Thursday, July 26, 2012

JESUS: A LIFE by A. N. Wilson (1992)

This may be the most readable and as well as the most learned book about Jesus, Paul and Christianity that you are likely to lay your hands on.

Without even trying,  Jesus destroyed the world of classical antiquity and wrenched subsequent history into not one but many radical new directions. If you are interested in history you should grab this book and read it cover to cover. It won't change your life but it will, without a doubt, change the way you think about Christianity as Paul more or less invented it, thereby partially taming the anarchic energy loosed upon the world by Jesus's deceptively simple, witty, ironic parables. (Though Wilson doesn't actually say so, he makes it pretty clear that  the 'parabolic' style that stamps almost everything that Jesus says was a new literary invention: no one in the ancient classical world had ever talked that way.)

I think I can best convey something of the tone and content of Wilson's book by quoting some of its concluding pages:

Most of the history of Christendom may be seen as a series of extraordinary accidents, but it is not purely accidental that Jesus could so easily be adopted and transformed into the Gentile God that he became. It is precisely because he refused to define himself that he was so vulnerable to the assaults of theologians and fantasists. 'Who do men say I am?' He asked the question, but did not tell them what sort of answer they should have given.

Something with which Western minds have found it almost impossible to come to terms is the unsystematic nature of Jesus's thought. Since Jesus existed within an accepted religious framework, and was not setting out to found a new religion, still less to found a philosophical school, there is no need to search among his recorded sayings for a coherent metaphysic. He spoke in parables partly with the deliberate aim of  baffling and disturbing his hearers, that hearing they might not understand. He did not wish to deliver them with a finished pattern which they could follow. The pattern was something which, if it existed, they must make for themselves. Most Christian schemes of thought have arisen from a passion to take some group of recorded sayings in the Gospels and to force them to their logical conclusion. The whole of Calvinism, for example, may be deduced from the parable of the women looking for the lost coin. If, as Calvin did, you imagine that this story is a piece of theology, then certain terrible deductions can be made from it. The Almighty is the woman, and the human soul is the coin. It follows that all human impulses toward the divine are worthless, since the initiative, in the process of salvation, must always come not from man but from above. We cannot work for our salvation; we must wait for it. It therefore follows that only those who have been called or elected to glory may be saved—with the cruel concomitant that those who are not so called must be elected to everlasting damnation. [Including unbaptized infants.]. . . .

Who can not believe Tolstoy when he says that oath-taking is forbidden in the Gospel; that the kingdom is within us, and not of this world; that the true followers of Jesus can therefore never wish to take part in civil systems, and never seek political solutions to the problems which beset society? And yet Jesus, who told his followers to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, is never recorded as recommended a Tolstoyan policy of civil disobedience against Rome of the sort which inspired Gandhi to defy, and ultimately to overthrow, the British Raj in India.

The truth is that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself. Christianity in all its multifarious manifestations, Orthodox and heterodox, has been a repeated attempt to make sense of him, to cut him down to size. The extent to which no saying or story of Jesus can, in fact, be taken to its logical conclusion without being contradicted by some other saying or fact is perhaps less a symptom of how imperfectly the Gospels record him than how oblique and how terrifying a figure he actually was in history. Terrifying because he really does undermine everything. He appeals to disruptive imaginations
such as Tolstoy and Blake, but even they, in seeking to make his disruptiveness their own, systematize or enclose him. It cannot be done. 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.' He will not tell us. . . A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation which we devise. It if makes sense it is wrong. That is the only reliable rule-of-thumb which we can use when testing the innumerable interpretations of Jesus's being and his place in human history.

If it makes sense it is wrong— in some important ways. (Or, as Wallace Stevens says in one of his poems, "The squirming facts evade the squamous mind.") How many other theories—logical, theological, philosophical, political, cosmological etc.—can you think of that would survive this rule of thumb? No matter how sophisticated your theory, it is bound to encounter facts that cannot be explained or evaded. History is littered with the wreckage of busted doctrines and theories. Even this one?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

T. S. Eliot: the invention of a poetic self and voice

Thanks to Christopher Ricks (Inventions of The March Hare, Poems  1909-1917), we can now read the unpublished poems that preceded Preludes, The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock, and the other poems that appeared for the first time in Eliot's first book, Prufrock And Other Observations (1917). [Not 'poems', mind you, but the ironic "observations": Eliot's first readers could not say that they had not been warned.]

