His father seemed less than ever interested in what passed around him, once assured Wyatt’s illness was done. Except for the Sunday sermon, public activities in the town concerned him less than ever. Like Pliny, retiring to his Laurentine villa when Saturnalia approached, the Reverend Gwyon avoided the bleak festivities of his congregation whenever they occurred, by retiring to his study. But his disinterest was no longer a dark mantle of preoccupation. A sort of hazardous assurance had taken its place. He approached his Sunday sermons with complaisant audacity, introducing, for instance, druidical reverence for the oak tree as divinely favored because so often singled out to be struck by lightning. Through all of this, even to the sermon on the Aurora Borealis, the Dark Day of May in 1790 whose night moon turned to blood, and the great falling of stars in November 1833, as signs of the Second Advent, Aunt May might well have noted the persistent non-appearance of what she, from that same pulpit, had been shown as the body of Christ. Certainly the present members of the Use-Me Society found many of his references “unnecessary.” It did not seem quite necessary, for instance, to note that Moses had been accused of witchcraft in the Koran; that the hundred thousand converts to Christianity in the first two or three centuries in Rome were “slaves and disreputable people,” that in a town on the Nile there were ten thousand “shaggy monks” and twice that number of “god- dedicated virgins”; that Charlemagne mass-baptized Saxons by driving them through a river being blessed upstream by his bishops, while Saint Olaf made his subjects choose between baptism and death. No soberly tolerated feast day came round, but that Reverend Gwyon managed to herald its grim observation by allusion to some pagan ceremony which sounded uncomfortably like having a good time. Still the gray faces kept peace, precarious though it might be. They had never been treated this way from the pulpit. True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl. They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar. And many hurried home to closet themselves with their Bibles after the sermon on the Trinity, which proved to be Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva; as they did after the recital of the Immaculate Conception, where the seed entered in spiritual form, bringing forth, in virginal modesty, Romulus and Remus.
If the mild assuasive tones of the Reverend offended anywhere, it was the proprietary sense of his congregation; and with true Puritan fortitude they resisted any suggestion that their bloody sacraments might have known other voices and other rooms. They could hardly know that the Reverend’s powers of resistance were being taxed more heavily than their own, where he withstood the temptation to tell them details of the Last Supper at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the snake in the Garden of Eden, what early translators of the Bible chose to let the word ‘thigh’ stand for (where ancient Hebrews placed their hands when under oath), the symbolism of the Triune triangle and, in generative counterpart so distressing to early fathers of the Church, the origin of the Cross.
I was standing on the bank of the River Goltva, waiting for the ferry-boat from the other side. At ordinary times the Goltva is a humble stream of moderate size, silent and pensive, gently glimmering from behind thick reeds; but now a regular lake lay stretched out before me. The waters of spring, running riot, had overflowed both banks and flooded both sides of the river for a long distance, submerging vegetable gardens, hayfields and marshes, so that it was no unusual thing to meet poplars and bushes sticking out above the surface of the water and looking in the darkness like grim solitary crags.
The weather seemed to me magnificent. It was dark, yet I could see the trees, the water and the people. . . . The world was lighted by the stars, which were scattered thickly all over the sky. I don’t remember ever seeing so many stars. Literally one could not have put a finger in between them. There were some as big as a goose’s egg, others tiny as hempseed. . . . They had come out for the festival procession, every one of them, little and big, washed, renewed and joyful, and everyone of them was softly twinkling its beams. The sky was reflected in the water; the stars were bathing in its dark depths and trembling with the quivering eddies. The air was warm and still. . . . Here and there, far away on the further bank in the impenetrable darkness, several bright red lights were gleaming. . . .
A couple of paces from me I saw the dark silhouette of a peasant in a high hat, with a thick knotted stick in his hand.
“How long the ferry-boat is in coming!” I said.
“It is time it was here,” the silhouette answered.
“You are waiting for the ferry-boat, too?”
“No I am not,” yawned the peasant—”I am waiting for the illumination. I should have gone, but to tell you the truth, I haven’t the five kopecks for the ferry.”
“I’ll give you the five kopecks.”
“No; I humbly thank you. . . . With that five kopecks put up a candle for me over there in the monastery. . . . That will be more interesting, and I will stand here. What can it mean, no ferry-boat, as though it had sunk in the water!”
The peasant went up to the water’s edge, took the rope in his hands, and shouted; “Ieronim! Ieron—im!”
Iquitos, 29 June 1979
When you shoot an elephant, it stays on its feet for ten days before it falls over. When I got back on the ice after two minutes in the penalty box, a puck struck hard from a short distance away smashed into my head. There was a pulsing flash of light before my eyes, and I became weightless. On the boat to Belén: roast alligator was served. Women delousing children, children carrying much too heavy burdens held by forehead straps.
