The Song of Purple Summer, Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik, Sung by the Original Broadway Cast of Spring Awakening (2006), encountered 2007
The loss of my mother in 2006 tore me loose from my religious moorings.
I’d not seen it coming.
Mother’s death – yes, that I’d foreseen, of course. And I’d anticipated it as a blessing; Mother had been ill, demented and lost. But I’d expected to feel better afterwards. I realized after the fact that I’d been operating on a barely articulated conviction that I would somehow feel her presence, and that I would also be comforted by my faith. But nothing of the kind occurred. It proved to work the other way around. I did not feel her presence, and that lack of feeling challenged my faith.
Made Me Wretched
After you lose your equilibrium, you naturally try hard to regain it. But because you know how badly you want it back, you suspect any sign of its return you think you see. And that was my situation. Every time I thought I might be hearing either Mother’s voice or God’s in my mind, I was driven to consider rigorously the likelihood I was just talking to myself. So I veered back and forth. Enough of that will make you wretched.
I also thought that going back to my roots, back to my childhood church and the schools I’d attended in my home town of Ann Arbor, might help. As it happened, I did actually have to go back, once, to inter Mother’s ashes there next to Father’s. Over the next 18 months, though, I paid not one but three visits to the town, and wrote a book (one I never tried very hard to publish) about the experience. The exercise, a full immersion in memories of my childhood, did help with the grief, but did not restore my faith that all was right with the world, or that God was in charge of my history or the world’s.
Sometime not too long after Mother died, I had a lunch with my older son, who spoke, not disrespectfully but quite definitively, about his view that there was nothing to religion or its consolations. And I realized that he was speaking for the majority of educated opinion – that somewhere between my youth, when probably the majority of serious grownups held sincere religious beliefs, and now, the balance had shifted. Somehow I had gotten quite out of step.
Looking to Art
Confidence is always easier when you’re in step than when you’re out. And I had lost mine. I regrew some of it eventually, after much struggle, a struggle which of course is still ongoing.
This was the synthesis the struggle has left me with: I could never again deny the substantial possibility that my faith was completely in vain – and I have to acknowledge that, if so, there could be little reliable basis for an equanimity based on faith or on anything else. On the other hand I still feel that I’m on the right track going to church, and I plan to keep on, holding fast to my perception that some things, like human decency and the existence of existence, still seemed more plausibly explained in a universe with a God in it than in one without. My certainties have fled, but I have at least decided on my course.
Big questions, to be sure. I’ve always looked to art to help me tackle big questions. This time was no different.
In January 2007, in Manhattan on an overnight before a court appearance, I attended a performance of the previous year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, Spring Awakening. As many readers will know, this adaptation of a scandalous Expressionist 1890s play about the difficult sexual and social maturing of adolescents also takes up the existential challenge of death in a putatively God-less environment. Melchior, the youthful hero, confronts that challenge after the losses of his love Wendla (victim of a botched abortion) and of his close friend Moritz (hounded to suicide by the small-minded martinets who run the village school). What good is Melchior’s life under these new circumstances?
The musical at the end proposes two answers to the problem. First, in the number Those You’ve Known, Melchior is visited by “ghosts” of Wendla and Moritz, although these are evidently metaphors, not actual beings. The point is, he has internalized them through his intimacy with them, and they will remain inspiring presences in his life even though they cannot actually talk to him directly. Secondly, in the inspiring closing number, The Song of Purple Summer, a kind of pantheistic solution is suggested. Though the lyrics of the show that I and most audiences have heard differ from those on the CD (recorded before the show was “locked” in previews), the CD’s lyrics were the ones I learned by heart, and they state the issue plainly:
And all shall fade –
The flowers of spring,
The world and all the sorrow
At the heart of everything…
But still, it stays –
The butterfly sings,
And opens purple summer
With a flutter of its wings…
The earth will wave with corn,
The grey-fly choir will mourn,
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne…
And all shall know the wonder
Of purple summer…
The message, it seems, is that there may not be any Wendla or Moritz now, and there may be a permanent “sorrow at the heart of everything,” but there is still the eternal, unconquerable beauty of summer. That beauty can give meaning to life, to everyone’s but also to Melchior’s specifically. The meaning with which God was once thought to have imbued Creation, and, succeeding Him, Wendla and Melchior symbolized, is now to be found all around, in the butterfly, the corn, the “grey-fly choir,” and the mares and the stallions and the foals. These things amount to a pantheistic replacement of the Lutheran God whom the youngsters had been brought up to look to. And the power of the message is driven home by the heart-rending harmony with which the cast always delivers it.
Still Going On
Even with the softened lyrics, I was sent out of the theater reeling, a freshly-purchased copy of the CD in my bag. I played that song several times on my laptop when I got back to the hotel, before dropping off to sleep eventually.
Yet I soon realized that that kind of consolation was not for me. The lyrics (the original ones, the ones on the CD) did not promise that nature’s beauty could wipe away every tear or fill the God-shaped hole. All they promised was that it would help.
I appreciated help, but I was still looking for a cure. I would go on to see the show several times in several productions, but I always recognized the correct limits of the consolations it offered. Accurate or not, the Christian promise at least identifies the one thing that actually would constitute a cure: a world in which the Wendlas and Moritzes survive death, in which the Melchiors can actually be reunited with them. I wish I were more confident that that promise is accurate, but I know it’s the only thing that would truly make me feel better.
