Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cause and Effect

A beautiful poem of Jorge Luís Borges entitled “Las Causas” speaks of the rich tapestry that one life weaves with another, the way our individual stories, the words of our own personal narratives touch upon one another. It is a lovely, stirring poem that delineates the cause and effect that produces relationships, or really a particular relationship, and gives it substance and meaning. Indeed, Borges’ tone, at times even somewhat erotic (and certainly one version on the internet interprets it that way), nevertheless strives to contextualize the poem’s inherent eroticism within the wider context of significance and meaning, the deeper love that beyond all temporary pleasure and distractions, if I may be so bold, that we human beings are all looking for. In other words, Borges’ poem is both synchronic and diachronic at once.

Dido and Aeneas by Rutilio Manetti (Italy, Siena, 1571-1639). Oil on canvas.

An old and not-as-widely-read poem as it once was, Virgil’s Aeneid, is perhaps most famous for its fourth book in which the contrast between the desires of two characters, Aeneas and Dido, comes into sharp focus. My friend, the philologist has been reading that book lately in Latin and we have recently discussed the book’s contents. After several glasses of wine and a bit of squabbling over details, we came to a similar conclusion: Dido is a character who has difficulty understanding the diachronic consequences to her actions. She is stuck, to a large extent, in the present. Her desire for Aeneas burns within her deeply, almost consuming her. Aeneas, who enters into a synchronous relationship with her recalls himself from that, at the gods’ command, reorienting his mind about the diachronic nature of his unique responsibility.

Dido and Aeneas. 4th c. AD mosaic. Low Ham Roman villa, Somerset

Although neither Dido nor Aeneas would seem to have “read” or innately understood Borges, they certainly do understand the erotic bits all too well, as any reader of the symbolism of the “cave scene” would acknowledge. For while the amatory, even erotic side of Borges’ beautiful poem celebrates all the things that had to happen for two people to come together—not unlike, on a more pedestrian but no less beautiful level, the way the George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) meets and loves Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) in It’s a Wonderful Life—it also hints, on the diachronic side, that things don’t ever happen unless other things happen to make them happen. That is certainly true of the tale of Dido and Aeneas in the Aeneid. And that, too, is one of the central themes of Frank Capra’s film that I just mentioned. Both suggest that life has profound meaning, and both show, beautifully in their own ways, that we are in this thing called life together.

While Borges’ poem is besprinkled with allusions to the teachings of the words greatest teachers, the simplicity of the message of the film is a point of contrast. That simplicity is heightened by the goofiness of the angel who is sent from Heaven to George Bailey, beginning with his old-fashioned sounding name, Clarence, no doubt archaic even in 1946 when the film was released to less than stellar reviews. Now, however, it is, of course, a classic film, perhaps more beloved than any other motion picture featuring either Jimmy Stewart or Donna Reed. So, there is a distinction, then, that I would like to emphasize: the film’s simple message is actually slightly more complex that it seems. Whereas Borges’ fantastic poem would emphasize human cause and effect—something entirely true, by the way—Capra’s film introduces one more element: that God cares and intervenes in the chaos of our lives, and by so doing he reminds us of the power of our own actions for good or ill—for all our actions, moral or immoral, do have consequences. Aeneas’ indulgence in a synchronic relationship with Dido resulted in her death, and there was no angel to rescue her. But Capra, by God’s grace, gracefully reminds us that miracles do happen. And inasmuch as they do, perhaps we shouldn’t be entirely surprised to find an angel showing up in our lives—maybe a capital-A, invisible Angel or maybe a just small-a angel like a friend who is sent to help us understand, maybe even for the first time, a deeper understanding of that simple spiritual truth.

I myself first heard about such truth a long time ago from my grandmother, told to me in the simplest of manners—a song, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” she would sing, “for the Bible tells me so.” Yes, that’s a quite simple teaching, but it is also one that can produce in our lives a wide swath of cause and effect well beyond what we can see or even imagine. It can shape our ethical choices, can give us remarkable strength in the midst of stress, trial or temptation. “You see, George,” Clarence says, as he is granting George’s unsavory wish never to have been born, “you really had a wonderful life.” Indeed, we do, for our lives produce “las causes” as much as they are produced by them. The causas that we effect can touch like an angel even as they themselves are touched, too, by the breeze of Angels’ wings.  And so, you see, your life and my own do indeed have real meaning, and our actions can produce the finest of “las causes.” To paraphrase Clarence, and bring film and poem together, “You really do, Jorge, have a wonderful life.”