Poetry Porch: Forgiveness


Forgiveness Literature: Dulce et Utile

by Joyce Wilson

        Forgiveness is, to quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “practical politics.” Hannah Arendt has defined forgiveness as an antidote to the irreversibility of history, using the phrase “faculty of forgiveness.” This delighted Nadya Aisenberg, who underscored the educative nature of forgiveness as something to be acquired. Forgiveness must occur after something has happened. It involves a change of heart and a change in the way of seeing. This installment of the Poetry Porch, the fourth and by far the longest, explores characteristics of forgiveness and of literature as they intercept. The variety of works representedcriticism, essay, memoir, poetrygive evidence that the theme of forgiveness is a prevalent one as the Year 2000 bridges the old and new millennia.
        The following pieces were collected to augment a project initiated by Nadya Aisenberg, who spent over a decade focused on forgiveness as a way, described in her introduction, to evaluate her experience with the world, organize her own writing, and read literature. Her essays investigate forgiveness in four works of literature. The need for forgiveness is shown in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, where a hard rural landscape mirrors the stubbornness of society, whose individuals prefer the familiar comforts of revenge to forgiving. This view of life without forgiveness becomes acute when a flood, which serves to represent the power of feelings, is suddenly loosed upon the land, emphasizing the sense of loss and helplessness. Aisenberg reads Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an example of the beneficial results of forgiveness. Prospero’s compassion enables him to imagine the separation of two worlds, perfect and imperfect, and to cease his life of exile, bypassing vengeance. Dickens’s Dombey and Son shows forgiveness as it is nurtured in the domesticity of the back room parlor, in which a comedic realm is shown to foster feeling and to bolster the spirits of the man of the house, who has lost his standing in the community of commerce and in society. And in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, forgiveness is fostered by the mutability of the sea, where a ship’s captain meets a man who confesses that he may have willfully committed an act of murder. Here, the details of life at sea provide a multi-faceted context that allows a man’s confusion about his identity, and his role as judge, to play itself out as he watches his prisoner dive into the ocean and swim to freedom.
       Spring, thaw, flood, tears, boat, music, art, community all appear in Aisenberg’s discussion. The other works present forgiveness in many forms, from lyric poem to Holocaust narrative. Charles Fishman’s series of poems begins with a prayer to a newborn child and sketches a journey of the heart through the halls of our history, alternating the harrowing and sustaining. Helen Degen Cohen returns to Poland in the late 1980s where she visits the woman who sheltered her during the Nazi occupation. She finds her in a city still odorous with war. Martin McKinsey describes the illness and decline of his father, who has been diagnosed with AIDS, through an objective eye. His detachment might be unrelenting if not for the richness of his association with the literature of the Greeks, which allows him the space to forgive. Carl Pfluger’s essay about digging up graves considers the repercussions of this irreverent pursuit in a variety of religious and cultural contexts. Julia Budenz revisits the best-known biblical prayer (Matthew 6:9) in her poem “Sicut et Nos,” or “as we.” Michael Blumenthal’s poems reach lyric heights, while Richard Fein’s poem probes “Downward.” He describes forgiveness as means of self-preservation where “we sink back to the old level of ourselves.” If we find value in this bottoming-out, in confronting this low level of truth, as in the quotation he uses by Simone Weil, we have the courage to proceed with the meditation, the relationship, our lives. 

Joyce Wilson 
June 2000 

Copyright © 2000 by Joyce Wilson.

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