On Not Knowing: What Cause There Is for Caroling

by Emily Ogden

Kale plants in December, under cover after a snowstorm (left) and on a clear day (right)

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

—Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush,” 1900

The year and the century are dying; everything else is already dead. In Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” (1900), it is a dim day in the dimmest part of the year. Sunset will come early; night in Dorset, England, where Hardy lived, will last sixteen hours. A thrush sings, unwarrantably, of “joy illimited.” Why in the world? Or is his reason not of this world? Is he better informed than we? May we hope? Hardy’s subject is the close relationship between our own ignorance and our belief in another’s knowledge. To realize that we don’t know something is to realize that someone else might. To think that what the other knows might be good, might even be divine good, in spite of the earth’s sorry state—well, that is to celebrate Christmas.

“The Darkling Thrush” was first published on December 29, 1900, under the title “By the Century’s Deathbed.” There is a horticultural term for the season Hardy was then living at his house in Dorset, and that we in the Northern hemisphere are living now: the Persephone Days, named for the goddess of spring’s annual rape at Hades’ hands. You are in the Persephone Days, according to gardener Eliot Coleman, when fewer than ten of the twenty-four hours are light. Why ten hours? Because vegetables mostly slow or stop their growth with any less. “The ancient pulse of germ and birth / [is] shrunken hard and dry,” as Hardy wrote. Plenty of vegetables are cold tolerant. I have kale plants in my front yard now that can withstand a 10º F night. Darkness, however, stunts them. The problem winter poses for our survival is not the freezing of water. It’s the freezing of time. I’ll eat only what reaches maturity before the annual darkness comes.

Or I can always go to Whole Foods. Shopping and other glamours flurry about in the foreground these dark days, distracting us from Sol’s deadly swing toward Capricorn. Black Friday roughly coincides with the start of the Persephone Days; in Norfolk, Virginia (36.8º N latitude), they coincide exactly. Black Friday is itself a kind of heretical outgrowth from Advent, a time of holy anticipation; some of us confusedly observe them both by receiving toy catalogs, letting ourselves buy cheese balls from festive displays, and growing tired of ecstatic carolings. Call it Advert. If you were in America four weeks ago, you may have found the retail festival the most noticeable of the three, followed by the liturgical holiday, with the horticultural one coming in a distant third, if at all. But that’s the whole point of the first two: to be noticeable. So as not to notice the other thing. The very intensity of the annual danse macabre shows we have not entirely forgotten our fear of the dark.

The coincidence of all these holidays makes perfect sense, then, in the way that denial makes perfect sense—until tomorrow. Tomorrow, the ancient pulse of germ and birth will still be shrunken hard and dry. Persephone—the Reason for the Season—will still be gone. And yet, the waiting and the overcompensation will declare themselves over. Christmas’s radical disjuncture with terrestrial things will make itself felt once again.

Some of you are about to mention the Winter Solstice. For seventy-two hours, the light has been gaining, you’ll say. Joy to the world! Things are looking up. Let me assure you that things are not looking up—not perceptibly. Because of the earth’s tilt, the season will grow colder even as the days lengthen. And they won’t lengthen quickly, either. On the day after the Solstice where I live, we get back one second of light. We will have gotten back fewer than thirty seconds by tomorrow. It will take another month to cross the ten-hour threshold again. If there is a relationship between Winter Solstice and Christmas, it’s not that the natural promise of the former makes the divine promise of the latter sensible (intelligible, that is; but also available to our senses). It’s that both are premature in the same way. Both involve the conjuring of a hope one can’t yet perceive. Both are, like the thrush’s song, a narrative line thrown forward into darkness.

The Christmas story knows this fact about itself. It is as full of irony as of hope; its ironies are its hopes. Irony, Northrop Frye tells us, is saying less than you mean. God is born a bastard in a barn. Seldom has less been said while more was meant. Attuned readers learn from the second chapter of Luke that joy is not limited to the joy you can see.

Down here things may look down—but look up there! A hope trembles through the happy good-night air, whereof—well, as soon as I have said, whereof I am unaware, I am unaware no longer. I rest, now, in the conviction that someone has the answer to the question that stymies me: namely, how does it end? How does the Gospel story end, yes; also anything else. The world; my life. Lord knows, I might say. Notice the extraordinary optimism with which this expression derives God’s knowledge from my ignorance; his being in possession of a plan, from my lack of one.

**

In Joy Williams’s collection Ninety-Nine Stories of God (2016), the Lord visits a pack of wolves. He learns that ranchers have been persecuting them. “I’m so awfully sorry,” the Lord says:

Thank you for inviting us to participate in your plan anyway, the wolves said politely.

The Lord did not want to appear addled, but what was the plan His sons were referring to exactly?

Lord knows! But He doesn’t. The Lord of Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God wanders about creation as a wistful guest, talking to wolves, checking out the water treatment plant, and making an appointment to have His fortune told by a psychic. He knows that it is His job to know. But one could not confidently say that He knows much of anything else.

The Lord appears in some, but not all, of the ninety-nine numbered tales, each of which ends with a cryptic motto printed in all caps. The stories are funny, in a way, except that Williams’s humor usually seems designed to provoke laughter in a higher order of beings than ourselves. The Lord tells someone that He believes in reincarnation because “it explains so much.” What does it explain? A hot-dog eating contest, says the Lord, the “stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed.” There is no further clarification.

The Lord gets the joke, if a joke is what this is. And so He does know something more than what we know. But calling what He knows a “plan” or a “Hope” was never quite right in the first place. These words are merely the guises that divine humor wears when seen through our frosted eyes. In the ninety-ninth tale, the last of the book, the Lord visits Maine. Maine’s Decembers, like Dorchester’s, are dark; Eliot Coleman was farming in this state when he coined the term Persephone Days. It is a winter afternoon, and an early sunset approaches. The Lord goes to the house of a psychic. She knows He is there; in fact, she has the same prosaic certainty of His presence that she would have of the presence of a paying client. And yet she cannot see Him. Nothing is “coming through.” How do we clear the ice from the panes of our vision?

The psychic has two ideas. First, she tries saying, “You always wanted to be a poet,” a gambit that “sometimes worked with her more difficult clients.” Nothing. Then, she decides “she should just go directly to the question most everyone had and visualize from there. / What’s going to happen after I’m dead?” These two attempts at contact—you always wanted to be a poet; what’s going to happen after I’m dead?—are actually one and the same attempt. They are wishes for an end: a purpose, that is; a plan. The Lord is supposed to know the end, and poets, like psychics, are supposed to divine it—or make it up. The Lord may or may not have wanted to be a poet, but we have wanted Him to be one.

As for the psychic’s second attempt, the question, “what’s going to happen after I’m dead,” it never receives an answer. But it is not meant to elicit an answer anyway. It’s meant to draw the Lord out, to help the psychic “find the anchor chain.” What she can know is not what the end is—but that the end is known, by someone else. By, it may be, a thrush who sings of blessed Hope, whereof we are unaware.

The book’s final line and this story’s motto is “THE DARKLING THRUSH.” Williams points to the poet as the poet had pointed to the bird. Williams also borrows Hardy’s verb. A bird who sings while the psychic tries to make contact is “flinging out its frail song.” Hardy’s thrush, too, “fling[s] its soul / upon the growing gloom.” Flinging, here, is the mode of sacred communication. The purpose of such an ill-directed, even wasteful expenditure is not to get a message across, exactly, but to indicate the direction in which another, better-informed singer may lie. The ending is in someone else’s song. Poets do not hymn. Psychics do not channel. They do not pray, exactly. They fling.

 

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