Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chopin's Death, Mortality and Halloween (Vol. 1, No. 12)

October in America is filled with the excitement of Halloween. Now, that’s a strange celebration! People dress up as zombies. They scatter eyeballs, skeletons, and torn, bloody limbs around their houses. They convert their gardens into makeshift graveyards… All to scare death away. The spiritual roots of Halloween are in Druidic rituals of the Winter Solstice, a holiday of darkness, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year. What if the night won and the sun never came back?

Monsters, ghouls, and horrible, terrifying, dangerous creatures of the dark are supposed to be roaming the world that night, saying “trick or treat” – “bribe me, or I’ll kill you.” In a highly commercialized current version of this celebration, a wild party-season culminating on October 31, we conquer our fear of death by dressing up like the dead and dressing our children like cute little ghouls and monsters, to cheat and trick death, pretending we are already dead. There is more to it, of course, beyond the candy giveaway and all-night, carnival parties. To me, this is a day dedicated to fear and rejection of death. We want to live forever. We mock and deny the power of death, by ridiculing it in the most atrocious way possible. People love Halloween. I’m deeply conflicted about it. As a mother, though, I made my share of costumes…

I remember going to a cemetery on October 31, during my first year in Canada, two months after coming from Poland. It was a culture shock. There was nobody there, the place was abandoned. In the city, stores and yards were full of make-believe tomb-stones, with sculls scattered around and zombies’ hands sticking out of the ground, but nobody went to bring candles and flowers to real graves. In Poland, at this time of the year, we used to visit the grave-sites of our grandparents, great grandparents, or soldiers, or victims of the war. We used to bring candles to these gravesites and monuments. In the rain, in quickly falling darkness of a late autumn evening, cemeteries and war memorial sites were shrouded by the warm glow of thousands of candles. People wanted to remember their dead, their fore-bearers. They wanted to reflect on the past, think about their own mortality.

The All Souls’ Day, October 31, is a melancholy, yet comforting remembrance of our ancestors and a time for reflection on our own place in the dance of generations. In Warsaw, where we had no family graves to visit, we went to the monuments of the fallen: the Unknown Soldier, the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. (A handful of underground Home Army soldiers held out for 63 days before being defeated by the Germans, while the Allies waited for the city to bleed to death). We walked through the alleys of Powazki, the oldest cemetery in town, visited the graves of famous Poles. We brought lots of candles; children ran around and made sure all the candles were burning. They had fun: played with fire, skipped over puddles, collected dry, colorful leaves. Adults walked with their umbrellas, and said “shh, shhh… be quiet, this is a cemetery, a place of peace and eternal rest.”

The Chopin tombstone at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris and the memorial tablet at the column in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, where his heart is enshrined are surrounded by fresh bouquets of flowers year-round. The gifts of flowers, pictures, or piano keys are especially profuse on his death anniversary, October 17, 2010. Admirers of his music post photographs on various Facebook groups. There is a wonderful sequence with interviews carrying gifts to the shrine of their beloved composer in Ophra Yerushalmi's documentary, Chopin's Afterlife.

A life cut short in his 39th year, a creative talent destroyed by an incurable illness, the most romantic “consumption”—all these elements featured prominently in the poetic and artistic responses to his music. Liszt’s narrative of the last days and hours of the dying pianist established this literary trope of mortality/morbidity. Many other essayists and writers, including Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868-1927), sought to identify the spiritual quality of art created at the threshold of death. Przybyszewski and Polish composer Zygmunt Nowskowski (1846-1909) elaborated on the topic of the “typically Slavic” feeling of the unspecific, yet overwhelming, “sorrow” (“żal” or “żałość”) and nostalgia permeating Chopin’s music.

In Chopin iconography, angels of death appeared quite often. I found a couple of vintage postcards of the most famous theme from this thread, Chopin's last hour, without a crowd of well-wishers and mourners surrounding the dying musician, but with angels waiting to snatch the soul of the consumptive virtuoso. There's a white angel and a dark one, bringing to mind a line from Rilke...

