Now let us praise illustrious persons,
our ancestors in their successive generations. . . .
While others have left no memory,
and disappeared as though they had never been,
and so too, their children after them.
But here is a list of generous persons
whose good works have not been forgotten.
Sirach 44: 1,9-10
It is impossible for some of us to hear again this first verse from Sirach and not be reminded of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the 1941 photographic essay of James Agee and Walker Evans on the lives of sharecroppers from the American south during the time of the Dust Bowl. Agee has said that his goal was to offer “an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”
Today’s passage from Sirach calls us to reflect on the mystery, often greatly veiled, of “human divinity.” Yes, those who are considered “famous” by the world are remembered. But what is the posterity of those who are poor and apparently forgotten. Last night I watched a film about the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln. At one point, sometime after his mother’s death, Abe says to his sister: “Sometimes I can’t remember what mother looked like. Does that happen to you?” This experience which we all have at some point in time after the death of one we love evokes in us the fear that they have “disappeared as though they had never been,” and so awakens the fear of our own insignificance. If we, who have so loved a departed one, cannot remember what they looked like, what significance has their life held for the world?
Some years after my Father’s death, I came across a photograph that had been cut out of the local paper. It showed four men at an outing of employees of that newspaper from many years before. Three of them were listed by name, but my Father was identified merely as “an unidentified pressman.” My initial reaction was one of pain and anger. Why was he the only one not recognized? Why, in his life, did he not distinguish himself more and make himself more recognizable?
The truth of the matter, however, is that sooner or later, with quite rare exception, we shall all be forgotten. The significance of my Father’s life was not to be judged by the degree to which he was recognized and noted by the world. Somehow, as Agee intuited, it was rather dependent on how he lived and suffered “the normal predicaments of human divinity.” He has now been dead for 35 years and all his siblings are now dead. Aside from myself, he is, no doubt, seldom thought about on this earth. And yet, over the years, I have learned more and more of how by the quality of his presence, listening, and care he affected, and subtly mentored, far more persons than I had ever known. A few years ago, I corresponded with my cousin’s son, a professor of English at Lemoyne College, following the death of his grandmother. In response to my note he responded with a memory of my Father’s teaching him how to order the bills in his wallet according to their value. He said, “Every time I put bills in my wallet, I think of your Father.” What he remembers, I now realize, is not only the “skill” he was being taught, but even more the quality of the presence he offered which communicated his respect, even to a child, and thus the truth of their own significance.
There is in all of us a spark of divinity that is eternal, and at moments this spark is touched and nourished by the spark of another. This “work” of inspiration, far beyond the reach of human thought and memory, is most likely the greatest inheritance which we leave after we depart, forgotten, from the earth. The incarnation powerfully reminds us of humanity’s sharing in divinity. It is the generosity of our offering of our share of that divinity to the world that counts us among the “generous persons whose good works” will endure, even though they will certainly be forgotten.
I’ll never know them,
those outmoded figures
–the same as we are,
yet completely different.
My imagination works to unlock
the mystery of their being,
it can’t wait for the release
of memory’s secret archives.
I see them in cramped classrooms,
In the small provincial towns
of the Hapsburgs’ unhappy empire.
Poplars twitch hysterically
outside the windows
while snow and rain dictate
their own orthography.
They grip a useless scrap of chalk
helplessly in their fists,
in fingers black with ink.
They labor to reveal the world’s mystery
to noisy, hungry children,
who only grow and scream.
My schoolmaster forebears fought
to calm an angry ocean
just like that mad artist
who rose above the waves
clutching his frail conductors’ wand.
I imagine the void of their exhaustion, empty moments
through which I spy
their life’s core.
And I think that when I too
do my teaching,
they gaze in turn at me,
revising my mutterings,
correcting my mistakes
with the calm assurance of the dead.
Adam Zagajewski, Eternal Enemies