Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Martyrs

It happens every year: by Labor Day I’ve had it with the commute from Rockaway; I’m lucky I don’t have to do this all year round. Still, I can never suppress a little surge of nostalgia for the A train, even as I’m riding on it. So I stay at the beach an extra week, and usually I regret it.

Yesterday’s train had signal problems, and I didn’t have Gibbon with me. Last week, I came to a good stopping place—page 505—having finished the famous chapters on the early Christians, and suspended Gibbon for the season. I had hoped to get to the conversion of Constantine, but was distressed to read, on page 496, that “the motives of his conversion, as they may variously be deduced from benevolence, from policy, from conviction, or from remorse . . . will form a very interesting and important chapter in the second volume of this history.” It turns out that Gibbon was referring to the second volume as published in his lifetime, which begins with Chapter XX, a mere 129 pages away, but the second volume of my three-volume Modern Library edition is 451 pages in the future. The edges of Volume One are getting frayed, by the way. Either the A train is hard on books or the Modern Library is not the quality product I thought I it was. (Does "modern" turn out to mean "disposable"?)

So today I was carrying Gibbon, a paperback biography of Cicero, the bound galleys of a book by a guy who built a vineyard in Tuscany, two notebooks, and yesterday’s mail: three bills, an invitation to a wine tasting, and a notice of an increase in the late fee for co-op maintenance. (Have I mentioned that I bought a new bag just for Gibbon? It’s a luscious oversize brown woven-leather Italian shoulder bag, acquired at an end-of-season sale at a boutique in Tribeca, and it’s heavy even when Gibbon isn’t in it.) When the shuttle got to Broad Channel, the platform there was ominously crowded. One of my fellow-commuters, a beefy middle-aged guy who I think works at John’s Pizza—at any rate, he wears a John’s Pizza T-shirt, though today, like everyone else, he was in back-to-school mode, in a long-sleeved black T-shirt—got on his cell phone. “There’s five hundred people on the platform at Broad Channel,” he told someone. “I’ve never seen anything like this. There has to be something wrong. Yesterday it took forever. . . . Is there another way to get to West Fourth?”

It was the first morning since the flood that there were no seats on the train, and there was not much chance of one opening up, since the train tends to fill rather than empty as it approaches Manhattan. “What do we have for dinner tomorrow, Friday, and Saturday?” the guy from John’s Pizza went on into his phone, effectively addressing the entire car from his position at the head of the train, with his back to the door. “We’ve got the mustache pie, right?” Standing on the A train, I was surprised to discover in myself new depths of optimism as I realized that the door gave me an excellent view to the east over Jamaica Bay (usually I break my neck trying to get a window seat looking west, at the funky backwater of Hamilton Beach). Since the weekend, when I took the boat down along the unpopulated edge of this island at high tide, I have been obsessed with seeing the lay of the land at low tide. You never really believe that land is there, under the water, unless you see it—or run aground on it, which I’d rather avoid. This strip, called the Raunt, used to be full of houses on stilts—summer bungalows and fishermen’s shacks—and even had its own train station on the old Rockaway line. It is now part of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where last weekend I spotted a lesser yellow legs and some khaki-legged birders who had seen a Hudsonian godwit and a phalarope. But I digress.

Gibbon is quite droll on the subject of martyrdom. “I have purposely refrained from describing the particular sufferings and deaths of the Christian martyrs,” he writes, near the end of Chapter XVI. “It would have been an easy task, from the history of Eusebius, from the declamations of Lactantius, and from the most ancient acts, to collect a long series of horrid and disgusting pictures, and to fill many pages with racks and scourges, with iron hooks and red-hot beds, and with all the variety of tortures which fire and steel, savage beasts, and more savage executioners, could inflict on the human body. These melancholy scenes might be enlivened by a crowd of visions and miracles destined either to delay the death, to celebrate the triumph, or to discover the relics of those canonised saints who suffered for the name of Christ. But I cannot determine what I ought to transcribe, till I am satisfied how much I ought to believe.” And he doesn’t believe much. He suspects that the persecution of the Christians was exaggerated (and can't resist pointing out that the Christians persecuted others in their turn). He prefers to analyze the development of the Church hierarchy along the lines of the Empire’s, and the tendency of bishops, having no temporal power, to accrue moral power.

