Capturing Pain in Poetry
Remember this: to the victors belong the spoils; to the defeated, humiliation.
Psalm 137 belongs to that class of poetry that seeks to capture the emotions of a single moment, almost the verbal equivalent of a still photograph of emotions; a kind of poetry described by William Wordsworth, poet and, before the word existed, psychologist:
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
Our psalm is attempting to capture the moment of humiliation and despair that came on the wake of Judah’s destruction and exile by the Babylonians:
All of us defeated ones stumble along, those who survive, lost, enslaved, unloved, exiled; some chosen to serve the victorious in their land, some discarded as unwanted. We are not even refugees, because we have no refuge. Our homeland has become a province of some empire, no longer ours; our government, destroyed; the symbols of our faith, despoiled.
As we stumble by, the victors ask us to perform those beautiful tunes we used to play in the Temple, the now destroyed Temple. They feel smug and confident as they taunt us, trash-talking about how we will never play in the Temple again. Maybe they honestly want to hear some exotic music, to get us to play for their entertainment.
Instead, we abandon our musical instruments. We do not want to play. Once we played to honor God. If we ever want to play again, we deserve to lose the ability; if we ever sing, we deserve to lose even the ability to speak. We remember the victors, and their joy at destroying our homeland.
A Reply to Enemy Taunts Designed to Shock
The psalm concludes with the reply of the Judahite exiles. Let’s try to imagine ourselves in their place. What would we say at that moment? How would we answer their taunts? We would want to give them an answer so cruel that it would stop their smug mockery. If we could, we would give them an answer so heartless that it would haunt their dreams, and make them regret having spoken to us at all. We would remind them that they are vulnerable humans, as we are, and they too are destined to be broken on the wheel of history.
We would pray for the next victor, who will do to them what they have done to us. We would praise those who will come and slaughter their babies: “Happy the one who will grab your babies and splatter them on the rock.” We would hope that such an answer would taste bitter enough to stop the mouths of our victors, but probably it would fail.
A Taunt Is Not a Plan
The words of Psalm 137 do not tell us what a pious person should do. We do not recite them now to find out how to treat babies, even the babies of our mortal enemies. We recite them to relive the bitterness of our ancestors, who faced defeat, destruction, humiliation, exile, and slavery. We should remember how they felt.
Our ancestors, as envisioned in this Psalm, feeling powerless, could do no more than curse their victorious tormentors. They did not imagine committing such atrocities against their tormentors, but contemplated with schadenfreude what would someday happen to them at the hands of other bloody victors
The Dangerous Pleasure of Experiencing the Misery of Our Ancestors
In the continuation of the passage quoted above, Wordsworth observes that recreating powerful feelings, even horrifying feelings, somehow can produce pleasure. Centuries earlier, Aristotle noted the paradox that the audience at a tragedy experiences pleasure at seeing the imitation of actions which, if we saw the actions in real life, would inspire pain (Poetics, Chapters 4 and 11).
Somehow, we experience pleasure as we reconstruct the misery of our ancestors in exile, and as we imagine their pitiless response to the pitiless victors. Does that act of imagination also have moral consequences?
I think so. Fantasizing about actually doing the deed is something altogether different from a harshly phrased wish during a time of loss, and anyone who is indulging in fantasies of actually committing atrocities is actually misusing this Psalm as license for crime.
The Wheels of History
As we read the words of Psalm 137:9, ideally we:
- Identify with our people in its defeats as well as its triumphs.
- Feel compassion for defeated humans, refugees, outcasts of all nations.
- See the vulnerability of victors, who now feel smug “exceptionalism.”
There are those winners who feel certainty that other empires have fallen, but that theirs will continue ascendant forever until the end of history. Psalm 137 reminds us that the wheel still turns.
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February 28, 2015
June 11, 2021
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Dr. Rabbi Eliezer (Louis) Finkelman received semikhah at R.I.E.T.S. of Yeshiva University and earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at City University of New York, writing on the theme of Cain and Abel in the Romantic Period. He served as Hillel Director at Wayne State University and synagogue Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel (Berkeley). He currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University.
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