“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
1 The carpenter is intent on the pressure of his hand
13 and inadequate wrists he knows are waiting behind him
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 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!