Earle Birney’s “El Greco: Espolio” and the Banality of Evil

El_Expolio,_por_El_Greco

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

–Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Our actions often have unintended consequences. Things we create have the power to affect others in ways we couldn’t imagine. Canadian poet Earle Birney explores this idea in his moving poem “El Greco: Espolio”, which examines a famous incident in Western culture and takes a look at the often less thought about players in the scene.

Birney takes from the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, that is poetry inspired by a real or fictitious work of art. In this case, he is making reference to El Greco’s The Disrobing of Christ or El Espolio in Spanish. Although by looking at the painting it is clear the focus is supposed to be on Christ, as evidenced by the title, Christ’s placement, and the striking colour of his robe, Birney looks instead to the humble carpenter in the bottom right of the painting who is building the cross.

I have the poem below and my interpretation of the poem’s meaning, which I will outline after you’ve had a chance to read the poem! Enjoy it; I find it continues to haunt me years after I first encountered it. I taught this poem at the university level, so I’ve had the opportunity to think about it a lot.

El Greco: Espolio

The carpenter is intent on the pressure of his hand

on the awl and the trick of pinpointing his strength
through the awl to the wood which is tough
He has no effort to spare for despoilings
or to worry if he’ll be cut in on the dice
His skill is vital to the scene and the safety of the state
Anyone can perform the indignities It’s his hard arms
and craft that hold the eyes of the convict’s women
There is the problem of getting the holes exact
10 (in the middle of this elbowing crowd)
11 and deep enough to hold the spikes
12 after they’ve sunk through those bared feet

13 and inadequate wrists he knows are waiting behind him

14 He doesn’t sense perhaps that one of the hands
15 is held in a curious gesture over him —
16 giving or asking forgiveness? —
17 but he’d scarcely take time to be puzzled by poses
18 Criminals come in all sorts as anyone knows who makes crosses
19 are as mad or sane as those who decide on their killings
20 Our one at least has been quiet so far
21 though they say he talked himself into this trouble
22 a carpenter’s son who got notions of preaching
23 Well here’s a carpenter’s son who’ll have carpenter sons
24 God willing and build what’s wanted temples or tables
25 mangers or crosses and shape them decently
26 working alone in that firm and profound abstraction
27 which blots out the bawling of rag-snatchers
28 To construct with hands knee-weight braced thigh
29 keeps the back turned from death
30 But it’s too late now for the other carpenter’s boy

31 to return to this peace before the nails are hammered

The Banality of Evil

As you may have guessed from the Hannah Arendt epigraph for this post, the thing I want to focus on in this poem is how much damage can be done by those who are just “doing their job”. It is so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the everyday that we don’t stop to think how we are affecting others.

Birney’s carpenter is in just such a situation. He may not be Eichmann in Jersusalem, but as the poem explicitly states “his skill is vital to the scene” (6), because after all, without a cross there is no crucifixion. He is “intent” (1) on his own hand, his own product, his own trade, so much so that he does not notice Christ reaching out behind him. There isn’t any indication that he is a particularly good or evil person, merely that he is so focused on doing his job that he blocks out everything else in the scene. He has no interest in “despoilings” (4) or being “cut in on the dice” (5) because he wants to finish the cross.

The first and second stanzas focus on establishing the carpenter as wholly focused on his craft and desensitized to the inhumanity of the scene. The narrator is third-person limited, as it focuses on what is going on in the carpenter’s head and merely speculates on what others are doing, such as when it questions whether Christ is “giving    or asking    forgiveness” (16) by holding his hand above the man building his cross. There is a remark about the carpenter’s lack of interest in the dice games over Christ’s possessions, saying “anyone can perform the indignities” (7). He then goes on to describe issues related to his craft such as the “problem of getting the holes exact” (9) and the “inadequate wrists” (13) that will be held by the spikes.

The carpenter is not a complete monster; he becomes increasingly sympathetic to Christ throughout the poem. At the beginning he refers to Christ as a “convict” (8), then a “criminal” (18). While this may not seem like a dramatic jump, in merely a few lines he refers to Christ as “our one” (20) and a “carpenter’s son” (22), which attaches us to him and humanizes his plight as we remember that Christ had a human family in addition to a celestial one. In the last two lines of the poem he is referred to as “the other carpenter’s boy” (3), thus reaching the pinnacle of sympathy as “boy” implies youth and innocence.

Birney didn’t pick the central focus of the poem by accident; by focusing on the carpenter building the cross, he creates a foil for Christ. Here’s a man who took a stand for things he believed in and is now sacrificing himself for his cause. Looking at the painting, we see Christ gazing upwards, focusing on the bigger picture of the scene, the importance of suffering these indignities. The carpenter the poem focuses on though seems to take a stand for no one. Remaining neutral, he gazes downwards at the material realm, focused on building a cross and doing his job, not thinking about where he fits in the grand scheme of things. We can see this clearly towards the end of the poem as it says that the carpenter “keeps the back turned from death” (29), literally and figuratively refusing to involve himself in what comes from his cross building.

However, that’s the problem the poem identifies. Whether you tune out like the carpenter or are in the centre of the scene like Christ, you are involved in what happens in the world. What you put out there affects others whether you intend it to or not. “Working alone in that firm and profound abstraction” (26) may grant peace for a time, but eventually it will be “too late” (30) to return to that peace when the world catches up with you.

So I’ll close this off by saying that “El Greco: Espolio” reminds us that what you do matters in ways you might not realize, so it is in your best interest and in the interest of those around you to be mindful of your actions and to take a stand if you see an injustice. Choosing to remain by the sidelines is still an active decision, so make sure it’s the one you want.

I’ve included a version of the poem below that I’ve annotated, so you can see how my mind works when I’m marking up a poem for analysis. If you’re in school and looking to improve on that skill, take a look, and feel free to contact me for any tips or questions!

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