“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” -John Newton, “Amazing Grace”
“Trust the Midas touch.” -Midas’s company slogan
These days, when I see the word Midas, it’s usually on a yellow sign above a car service center. (There’s one not far from my house). I keep thinking about that. It seems a bit strange.
I don’t know what you all did for New Years (I hope it was wonderful, and crackly, and connecting), but a friend of mine went to a “Gatsby Party.” She dressed up like a flapper, and sewed a beaded fringe for her dress. Very cool. Still, isn’t the name a bit strange? I thought through the book’s characters: Daisy, purposefully fragile and holding on to her abusive husband; Tom, abusive, racist, and rich; Gatsby, dead and abandoned; Jordan, a hyper-competitive cheat who expects everyone else to make way for her. There’s a sense of hopeless emptiness in all of them. They feel like the pulped oranges that are left behind after every party. Isn’t the party a metaphor for the flash of purposefully ostentatious alcohol-hazed luxury that these characters throw, as bright and useful as confetti, at their own despair? It might look fun, but it’s the kind of fun that’s soap bubble thick and just as shiny. We don’t want to go to that party. That’s what the book’s about.
The words to “Amazing Grace” were written by John Newton, 1725-1807, who spent the first part of his life as a slaver and the second part as a clergyman and outspoken abolitionist. For me, that story makes the song more powerful. While most of his abolitionist work came a few years after the song, I can’t help but feel the current of his transformation whenever I hear the melody. “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” It’s not a story about being oppressed: it’s the story about being an oppressor. In Newton’s time, many preachers tried to distance themselves from sin and then condemn it. Newton was famous for openly discussing the horrors he’d done. This is a song about facing your darkness, facing the evil you’ve allowed to work through you–facing it, naming it, and trying to make amends. We remember the song. I hope we remember the story.
So: the yellow sign. If you do a google search, you can find newspapers all over the world talking about how athletes or CEOs or politicians have “the Midas touch.” If we remember the story, that’s not a good thing. The greek god Dionysus offers King Midas a wish, and Midas asks for everything he touches to turn to gold. At first Midas is overjoyed: he touches his clothes, his statues, the stones beside the road. Later his daughter runs in to greet him. He motions her away, but she jumps into his arms. In the place of his daughter, he’s holding a hard, cold statue. (Midas begs Dionysus to reverse the gift. Dionysus, for reasons involving wine and godliness, agrees). The story is about the horror of a dream we thought beautiful.
If we forget the story, we see only the gleam it was meant to warn us about. That feels strange. It feels a little funny. It feels like hearing the Sirens, and saying, “Hey, do you think I could get this on CD? Wait. It’s probably on Spotify.”