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Reflecting Absence by Michael Arad and Peter Walker
Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood
The Prodigal Son among the Swine by Rembrandt van Rijn

Michael Arad and Peter Walker

Reflecting Absence, 2011, Granite and bronze, The Memorial Plaza, Manhattan, New York, Pygmalion Karatzas / Arcaid / Bridgeman Images

Philip Evergood

Dance Marathon, 1934, Oil on canvas, 52.6 x 101.7 cm, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin; Gift of Mari and James A. Michener 1991, 1991.210, © Estate of Philip Evergood The University of Texas at Austin

Rembrandt van Rijn

The Prodigal Son among the Swine, c.1650, Pen and brown ink, on paper, 159 x 235 mm, The British Museum, London, 1910,0212.179, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

From the Heart

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Richard Ayoade

Each of Psalms 120–34 is headed ‘a song of ascents’. The significance of this liturgical marking, which dates from after the composition of the Psalms, is by no means clear, but a commonly favoured view is that these psalms were used by pilgrims as they climbed towards Jerusalem (Brueggemann and Bellinger 2014).

However that may be, Psalm 130 contains a sort of ascent within itself. The psalmist, who begins in the depths, and asks who shall stand if the Lord should mark iniquities, brings to mind that there is forgiveness with God, and so finds hope—which he then commends to his people:

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities. (Psalm 130:7–8)

Whatever may have been the original circumstance of this Psalm’s composition, its place in a group of psalms for pilgrims, as in the wider Psalter, allows its use as a script to guide and govern the life and times of others.

Even though in Philip Evergood’s painting, the dancers are all but asleep, they are not dreaming of redemption from the spider’s web of moral self-abasement in which they have been trapped. But the prodigal son of Luke 15 finds hope for forgiveness and redemption in a story that seems to make the Psalm’s thoughts his own. In Rembrandt van Rijn’s drawing, a delicate evocation of the great turning point in the story is shown, though—as in the Psalm—the hope the prodigal discovers has the tentative character which any hope for human forgiveness surely must.

The cri de coeur which opens the Psalm, ‘Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord’, has been voiced not only by those who cry out, as the prodigal did, from a place of moral self-despair. Indeed, it is by no means clear that the psalmist begins from such a place either. Though his despair may be on account of his moral abjection, on account of his ‘iniquities’ (Psalm 130:8), it need not be so understood—though the Psalm’s placing among the Seven Penitential Psalms as well as the Psalms of Ascent has favoured that interpretation. It could be that in the psalmist’s present calamity, whatever it is, he fears that his iniquities will prevent his supplications from finding a favourable hearing—that he will, in the words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, ‘trouble deaf heaven with my bootless [i.e. useless] cries’.

It is perhaps characteristic of public monuments to the tragedies of the last 100 years that they are, like Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s great pools in Manhattan’s Memorial Plaza, cries from the depths which are conceived as ‘troubling a deaf heaven’. They express a cry of pain but with no expectation that the cry will be divinely heard. The fear is not that the cry will go unheeded on account of the suppliant’s sins. Rather (human iniquity or not), it is that there is no divine ear ready to attend. Psalm 130 can be found on the wall of the Protestant chapel at Dachau—and in that place, as in most holocaust memorials, it is certainly not those whose cries went unanswered who are challenged to justify themselves.

Arad and Walker’s monumental depths do not however, preclude a sort of ascent, albeit one perhaps conceived even more tentatively than by the kneeling prodigal. It is again characteristic of the monuments of the late twentieth century that they expect and demand a hearing from us (just as the psalmist expects and demands a hearing from his people Israel), even if they express no faith that God is listening. The imperative which they issue is that we should remember, not necessarily as an end in itself, but for the sake of a better world in which ‘never again!’ We must attend to the cry of the victims of iniquity, and the plea for mercy which it expresses, lest history should repeat itself. Thus the trees which surround the monument come to symbolize a certain hope, if not for the victims here commemorated as such, then at least that their loss should not be a last word.

In its own way then, this monument to loss follows the ascent of the psalm, though by a different route from that taken by the prodigal. From the abysmal depths it does not utter what it takes to be a bootless cry, but one which it hopes will be heard and attended to by human ears. The monument, like the psalmist, patiently waits and watches—hoping against hope, perhaps, for ‘plenteous redemption’, even if human redeemers seem frail, few, and far between.

 

References

Brueggemann, Walter, and W. H. Bellinger. 2014. Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press)