In his own desert

Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi,
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

(Here too we find virtue somehow rewarded,
tears in the nature of things, minds altered by what humans have to bear.)

Virgil, Aeneid (adapted from the translation by David West)


From an interview with Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey, recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps:

Q: I would like to go back to the first incident, when the survivor asked why did you kill his brother. Was that the incident that pushed you over the edge, as you put it?

A: Oh, yeah. Later on I found out that was a typical day. I talked with my commanding officer after the incident. He came up to me and says: “Are you OK?” I said: “No, today is not a good day. We killed a bunch of civilians.” He goes: “No, today was a good day.” And when he said that, I said “Oh, my goodness, what the hell am I into?”
I was like every other troop. My president told me they got weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam threatened the free world, that he had all this might and could reach us anywhere. I just bought into the whole thing.

Q: What changed you?

A: The civilian casualties taking place. That was what made the difference. That was when I changed.

Q: Did the revelations that the government fabricated the evidence for war affect the troops?

A: Yes. I killed innocent people for our government. For what? What did I do? Where is the good coming out of it? I feel like I’ve had a hand in some sort of evil lie at the hands of our government. I just feel embarrassed, ashamed about it.


En alguna parte, en estos momentos,
confusamente complacido escribe en pulcro idioma
la ciencia de la mentira.

(Somewhere or another, at this very moment,
in confused complacency
is setting down in beautiful language
the science of lying.)

Roberto Sosa, “La puerta única,” El llanto de las cosas (adapted from the translation by Jo Anne Englebert)


Three Stanzas from Goethe
translated by James Wright

That man standing there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.

Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
But hatred of men from love’s abundance?
Once despised, now a despiser,
He kills his own life,
The precious secret.
The self-seeker finds nothing.

Oh Father of Love,
If your pslatery holds one tone
That his ear might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own desert.

([Translator’s] NOTE: These three stanzas are from Goethe’s poem “Harzreise im Winter.” They are the stanzas which Brahms detached from the poem and employed as the text for his “Alto Rhapsody” of 1869.)

The German original for Brahms’ text is here. For background on Goethe and Brahms, music critic Herbert Glass has a nice essay on the Alto Rhapsody. It seems that this dark text represented a turning point for both the author and the composer, who positively wallowed in the gloomy grandeur of his composition:

In the words of Brahms biographer Jan Swofford, “He loved it so much that he slept with it (metaphorically) under his pillow. He took it to his bed, in other words, like a bride.”


Thanks to my brother Steve for the link to the interview with Massey.

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