a few things that I like.
Kalo Pascha.


P.S. The March we sang in school that year is different from the United Nations hymn.  It is by Shostakovich, but it was for the film "As Thousands Cheer".  You can find it on YouTube, either with Leopold Stokowski conducting or, very nice, sung by Igor Goren.  I went checking to make sure that our teacher, who told us it was by Shostakovich, was right.  It isn't the only simple thing that Shostakovich wrote, either.