The one martyr that Gibbon goes into detail over is Cyprian—“the zealous, the eloquent, the ambitious Cyprian”—“who governed the church, not only of Carthage, but even of Africa.” His was a dignified martyrdom, reluctantly imposed. Four emperors died by the sword during the ten years that Cyprian was bishop of Carthage. “It was only in the third year of his administration that he had reason, during a few months, to apprehend the severe edicts of Decius, the vigilance of the magistrate, and the clamours of the multitude, who loudly demanded that Cyprian, the leader of the Christians, should be thrown to the lions. Prudence suggested the necessity of a temporary retreat, and the voice of prudence was obeyed.” In other words, Cyprian got out of town.

Eight years later, he was summoned by the proconsul in Carthage, and “acquainted” with the imperial mandate that “those who had abandoned the Roman religion should immediately return to the practice of the ceremonies of their ancestors.” Cyprian declined, and was banished, but later recalled from banishment and installed in his own former gardens outside Carthage. A year later, there was a crackdown on Christians. “The bishop of Carthage was sensible that he should be singled out for one of the first victims, and the frailty of nature tempted him to withdraw himself, by a secret flight, from the danger and the honour of martyrdom;* but, soon recovering that fortitude which his character required, he returned to his gardens, and patiently expected the ministers of death.” Cyprian spent the night “custodiâ delicatâ,” according to Gibbon's Footnote No. 87 (it sounds like he had a lavish last meal). The next day, “he was led away under a guard of tribunes and centurions, without resistance and without insult, to the place of his execution, a spacious and level plain near the city, which was already filled with great numbers of spectators. His faithful presbyters and deacons were permitted to accompany their holy bishop. They assisted him in laying aside his upper garment, spread linen on the ground to catch the precious relics of his blood, and received his orders to bestow five-and-twenty pieces of gold on the executioner. The martyr then covered his face with his hands, and at one blow his head was separated from his body.”

*A footnote to a footnote from Oliphant Smeaton defends Cyprian, explaining that it was not "frailty of nature," otherwise known as fear in the face of martyrdom, that made Cyprian “conceal himself for a short period.” Rather, “he was threatened with being transported to Utica," and "it was his earnest desire to die in Carthage, that his martyrdom there might conduce to the edification of those whom he had guided during life.”

The A train makes many stops in its interminable passage through Brooklyn, and I have managed to forge some connection with most of the express stops, at least, to make the trip seem shorter. Manhattan bound, there is Euclid, which has the same name not only as the ancient Greek geometer but as a street in downtown Cleveland; there is Broadway Junction/East New York, where you can switch via a stained-glass passageway to the L train; there is Nostrand, the halfway point (I think of it as the opposite of the beach: strand/no strand); there are the three last stops before Manhattan—antepenultimate (Hoyt/Schermerhorn), penultimate (Jay Street/Borough Hall), and ultimate (High Street/Brooklyn Bridge). But there always comes a moment when the trip feels endless, and I get restless and look up to see where we are, and it never fails: Utica. My only association with Utica is another train station somewhere upstate between Syracuse and Schenectady. I understand it's on the old Erie Canal. Ancient Utica has ceased to exist altogether—who even knew there was such a place? Say what you will, Edward Gibbon, Cyprian had a point: Nobody deserves to be martyred in Utica.

2 comments:

lucette said...

An elegant and instructive post!

MJN/NYC said...

Thanks, Lucette. We might want to observe the
Feast of St. Cyprian on September 16th.