I have not written any poems about Chopin's death, nor about Halloween, but I have written about remembering the dead and angels, entitling a section of my book Miriam's Iris, or Angels in the Garden "Thanatos" - the angel of death. my father, Aleksy Trochimczyk (b. 25 September 1927, d. 11 May 2001). After my parents were shot by robbers in their own home in April 2000, he was in the hospital for the first five months and on blood transfusions and dialysis for the next eight. Then, he died. His last words to me were a joke about his predicament: due to the severity of his injuries, his bone marrow stopped producing blood cells and he lived on transfusions, received every two weeks. He said: “I have become a vampire, I live off other people’s blood.” We laughed, sharing a silly joke. A week later he was dead. My wreath for his funeral was made of white roses and lilies, the color of fresh snow that blankets the earth in winter’s rest:

Thanatos 5

white sun and white clouds
over white valley

white lilies and roses
in a wreath
on my father’s tomb

white yucca flames
burn the hills like candles
of the funeral
in sparse, white air

brides are shrouded
in the white fog of nothing
they dissolve
into the holiness

of their vows

widows’ black
is a solid protection
from the whiteness

of death
that kills colors
of life’s rainbow
slowly fading into the white
skeleton of pain

© 2001 by Maja Trochimczyk

This poem, published in Miriam's Iris, or Angels in the Garden, (Moonrise Press, 2008) came to me on the plane, when I was looking out the window over the vast expanse of whiteness below, suspended in the timelessness of the sky. Clouds look like snow; they are both made of water.

“Thanatos” of the title is the angel of death from ancient Greek mythology. (He is a twin of “Eros” – the angel of desire.) He came quietly to help people fall asleep and go to their rest. In the ancient Greek tradition, their spirits went to Elysian Fields for an eternity of melancholy serenity, gradually forgetting the world of the living. It was not quite the blazing light of glorious Christian Heaven, but a sweet and welcoming place of eternal tranquility. First, they had to pay Charon to be ferried across the dark River Styx, then they drank the water of forgetfulness from the River Lethe, also called “Ameles Potamos” (River of Unmindfulness). That’s why they were buried with coins. Even in 1987, my Eastern-Orthodox, Belorussian (not Greek) grandmother, was buried with coins on her eyelids. This ancient ritual survived the change of religions, the fall of empires.

Ameles Potamos

~ to Taoli-Ambika Talwar

Your sky is from another planet
a parallel universe of dangerous beauty
seducing us with pink’n’orange sweetness
before it, too, dissolves in the infinity
of Elysian fields on the other side of the river
we have to cross after drinking from Lethe,
waters of forgetfulness and freedom

The sky darkens into crimson,
blood clouds thicken, illuminated
by flickering light points and clusters
of a thousand candles in cemeteries
remembering death on All Souls’ Day

- (C) 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk

This poem belongs in a string of Facebook poetic conversations. Taoli-Ambika posted a great photo and a poem about invisible Octobers, Lois P. Jones responded with a poem, Susan Rogers wrote "Longing for October" and J. Michael Walker responded with a poem. This is my response – with allusions to Greek mythology and Catholic rituals. I abhor chain letters threatening me with doom, if I don't forward some weird blessing or prayer (25 years of bad luck? I gave in to pressure on that one.) Yet, this chain of poetry was certainly worthwhile. I felt so grateful for having such talented, inspiring friends.

I'm also grateful for having been raised listening to Chopin. Internalizing the beauty and passion of this music shaped me as a poet and a person. I too, bring him a gift of flowers for his twin tombstones. Many poets in Chopin with Cherries have written about his illness and death. I'll revisit this topic later.


Illustrations: Vintage postcards from my personal collection.

1. Postcard of a model of Chopin’s hand by Augusto Clepenger, France, ca. 1910.

2. Postcard Chopin’s Last Chords, based on a painting by A. Setkowicz, Ostatnie akordy Chopina / Chopinovy Dozvuky / Chopin’s Letzte Akkorde .Kraków, ca. 1900.

3. Postcard with a caption in Polish: “Portrait of Chopin on his death bed, according to a watercolor by T. Kwiatkowski.” Published in Lwów: Nakł. Spółki Wydawniczej “Postęp,” n.d., ca. 1910.

4. Postcard The Last Chords of Chopin, based on a painting by Fr. Klimes, Les derniers accords de Chopin. Published by BKWI (Bruder Kohn) in Vienna, Austria, c. 1900-1910.

5. Photograph of flowering yucca (also known as God's candle) in June, Tujunga Canyon, California. By Maja Trochimczyk


Kathabela said...

