restricted access November 24: The Last Full Measure of Devotion (Ulysses)

From: November

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[ ∞Ω∏ ] n o v e m b e r 2 4 The Last Full Measure of Devotion (Ulysses) All philosophy begins with death. —Heidegger ‘‘In Greece the mind and the spirit met on equal terms,’’ wrote Edith Hamilton in The Greek Way, a book Robert Kennedy read and reread after his brother’s death. He carried his dog-eared copy around with him; he often quoted from it by memory. On the day he died, the book was found open. The Greeks were di√erent from the peoples around them, wrote Hamilton: None of the great civilizations that preceded them and surrounded them served them as a model. With them something completely new came into the world. They were the first Westerners; the spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is a Greek discovery and the place of the Greeks is in the modern world. They brought reason to all human experience, yet the greatest hero of the Greeks, Homer’s Odysseus or Ulysses, was not only supreme in reason. He had a great, indomitable heart. Realizing that mental acuity was not enough, he opposed his courage to the uncanny and mysterious forces standing between him and who he was—the epitome of the modern hero: rational, skeptical, intelligent; but he was also, and primarily, human, a t h e l a s t f u l l m e a s u r e o f d e v o t i o n ( u l y s s e s ) [ ∞Ωπ ] su√erer—‘‘a man of many turns’’ Homer calls him. At the end of his odyssey he found his place among and for others. The Modern Age is in its November now, but Ulysses has become a hero for more than one time and one place. * * * This morning, all is quiet along the Potomac. I have driven down to Washington from Gettysburg. Arlington National Cemetery lies spread across the lawns of the Custis-Lee mansion. The shadows from a lowering sky pour across the headstones, lingering and releasing them rank after rank. The last flood of sunshine rests upon Robert Kennedy’s grave. Sometimes his seems to be the smallest and the least conspicuous of all the monuments in this fifty square miles of monuments: the Washington obelisk; the Je√erson rotunda with its rational, elegant reflecting pool; the Lincoln memorial; the eternal flame for John F. Kennedy; and up the hill, the columned mansion. John and Robert Kennedy are buried in Robert E. Lee’s front yard. The Civil War was about whether this nation had to be just, or whether liberty could be a self-su≈cient principle. In this sense, the war was still on a hundred years later. It has not ended yet. Truly, the universe is no modernist; there is no respect for chronology. What fits together comes together. Behind the high marble figure of Abraham Lincoln across the river miles away, these three are joined: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother Robert Francis Kennedy, and though not entombed here, Robert Edward Lee. They watch behind the Great Emancipator’s back, across a Jordan from his alabaster city. The general is represented by empty rooms, where all was accustomed and ceremonial, where folly finally into folly came. But the president even now cannot be murdered with spots of ink. And Robert forged faith, hope, and charity in the dark smithy of his soul. These two brothers were the last Romantics. They were Lincoln’s children. * * * The National Democratic Convention in 1964, the summer after John Kennedy’s death. The forlorn figure of Robert Kennedy at the podium, looking alone although surrounded by thousands of cheering and applauding delegates. His melancholy face. The grieving man enduring an unending ovation. He stood there minute after minute, and fascination with the charming president turned to sad a√ection for the stunned younger man. He raised his hand hesitantly to quiet the applause, failed, smiled n o v e m b e r 2 4 [ ∞Ω∫ ] sadly, tried to say ‘‘Mister Chairman,’’ and was drowned by applause time after time, for twenty-two minutes. Toward the end of his short speech he quoted Shakespeare, applying the words to his brother: When he shall die Take him and cut him out in little stars And he will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night, And pay no worship to the garish sun. The quotation, supplied by Jacqueline Kennedy, can be...


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