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NOº 2952

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Five Sacred Texts Brought to You By the One-and-Only Don Gilliland

Sacred texts;

or, “Knocking at Scripture’s Door”

Encounters with the holy are what keep me alive.

This is the first time I’ve thought in any close way about my canon of sacred texts. Thus, some introductory remarks: I’m not able, nor do I feel a need, to try to explain what I think constitutes the “sacred.” However, I can and want to try to show you. These are some places where I’ve met with sacredness. It’s perhaps not mere coincidence that they all relate in some way to time and mortality.

J.S. Bach, Chaconne in D Minor for solo violin.

It’s the final section of the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, for solo violin. The term “chaconne,” if you’re not familiar it, refers to a musical form in which variations are composed over a repeated chord progression. Since I’m not a violinist, my experience of the music is as a listener. And since I’ve never heard it performed live, my experience has been further mediated by recording technology.

The partita is one of a set that’s believed to have been written shortly after the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, in 1720. A rather remarkable 2001 recording on ECM titled “Morimur,” with Christoph Poppen (violin) and The Hilliard Ensemble, explores the piece as an “epitaph” to Maria Barbara, as posited by a project of meticulous musicology. The recording interweaves movements of the partita, with particular attention to the chaconne, with Bach’s settings of several chorales associated with death and resurrection, most prominently the Easter hymn “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” the text of which is on Christ’s overcoming of death and the new life of the resurrection.

My copy of the CD was a gift from my older daughter Clara. The Latin “morimur” can be translated as “we are dying.”

Two other links that may be of interest:

  • A live performance by consummate Bach player Viktoria Mullova (unfortunately split into two parts): Part 1 and Part 2.
  • A public domain edition of the score (scroll down to page 26). I can’t vouch for its editorial authoritativeness, but it’s basically accurate so far as I can tell.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial.

It’s located at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. I’ve only seen pictures of it; someday I want to see the thing itself.

Henry Adams commissioned it as a memorial for his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams. She’d committed suicide in 1885, grieving over the death of her father to whom she was very close. Deeply affected by her death, Adams conspicuously omits discussion of any of this in his Education of Henry Adams.

The sculpture, cast from bronze, was completed in 1891, and, I suppose, installed soon after. This beautiful photograph is from a 1914 book titled Artist and Public, by artist, critic, and friend of Saint‑Gaudens, Kenyon Cox.

George Harrison, “Long, Long, Long”

it’s been a long, long, long, time
how could I ever have lost you
when I loved you?

A few nights ago I listened to The Beatles’ “White Album” for the first time in perhaps thirty years. This song in particular — its air of airy longing; its long, long semantic and melodic arcs; its gorgeously bold breaths of spirit — continues to resound in my heart and mind.

Yes, it’s an ecstatic, contemplative prayer upon a restored connection with the divine. But for me, in this present now, the song is also about a personal and interior connection — with this song, this album, other music, other people—with a certain time of longing in my own long-ago past.

I listened to the album among exquisitely epicurean company, well after midnight. One of the many good things about that evening was my finding out that Harrison said that the chords for this song derived from Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

“It’s been a long, long, long time…”

But it’s not so simple as all that. The song’s end is a scary apocalypse.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, “The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse).” Oil on canvas, 27¾ by 35 3/8 inches, c.1896-1908.

Death rides counter-clockwise; a viper slithers nearby. It is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that appeared to John in the vision which he recounts in the book of Revelation (6.1-8). After the fourth of seven seals is broken, the fourth horse appears, of a “deathly pale” color, and “its rider was called Death, and Hades followed at its heels.” The color, so hauntingly rendered by Ryder, is much like the white that Melville describes Moby-Dick’s “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter. You may recall Death’s re-emergence in the person of Clint Eastwood in the film Pale Rider (1985).

The painting is held by the Cleveland Museum of Art. As with the Saint-Gaudens sculpture, I have yet to see the painting itself.

The experience that I here attempt to narrate, wherein I deem the past to be as good a place as any to begin.

I like the now-obsolete sense of the verb “to realize” as “to make real to the mind” (OED). It well describes what happens when I gain an insight into what had before been only a vague, unformed idea.

Of late, one thing I’ve come to realize (in that older sense) is that people don’t go away when they die. Certainly in the current understanding of the physical world, their bodies remain in the universe as material stuff and energy, as do material things associated with them. But the dead also live in the world of human minds and experience. I submit that this is true not only of those who have loved ones who remember them but also for those who die unknown and unremembered. I think the Italian writer Roberto Calasso means something like this when he says that “events live on, have their meaning and do their work on their own, even when not immediately noticed.” People’s lives, too, even if unnoticed, continue to have meaning and “do their work” in the world even after their deaths.

We often speak of the past as dead: dead time, Proust’s “temps perdu,” something that’s “passed away” or “passed us by,” that’s unrecoverable.

But what I’ve come to realize is that the past is possessed of a “reality” that’s just as real as anything else that’s real, whatever one’s ontological outlook. As Faulkner famously put it, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” The past is a thing in itself.

My daughter Clara, who has died, wrote the words in the image above on the floor of our garage. They’re invisible in ordinary light. She died in 2006. I didn’t know of their existence — their reality — until around three years later, when I happened to take a photo of something else with a flash. It might have been a picture of an empty flower vase; I don’t remember. But when I saw the photo, I discovered that something had been written, unmistakably by Clara.

The moment felt like archaeology.

The text is sacred.

Don Gilliland
22 October 2011


Thanks to my other daughter, Charlotte, for being my daughter too.

“Knocking at Scripture’s Door” is the title of chapter 1 of Book 12 of Augustine’s Confessions in Gerry Wills’ 2006 translation. In case you hadn’t noticed or didn’t know, it’s also an anticipatory allusion to a song by Bob Dylan, of which, by the way, the best cover is by Antony & The Johnsons, in my opinion.

I quote from the New Jerusalem edition of the Bible.

Thanks to Jason Slatton for hosting the night of the White Album and to David Dorn for telling me about the Harrison/Dylan connection.

Thanks to my brilliant mathematician brother-in-law, Eric Conrad, for his Latin expertise.

The words in the Clara photo are preceded by another word, “Spider,” but I can’t get a good picture of the entire thing.

The Calasso quote is from Literature and the Gods, trans. Tim Parks (Knopf (2001). This book and his earlier The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1994) and Ka (1999) are amazing and I highly recommend them.

Thanks to Sophia Kartsonis for reminding me about the Faulkner quote. While I don’t know where it appears in Faulkner’s corpus, I have every confidence it’s there somewhere. Besides, it would be there even if he didn’t come right out and say it.