Dear Maja, I've read carefully your beautiful post here. It is such a rich exploration including very personal deep memories and influences, as well all the way we all join hands and light candles, such fragile lights we are... the linking of poetic friends as you have done and continue to do, with your own beautiful poetry is extraordinary. Such detail and weaving of your past, from childhood on and even deeply rooted back into Chopin, and history and mythology. As well as fragile, so beautiful, and complex...our human existence, you illustrate so strongly.

oriana said...

A lovely post. My mother was appalled by Halloween. It's always been difficult for me too. I go into hiding: I turn out the lights and pretend not to be home.

Another version of beliefs about Lethe was that souls drink of it before their new reincarnation. What interests me is the idea that you need to forget the old life before fully giving yourself to the new life. In reality, I think we live several lifetimes right in this life; we don't entirely forget, but we transcend our former concerns, great romantic passions, even tragedies.

In one of my poems, "Azrael," I fuse Eros and Thanatos into a single angel:

When the Angel of Love and Death
stands over us with trembling wings,
no difference as she sings
another story.
It’s the music that carries us on.


Danuta Hinc said...

Thank you for this very moving and beautiful post. You have helped me verbalize my own bewildered experience of Halloween in the USA from twenty years ago. Yes, I felt like death was being stripped of its essence of unknown, yet again, what was offered instead seemed disconnected from the only reality I knew, reality of Swieto Zmarlych.

George Jisho Robertson said...

I'm deeply touched and enlivened - it brings back many memories of my times and friends in Poland - the concentration camp, the Jewish festival, the fields we drove through pure gold with dandelions for miles, the old man with his old horse dragging a tree trunk through a timeless forest, the yellow cranes stalking the skyline of Warsaw, and the treasures of human vitality in every hidden village and hard-won face. I bow.

Taoli-Ambika Talwar said...

Hi Maja ~ Very nice article on All Soul's Day and its significance. Thank you, too, for the poem following Invisible October. It is a lovely gesture. Here's wishing you a great week. May we all keep awakening so there is no need to cross into forgetfulness, but may we just continually remember who we truly are and becoming. Light and blessings, Taoli-Ambika

Susan Rogers, practitioner of Sukyo Mahikari, Centers for Spiritual Development said...

George: Your comments here are very beautiful. They are their own lyrical poem.

Maja Trochimczyk said...

Thank you all for your interesting and inspiring words. Oriana and Danuta - we share the immigrant experience of estrangement in a new country, where things we used to take for granted do not exist and everything is bewilderingly different. Everyone who came here from elsewhere has to find their own way, build their new image of the world and self placed in this reconstructed world.

George - thank you for your description of your travel to Poland. When reading "cranes" I first thought of birds, which are not yellow, and of "storks" which are white and are everywhere (or used to be). Then I realized these were the machines for building, not the birds for longevity.

Susan, I love this poem of yours and I know it well and the artwork that goes with it. So inspirational and stunningly beautiful, maybe too beautiful for Halloween? I remembered what I disagreed with, in this polemic thread...

As for Halloween, the volunteers in my community are busily putting together a haunted house for kids, working for weeks for free. Everyone is making their costumes. It is all fun, just fun, nothing else... Is it?

Anonymous said...

interesting article . . I always get annoyed at halloween . . enough ugly and real stuff as it is . . Irvin Yalom, in his book Existential Psychotherapy notes how the American and European offshoots of Existential Psychotherapy differ greatly, with the American having a lighter and more positive (some might say unreal) touch, and with the European having a more grounded and darker take, having seen more mass death in recent history . . cheers, Bob

For Paderewski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Onzol said...

Great topic for this time of the year Maja – from Celts to Christianity to Chopin to such profoundly personal touch of a chord…
Allow me though to introduce a tiny correction. Traditionally the celebration of All Souls' Day falls on November 2 (3rd if the 2nd falls on Sunday). October 31 does not have any meaning in Poland or Western Europe in a celebratory sense; it is a day of final preparations for the All Saints’ Day, which on November 1st, commemorates the departed who have attained the beatific vision; and that’s the day when the entire cemeteries are “shrouded by the warm glow of thousands of candles”. Then the All Souls’ Day comes, the ancient Slavic feast called “Dziady” that in the past was the original day of the remembrance of all gone-by with lightning candles on the graves of “grandfathers”; over the years “Dziady” became transformed into All Souls’ Day with a diminished meaning, and a main focus plus candle lightning shifted back to November 1, the official Christian holiday since its foundation in the 8th century by the Pope Gregory III.