Black Lamb and Grey Falcon II: Easter in Zagreb

Over the long weekend I made a little more progress on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I’m going to keep at it in deliberately small increments so that I can stop and stare at the sentences. As it happens, one of the chapters I was just reading describes a visit to the Cathedral in Zagreb on “Easter Eve”:

It has been cut about as by a country dressmaker, but it has kept the meditative integrity of darkness considering light, the mathematical aspiration for something above mathematics, which had been the core of its original design, and at that moment it housed the same intense faith that had built it. This was Easter Eve; the great cross had been taken down from the altar and lay propped up before the stop, the livid and wounded Christ  wincing in the light of the candles set at His feet. It was guarded by two soldiers in the olive uniform of the Yugoslavian Army, who leaned on their rifles as if this was a dead king of earth lying in state. As I looked at them, admiring the unity enjoyed by a state which fights and believes it has a moral right to fight, and would give up either fighting or religion if it felt the two inconsistent, I saw that they were moved by a deep emotion. Their lips were drawn outward from their clenched teeth, they were green as if they were seasick. ‘Are they tired? Do they have to guard the cross for a long time?’ I asked curiously. ‘No,’ said Constantine, ‘not for more than an hour or two. Then others come.’ ‘Then they are really looking like that,’ I pressed, ‘because it is a great thing for them to guard the dead Christ?’ ‘Certainly,’ he replied. ‘The Croats are such Catholics as you never did see, not in France, not in Italy; and I think you ask that question because you do not understand the Slavs. If we did not feel intensely about guarding the dead Christ we should not put our soldiers to do it, and indeed they would not do it if we put them there, they would go away and do something else. The custom would have died if it had not meant a great deal to us.’ For a long time we watched the wincing Christ and the two boys with bowed  heads, who swayed very slightly backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, like candle-flame in a room where the air is nearly still. I had not been wrong. In Yugoslavia there was an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but had an honourable origin, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief.

It felt odd reading this passage about “whole belief” after days when it seemed I couldn’t turn around without seeing garish rabbit cut-outs and hokey pastel-colored baskets full of cheap chocolate in every imaginable shape. Our customs continue even though they mean  almost nothing to most of us anymore, and the resulting hollow commercialism gets pretty depressing. At the same time, as an atheist as well as someone anxious about nationalism and other ways of marking off identities worth fighting for (“you do not understand the Slavs”), I recoil from this scene, evocative as it is, more than I am exhilarated by it. Something else I did over the long weekend was watch a lecture (which I did find exhilarating) about “Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions: Just Say No!.” The soldiers with their clenched teeth don’t look to me like people willing to change their minds, which (I agree with Dr. Boghossian) is an essential characteristic of rational thought. The problem with “intensity of feeling” is that it is no guarantee of “moral right,” much less of more mundane kinds of “right” or truth. I wonder if West really regrets (as her rhetoric often implies) the more anemic faith of her own country. It may be less exhilarating, but there’s something unseemly about someone who is buffered by it, herself, from the hazards of extremism describing this scene as if it’s an attractively exotic spectacle.

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