Jan/Feb 2001 Salon

Duty and Duplicity

by Stanley Jenkins


Must business thee from hence remove?
Oh, that's the worst disease of love;
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
He which hath business and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.
(John Donne)


One by one Dido's lovers eventually and eternally peel themselves from her never fully healed arms. They take to the sea. And search for what shining cities on hills that might be theirs to find.

One would think she'd be use to it by now. The band aid rudely ripped. Hair torn. And the blood, at first in tiny spots from pores, forever forming pools and marshes and swamps. But each time is as the first. And there has never been a time before the first. Love's betrayal is originary. It's called birth.

It amounts perhaps to this: Every person of business is a liar. A hypocrite. A wearer of masks. And the business of America is business.

Dido is meant to bleed. It's what she does.


When I was younger I had a series of recurring night-time dreams and waking visitations that involved a weeping woman. Her name was Death but I called her the Lady in Black. Sometimes I saw her surrounded by crows. They ripped at her breasts with cruel and beautiful beaks of gold. This piercing was known to be her sorrow. Her keening was her coming. And beneath my new clerical collar my heart was troubled and ashamed.

I was ordained at a relatively early age. The line between public and personal was inviolate. Youth is not the time of innocence so much as clarity. Or perhaps the innocence of youth consists in this: that the membranes separating worlds have not yet grown brittle and porous. Aging is the panicked need to shore up crumbling walls.

But in those days of the Lady in Black, my shame was in itself erotic. And if the erotic was threatening, its danger was all the more arousing. I did not then know that the danger was real.

Take me to You, imprison me, for I, Except You enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me. John Donne

These days though, in my dreams, the Lady in Black is slowly being supplanted by the Rule of Law. Jesus is becoming a partisan pundit. And his Passion is sold like perfume. What became of the beautiful young lover, clean like a lion in his indifference, who laughed at even the cruelty—Samson before the sheering? I do not dare eat a peach.


In America Aeneas is always dutiful. He knows he is meant to wound as surely as Dido is meant to be wounded. But in America time has gotten stuck; or perhaps, what would amount to the same, has jumped it's track. We do not seriously entertain the vocation of Progress. We are not marching to the New Jerusalem. And the Kingdom is not just ahead.

In fact, we have arrived. We are celebrating Christmas on the earth.

It's all rather convenient, if you think about it. Virtuous Aeneas doesn't even have to journey to the underworld to plead his case before the stricken Dido. He can watch his case on TV. Judges Judy and Jerry will dispense justice and all penalties will be taken from a pool, the difference to be distributed amongst the contestants. He will return to his duty never once having had to pay from his pocket a price for it.

Our images will do our suffering for us.

Am I alone in lamenting the loss of crime? Dido is fading for want of sacrificial blood. Americans don't do tragedy.


In the old days, in the days of the Lady in Black, when I donned my clerical robe and ascended the pulpit, the transference was complete. I was the office, or rather, the office was me. I was virtuous in my duplicity. Pure in masks. I was strong enough to love the Lady in Black without restraint. I knew youth's love of Death.

These days each time I put on the robe it becomes just a little more compromising and the membrane more permeable. Transference takes its toll. The ghosts are hungrier. Indeed, the office seems to crowd me a little more and the me beneath the stole is larger and less willing to be exhausted in the role. There is a remainder. A Holy Remnant.

I seem to have a choice. Let the remnant, last spark of what is holy, wither and suffocate beneath the collar—or let the Lady and her sorrow return. Become a ghost—or make love to one again. Which would you do? Embrace the crime and breathe—or watch it on TV?


I am tired of shame and culpability. But even in America, I know that to love Dido—to truly do honor to her—we must hurt her and do it on purpose. We must cruelly cast her aside. We must own up to it—and face her great fury. And I know also, even in America, that if we are to be who we were meant to be when we are being Aeneas, we must have the courage of our fates and send her again and again to the underworld. In living we cheat Death. And for this we must endure the keening of ages, the never-dying accusations of ghosts, and the unbearable proximity of the Other Side.

Love makes criminals of us all. But it also makes us builders of Empires—houses undivided that cannot fall. Or at the very least, strong branches beseeching the heavens, their one prayer to humbly be able to hold the nests of our birds, our children, and our loved ones. We are given Life. It is our Duty.


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