Friday, October 14, 2016

After My Death

Chaim Nachmann Bialik

Say this when you mourn for me:

There was a man – and look he is no more
He died before his time
The music of his life suddenly stopped
A pity! There was another song in him
Now it is lost

A great pity! He had a violin
a living speaking soul
to which he uttered
the secrets of his heart
making all its strings vibrate
save one he kept inviolate
Back and forth his supple fingers danced
one string alone remained entranced
still unheard

A pity!
All its life that string quivered
silently shook
yearned for its song – its mate
- as a heart saddens before its fate
Despite delay it waited daily
mutely beseeching its saviour lover
who lingered loitered tarried ever
and did not come

Great is the pain!
There was a man – and look he is no more
The music of his life suddenly stopped
There was another song in him
Now it is lost

What I love about this poem is - even despite the poor quality of its translation into English - the ability of Bialik to transcend morbidity; whatever it may seem, this is not really a poem about death at all, but about the joyous and vigorous fulfilling of our transitory lives. It is the song of a man in his full bloom, a man who knows, so to speak, that death will one day punctuate the stanza of his life, but for whom that knowledge is a spur, a stimulus, and not a block; and in the meanwhile there is always an opportunity for parole.

There are regrets, but they are hypothetical regrets; they are a man serving upon himself the warning of what he might one day regret if he does not live now; and serving this warning precisely in order to prevent regret. Even the pity is speculative; after all, there is still plenty more time in which to bow the string, whether of the heart or of the violin, and go on playing.

Bialik's poem is the antithesis of Proust's, in length, in tone, in content. And somehow the one serves as a warning of the other. Where Proust abandoned present and future life in order to review it in the solitary monastic cell of his cork-lined room (I have often thought it might be amusing to create a shirt in goat's wool as a souvenir for visitors to Proust's apartment on the Boulevard Haussman: My guru went to worship at the Maestro's feet, and all he brought me back was this extremely lousy hair-shirt), pouring out the waste in page upon turgid, interminable page of convoluted, ultimately misanthropic angst, entombed alive in sarcophagal regret, Bialik cries out exultantly, sweetly, simply but intensely "Act now". Once again, the d'vei Falstaff versus the d'vei Hamlet. I know which side I am on.

And yet. How very – how completely – different this poem would be, if it were not given that one-line preface: a mere obituary, where this becomes a song of birth! I wonder if the original came with, or without, that preface.

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