And so, though I flirted with pantheistic consolations and was grateful for them, I went on past them. I am still getting further away from them. I keep revisiting my beliefs constantly, and time has blunted grief over my mother (though as I age, the toll of deaths among those I love keeps adding fresh causes to grieve). I am sufficiently worldly to take pleasure in many things, but, however worldly I may be, I am no pantheist, and I do not confuse the things that give me pleasure with the things that impart meaning or value. There may be a God and there may be meaning; I believe these things are true. But if they exist, they do not reside in the world around us.
 For instance, there was the realization that in thinking of God I might be doing what in my private mental shorthand I called “drawing my own eye.”
Thank humorist James Thurber for the comparison. In an amusing memoir of his undergraduate experiences at Ohio State University, Thurber, who had severe eye problems, recounted how he never could see anything through the microscope in botany class, greatly upsetting his instructor, until the day he finally manipulated the lens and saw a cell, and drew it. I have to quote Thurber on what happened next:
He looked at my cell drawing. “What’s that?” he demanded, with a hint of a squeal in his voice. “That’s what I saw,” I said. “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t!” he screamed, losing control of his temper instantly, and he bent over and squinted into the microscope. His head snapped up. “That’s your eye!” he shouted. “You’ve fixed the lens so that it reflects! You’ve drawn your eye!” From University Days, in My Life and Hard Times (1933).
As applied here, I had formed a picture of God in my mind that conformed very closely with my own ideas of righteousness – which in turn reinforced my belief. And then, after Mother departed, it occurred to me that perhaps God’s perceived minute correspondence with what I wanted was potentially nothing more than my projection of my own ideals rather than an encounter with or perception of something truly out there. Which was more likely: that I had perceived God’s nature or that I was projecting my own?
Again, I should emphasize a point I’ve made elsewhere in these pages: that merely wanting something to be true does not make it false. This is not a philosophical disproof of God’s existence or nature. It is, however, a sign that one must be quite cautious if one does not wish to end up deceiving oneself, a sign I was for the first time in my life able to appreciate fully.
 If you believe that the value of anything is intrinsic and not merely a matter of social convention, you have to posit some source of value outside our experience. As C.S. Lewis (I think) put it, following David Hume: you cannot reason from “is” to “ought.” At least you can’t do it within our natural sphere. I think of God in this connection as being the pole that draws all moral needles to point in the same general direction. I do believe in intrinsic values, and reject what I have elsewhere called the Psychopath’s Challenge. (I find I cannot make myself unbelieve in intrinsic values, even as a somewhat attractive hypothesis.) And God seems to be a necessary implication of that belief. I acknowledge that a philosopher would not accept this reasoning as nearly so airtight as I feel it to be. But I’m not a philosopher.
Likewise, I understand the Aristotelian/Thomistic doctrine of the uncreated creator as being based on the experience of causation, an experience which, however universal it seems to us, is formed within time — and I understand as well that physicists seem to have established that time is a local condition that exists in our universe, but that there is an “outside” in which time does not apply. All the same, I can conceive of causation even without time; that is in fact what I’ve been told about the Trinity, that the love which establishes the relation between Father and Son and brings forth the Spirit exists “from all time.” Be that as it may, I’m far from certain that causation is a local phenomenon like and dependent upon time. Assuming that causation exists outside our universe, then, Aristotle’s “prime mover” and Aquinas’ uncreated Creator seem almost unavoidable alternatives to the problem which would otherwise exist: an infinite chain of causes.
And a corollary of these principles is that a creation without a Creator seems equally inconceivable to me. Again, I know this is not a philosophical nor yet a physicist’s proof. Elsewhere, I have taken issue with the notion floated by Stephen Hawking, our most eminent contemporary physicist that we know it is possible for our universe to have created itself, not on the grounds that he is provably wrong but on the grounds that his certainty is unearned, as his own admissions establish. But if we really have started with nothing, as Hawking proclaims, then even the jittery quanta upon which he built his theory must have arisen somehow from nothing. And that just seems logically a bridge too far.
We are still a long way from Yahweh and/or Jesus of Nazareth. As to them, though, I find myself going along willy-nilly with another point of Lewis’s: that Jesus just sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about. What he says sounds authoritative and makes sense to me most of the time.
That said, even if one responds to the authority in Jesus’ voice, he doesn’t address some issues. With his words we are still far from solving the problems of evil and death in a universe created by a putatively benevolent deity — problems to which I have never been able to conceive of a solution. But, given all these other premises, I’m willing to take some matters, quite literally, on faith.
Think enough thoughts like these, even in a tentative way, and after a while you find yourself back in a belief system.
 After the CD was cut, the lyric was watered down. The song subsequently started:
A summer’s day
A mother sings
A song of purple summer
Through the heart of everything
And heaven waits
So close it seems
To show her child the wonders
Of a world beyond her dreams
Though it is preceded by a reference to “The sadness the doubt/ All the loss, the grief,” we are assured that they “will belong to some play from the past.” Now, unlike in the original lyric, the cure that nature offers is so complete that anyone who has felt grief knows the reassurance is being way oversold. I think the original is stronger and truer.
There seem not to be any live-action videos of the song out on YouTube that carry the original lyrics. This is a shame. (At the top of this piece, I have, however, hyperlinked a version featuring the original recording.)
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for cover art