Eliot was interested, from the first, in trying to see what he could make of the urban landscape—not romanticized (or etherealized) as in Wordsworth's early morning view of London from West-
Minster Bridge— but presented, shoved in front of us,  in all its ugly reality. I will show you several of these "caprices" as Eliot calls some of them (a musical term like 'preludes').

First Caprice in North Cambridge

A street-piano, garrulous and frail;
The yellow evening flung against the panes
Of dirty windows: and the distant strains
Of children's voices, ended in a wail.

Bottles and broken glass,
Trampled mud and grass;
A heap of broken barrows;
And a crowd of tattered sparrows
Delve in the gutter with sordid patience.

Oh, these minor considerations! . . . . .

Second Caprice in North Cambridge

This charm of vacant lots!
The helpless fields that lie
Sinister, sterile and blind—
Entreat the eye and rack the mind,
Demand your pity.
With ashes and tins in piles,
Shattered bricks and tiles
And the debris of a city.

Far from our definitions
And our esthetic laws
Let us pause
With these fields that hold and rack the brain
(What: again?)
With  an unexpected charm
And an unexplained repose
On an evening in December
Under a sunset yellow and rose.

Interlude In London

We hibernate among the bricks
And live across the window panes
With marmalade and tea at six
Indifferent to what the wind does
Indifferent to sudden rains
Softening last years garden plots

And apathetic, with cigars
Careless, while down the street the spring goes
Inspiring mouldy flowerpots,
And broken flutes at garret windows.


Along the city streets,
It is still high tide,
Yet the garrulous waves of life
Shrink and divide
With a thousand incidents
Vexed and debated:—
This is the hour for which we waited—

This is the ultimate hour
When life is justified.
The seas of experience
That were so broad and deep,
So immediate and steep,
Are suddenly still.
You may say what you will,
At such peace I am terrified.
There is nothing else beside.

Pretty good for a 20 or 21 year-old kid, we might say. When we read the poem that these poems were working towards, however, we can see why Eliot might have wanted to make sure that they would never be published. The poem that Eliot really wanted to write is Preludes, a poem that not only anticipates The Wasteland but in my (minority) opinion is superior to it—and less pretentious.


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

You tossed the blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images;
Of which your soul was constituted
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

His soul stretched across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Eliot wrote a small number of great poems, but never anything greater than this. Prufrock, which seems to have been written before Preludes, is wonderful for the way it uses the urban materials and insights of the former poem for comic rather than tragic effect. The world of Prufrock is neither as desperate or as sad as that other poem had brilliantly forced us to see it. Did it ever occur to Eliot when he came to write The Wasteland that he had already written it?—but without the pompous notes, shallow anthropology and—most of all (from my point of view) the Christian allegorizing.

Many of the poems that Eliot published in 1917 and 1920 strike me (and not only me, I suppose) as either trivial ("Aunt Helen" or "Cousin Nancy" for example) or pursuing some mostly private symbolism, as in the Sweeney poems, or "Whispers of Immortality." The mystery is, how such a private, deliberately obscure, writer of a handful of poems could have become, so widely acclaimed as a great poet? (A similar question could be asked about Wallace Stevens.)

Here are some poem that, in addition to Preludes and Prufrock some poems that I keep coming back to: two poems about heartlessness: Portrait of A Lady and La Figlia che Piange.

I also like Rhapsody on a Windy Night, which seems to be about another kind of failure—the failure, perhaps, of someone from the world described in Preludes—to escape or even to change his or her desperately regimented and impoverished life; that person might even be Prufrock himself. I also like Marina and Burnt Norton (probably—in the case of the latter poem— because of that Rose Garden full of children which the poet can never recover.)

It may, I know, be very old fashioned, even a trifle vulgar, to like poems that make connections between art and life. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.

You can see why Eliot despised the poetry and novels of Thomas Hardy.