Before the Feast of Shushan

Choosing to make even one arbitrary choice can be a great aid to creativity. After all, though many of us are driven by various and powerful urges to create art, the choice to do that is arbitrary itself.

Today’s piece comes from several, singular, arbitrary decisions.

Coming upon the author of today’s words was a two-step process that has no A and B to it. First, knowing that the change from the 19th to the 20th Century impacted everyone, I wanted to see how African-American writers moved across this change. I was already somewhat familiar with how they moved musically in this era, a momentous cultural act that made American music, to an impressively disproportionate degree, Afro-American music. I was less familiar with the early 20th Century Afro-American poets. I started with Wheatley and Dunbar, as many did then. As our copyright laws effectively forbid me to utter on the Internet most any work written past 1922, I was heartened to find James Weldon Johnson had published a collection of Afro-American poetry just before that.

I read it, and Anne Spencer’s contributions included there didn’t grab me.

That too is arbitrary isn’t it? The poetry (or music, or anything) that can impress you on first encounter is only one element of how it might work.

Then a few weeks later I read a small piece online highlighting a long life of service and art that Anne Spencer had lived across part of the 19th Century and ¾ of the 20th. That moved me immediately. I re-read her poetry.

Did I appreciate her poetry more because she seems to have been such an admirable person? I tell myself, no, that by the time I combine it with music and place it on the Internet, few listeners will have any inkling of that. But I’ve just told you how I encountered her, and yes, that has arbitrary elements.

How did Spencer decide to write “Before the Feast of Shushan?”  Were there arbitrary choices? If you’ve followed me so far, you’d suspect there were. The subject is taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and she could have encountered it in any Bible at the start of the book of Esther.  In the sum of cultural appropriation, those ancient Semites have been borrowed from an impressively disproportionate amount, haven’t they?

As I finished the audio piece around sundown last night, it was the beginning of Purim, the Jewish holiday based on the events in Esther.  For a large portion of my life I lived in what could arbitrarily have been called a Jewish household; but family and religious traditions are varied, and I never took part in celebrating Purim. From what I gather that might include elements like unto a Jewish Halloween, with costumes, food, parties, and burlesquing of evil. My wife once summed Purim up as “They wanted to kill all of us. They failed. Let’s eat!”

But Spencer took her story from the beginning of Esther,  a part I’d forgotten, and shouldn’t have. The book of Esther  is a woman-centered book, but before the heroine comes on stage, the first woman we meet is Vashti. Go ahead, and read Vashti’s story if you’d like, but here’s the summary. Xerxes/ Ahasuerus (the former is his Greek name) is ruler of a great world-spanning empire. He’s throwing a multi-day party to surpass all before or since. All his princes, bros and vassals are enjoying the week-long open bar at his palace in Shushan full of absolutely top-line, first-rate stuff his power has obtained. At some point in this sausage-fest, Xerxes (rhymes with jerk-sees) figures what this party needs is for his queen to show up wearing the crown he’s bestowed on her, so everyone can see what a fox he has for a Queen, as she’s a certain 10, if the Persians had been using a base-ten system back then. Some commentary even suggests that his command is to be understood for her to show up wearing only the crown.

Vashti refuses the emperor’s command. Xerxes, a stable genius type, modestly agrees to ask his advisors what to do, no doubt so that he can blame them if anything goes wrong, and they tell him that this is a huge  deal. Not only has the Emperor been disobeyed—it’s like someone didn’t clap at his speech, only worse—because if this gets out, every wife will feel that she can disobey her husband.

O Banquete de Assuero (c. 1490)

In the archway, Xerxes ponders what’s up with Vashti not wanting to show everyone how hot she is

 

Clearly, this won’t do. Vashti is cast off, and that arbitrary action sets in motion the rest of the story of the book of Esther  that results in the celebration of Purim.

The Bible itself offers no commentary on this. The book of Esther  is also unusual in that there is not even one mention of God in it. You are asked to decide yourself.

Anne Spencer doesn’t want us to forget Esther’s  opening, and in “Before the Fest of Shushan”  she writes a very Robert Browning-like monolog for Xerxes to speak. As Xerxes would want it, no one else gets a word in edgewise. Browning was one of the eminent Victorians that Spencer had read in her 19th Century dominated youth, and because it hews so closely to Browning as an influence, it’s considered one of Spencer’s first poems.

Spencer’s prequel scene (it’s “Before the Feast…”) has Xerxes in an explicitly randy mood and he’s somewhat puzzled that Vashti seems to want something more. Spencer’s is a more intimate scene that the coldly political world of the book of Esther.  Likely written before 1920, it shows that Anne Spencer had a clear feminist eye. At that time, if Spencer had overcome the hindrances widely used to deny Afro-Americans the right to vote, granted on paper in 1870, she still would have been prevented from voting—because, she was a woman.

Anne Spencer Wedding Picture

Anne Spencer’s wedding portrait, at the beginning of the 20th Century, 1901.

 

Arbitrary choices—useful sometimes in art. Likewise, they might help people to create businesses or new testable scientific propositions. In art we might own up to them, examine them. Can we do the same in life?

I made an arbitrary choice to lay off the string parts for today’s audio piece—organ, piano and acoustic guitar instead. To hear “Before the Feast of Shushan”  use the player.

 

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