Friday, November 11, 2011

The Title Itself

Coming at the tail end of maybe one of the most quoted passages of the bible outside of the words of Jesus himself, the verse from which this blog's title comes has always fascinated me.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (1 Cor 13:12)

Maybe it's the concentration on knowledge, or maybe it's the simple explanation of the world we currently perceive and that which we could - of course with the Christian teleological worldview, will - see. For whatever reason this passage has always arrested my attention, and now I want to try to figure out why. So, following the general process of a close reading (looking at context, and then the passage itself), let's try to find out.

First, it comes after what I think is one of the most overly quoted passages of the bible: the list of what "love" (or, if you're reading the rockin' King James Version, "charity") is. I know that this passage is sweet at weddings and likely gone to by lovers in doubt, but it needs to be put to rest. The spirit of those words still seems true but their flesh is as worn as one who is forced to till by hand a 20 acre field everyday. So, to all of those looking for quotes about love for MC-ing duties or general talking into microphones at big gatherings, I implore you to look elsewhere. It's called "The Bible" because there was a time when it really was "The Book" - the only book in many people's libraries (possession, even). Don't let one worn passage be the scope of your wandering through it.

Anyway, looking at this passage a little more objectively, what can be said about it? At the base it begins as an indirect description of the power of charity, that even if you display all of these other virtues and knowledges but lack charity, your achievements are meaningless. Then it moves into a straight list with an easy lilting rhythm, the kind that can lull. And I think that this rhythm is important, because the opening may grab an audience's attention with its forceful "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal" (1 Cor 13:1), But then things grow more soothing after two verses of that indirect definition of charity. Verse 4 states clearly "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up," (1 Cor 13:4) easing into a steady rhythm (here, of 10-7-12 syllabled statements). Then in verse 9, St. Paul breaks to explain knowledge and prophecy, and how they are only partial things. I think that it's significant that St. Paul does this in a markedly shorter statement than those that precede it. What this shortness lacks in a lumbering rhythm it makes up for with its spry repetition. And so we see a kind of return to the original firing up of the audience at hand, though in a much less confrontational way. Effectively then, before getting to what I consider the point of this passage, St. Paul has grabbed his readers' attention, lulled them along, and then reminded them of the seriousness of what he has to say.

Verse 10 gets into his prediction about when wholeness comes all things that are in part "shall be done away." A verse that I read as his vaunting upwards to where his point is. Running with this reading, the next verse, in which he uses an analogy of childhood and adulthood to describe the now and the then, is like his time in the air before landing at his point in verse 12. Transformation is emphasized here in verse 11, I think, because of the emphasis on the fuzzy present (a present that is grammatically the present, but as suggested by the analogy (and what follows) is more of a past) and a vague future as indicated by "when...then." The first indication of any temporal definitiveness comes at the beginning of verse 12 "For now...," when he lands firmly from the air, and has arrived at his point. What follows is a concluding verse which gives a clear indication that though faith, hope, and charity (interestingly the daughters of St. Sophia, which if, for some crackpot reason is translated from Greek would be St. Wisdom) "now abideth," charity is "the greatest of these" (1 Cor 13:13).

But to go back to verse 12. Along with the emphasis on knowledge and perception, this is also where things get stylistically cool.

"For now..." itself is very stylish, since instead of just being a terse "now," "For" gives it an added push; it gives it a kind of ramp by which the audience can climb aboard this "now," or if you like, can scrabble up the rock face on the opposite side of the precipice he just leapt. The statement that follows is sheer elegance, even in modern translations. There's just something really simply beautiful about shuffling an adverb to the end of a clause. "...we see through a glass, darkly." Not "we darkly see through a glass," or "we see darkly through a glass," but "we see through a glass, darkly." Almost like the Roman rhetoricians of Cicero's day, who advocated for the verb to be saved for the end of a sentence for the best effect, the full meaning of the statement isn't disclosed until the very end. I think that this helps to shed light on the whole passage's meaning since it does very little to diminish the knowledge and the prophecy which he has dismissed as being only partial. He isn't saying that it's a cracked glass, or a false one, but that it is simply "see[n] through...darkly." There are clouds in the knowledge, in the prophecies; there are things in there that cannot be clearly discerned. The comma which is used to separate "darkly" from the rest of the clause even imitates this statement's meaning on a prosodic level.

First within the statement "We see through a glass, darkly," the act of seeing through a glass is stated clearly without any punching up. But then, as if suggesting that the clouds are an after thought or something only noticed throught scrutiny, "darkly" is added in after the pause implied by the comma. Read aloud, and if assumed to be an as-it-happens narration, it sounds like the realization of the clouded state of perception dawns just as the glass is focused on.

Beyond its being an articulation of a failing of our current perception on some level there isn't a much grander meaning here, but this passage's delivery of the message is just so striking to me because of the way in which it is delivered. So calmly after the bluster and the listing. So placed that it seems like it is a moment, a statement, from when the glass is clear, but that moment is fleeting and so the author can only fall back on his meditations on charity for his conclusion. After, of course, pausing when realizing that the glass is seen through darkly. A moment of clarity so brief that it is obscured before it can even be exploited.

So in brief, the context in which the passage in question is found is that of a capstone, if you will. A kind of rhetorical high point climbed to first through somewhat violent pushing, and then gentle coaxing, and finally a clarifying climb to where things are sussed out and explained and where they plateau with the passage in question before gently sloping down to the conclusion about those three virtues and charity being their chief.

So what does that matter? Well, it matters because it's the point in the passage where the least effort really need be exerted. Already St. Paul has brought his audience up to where he wanted them, and so he just has to deliver the message. The directness of that message being offset by "For now...," a very direct opener in and of itself. The fact that the glass is seen through darkly should also be read back into the oh-so-precious list about charity/love as well. If we keep in mind that things as we see them are dim, then I think that there are some suggestions that charity or love do not have to be conscious acts or beliefs, but should be read as modes of acting, mindsets in a sense. A deed done from knowledge with or without charity is, on the face of it, the same act. But add charity to the mind of the person doing that act and something changes - a subtle gesture, an extra tone to a word - and that changes the perception of the act. Read as a whole, I would argue that this passage isn't so much about charity being patient, kind, etc, but that charity is a kind of way to get glimpses through a clear glass.

This verse is ecstatic and grammatical. And I love it. But, like a climb up a mountainside to see a sunrise or to drink from a spring, you've got to get dirty to really enjoy it.

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