Notebook

Belshazzar

‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting’. The saying is proverbial in many European languages. Do we remember its source? It was put before us this morning in the Office of Readings. Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, chastised for his ambition and complacency. But who remembers lessons dealt our fathers and mothers? In a gesture of deliberate blasphemy, Belshazzar profaned the sacred vessels from the Temple, thinking this a convenient way of showing his status beyond any law of whatever origin. That is when he noticed the writing on the wall, a most terse oracle stating simply that some boundaries are final. To overstep them is to plunge into destruction. Heine retold the story in verse set to music by Schumann. Ian Bostridge’s interpretation has an intensity that makes the listener shudder, for it makes us see that this isn’t just the retelling of an old fairytale, but the stated criterion for many decisions with which we ourselves are faced.