Boats passing, everything in slow motion. A large pile of empty tortoise shells. Chickens tied by the legs, swinging in an empty-looking radius. At night the cooking fires glow. Enormous fish at the market, fruit juices surrounded by swarms of flies, filth. Children playing marbles between the houses’ stilts. Vultures that spread their wings like Christ on the Cross and remain in that statuelike position, presumably to cool off or to drive away itching mites. In early times it was interpreted as the posture for prayer, and because of the mites the eagle became the favorite heraldic bird for coats of arms. Cattle heads, skinned and bloody, on a hand cart. The women crouch in the brownish water, doing their laundry. In a bar a man was lying on the floor unconscious, dead drunk. By fifteen most of the girls already have one or two children. This city seems to be inhabited exclusively by children. Today is a holiday. In the evening up the Río Momón by boat.
An entry from Werner Herzog’s journal Conquest of the Useless, which records the difficulties he faced while making Fitzcarraldo.
Rainer J. Hanshe’s The Abdication. Started this one the yesterday. Very weird, very cool. More thoughts to come, but here’s the blurb:
Spring 2032: an enigmatic bandleader named Triboulet arrives by helicopter in Rome, where his carnivalesque troupe awaits with a legion of animals and unruly kids. When provoking states of joyous panic through their ritualistic frenzies, the troupe’s arrival proves restorative, for the world is beset with famines, plagues, and religious conflicts, which Triboulet seeks to neutralize with freeing laughter. As he and his troupe begin constructing strange edifices in the Eternal City, sacred sites around the world suffer terrible, often beguiling forms of vandalism, and rumors abound that the Christ has actually finally returned.Although radical Islamic sects claim responsibility for the vandalism, the culprits remain unknown: is it the Jihadists, anarcho-atheist intellectuals, or eco-terrorists? Religious and political authorities grow leery of the troupe and suspicious of Triboulet, whose true identity remains a mystery. The very future of the world is at stake, and while touring Israel during Christmas, Triboulet and his raucous band of pranksters bear witness to the world’s pivotal crossing into a new reality.Albert Camus noted that ‘the metaphysics of the worst’ expresses itself in a literature of damnation and argued that ‘we have still not yet found the exit’ from such literature. With his second novel, Hanshe has found the way out, offering in fact something not only promising, but astounding, a pathway that is into a new reality, into a ‘physics of the best.’ The Abdication is a true ero(t)icomic epic.
The Gospels are powerful not simply because Christ performed miracles and taught kindness, strength, and humility. Humanity has long attributed to certain individuals impossible deeds, tremendous suffering, and inordinate wisdom. We survey the collective memory and search for meaning in the lives of renowned teachers so that they might serve as an example during our own unpredictable, harrowing journey. What separates the story of Jesus from the stories of other merely great people in history is the idea that God manifested itself to humans as a human: wracked with doubt, vulnerable to temptation, victim of unimaginable pain. Although he taught that love is the first commandment, Christ was flailed, tortured, left to die on a cross between two thieves, all ostensibly for no benefit but our own. Wasn’t it Borges who said that every story is either the Odyssey or the Crucifixion? The stories we tell each other, in their reflection, become the same nothing cycle of words, told again and again, a record of our inadequacy and cowardice.
Graham Greene, in his short and powerful novel The Power and the Glory, considers the life and death of Jesus as he narrates the life of a man brought low by pride and circumstances. The last priest someplace in southwestern Mexico flees from the authorities. His hunters seek to free the peasant farmers who populate the land from exploitation and superstition with their own imperfect liberation theologies: the abolition of superstition and private property; the self-sufficiency that follows honest labor. The men in red shirts ride horses and believe in the impending, always near, revolution. On the back of a mule, the father sneaks from town to town, trying to fulfill his duty, but without understanding the significance of the words that tumble clumsily from his mouth in Latin. He performs sacred rites in exchange for sanctuary until even a hiding spot is denied to him. The police have started to execute men and boys in villages who they believe have colluded to shelter this wayward man of God.
As the priest travels, he finds himself stripped not only of the vestments of his profession: his chalice, his incense, his robes, and his bible, but his own air of invincibility, privilege and comfort. Exposed, fearful, living in a state of mortal sin and unable to confess, this fallen man of God, like Christ himself, is destroyed. The priest is, by his own admission, a bad one. He drinks heavily and thinks too much of his own comfort. Led to his profession not so much by attention to the divine will but by a desire for status and privilege, during his exile he recalls fondly dinners lavish dinners with wealthy members of his assembly and the gifts they gave him. While he may have seen that the most of his flock made a meager living on small farms after taxes and fees paid to local bosses, he never stopped to consider the meaning of his own observations, busying himself instead with ambitions for his own greater glory. He is, for the first half of the book, greedy, proud, and self-concerned.
But, as he eludes the authorities and traverses the country, he becomes, in Greene’s capable hands, a symbol of redemption and an affirmation of a full but unrealized life. Words that lacked meaning help to ameliorate the strongest pain he has ever felt. He is jailed, extorted, and rejected by the people who love him the most, but in humiliation finds real faith. Performing the sacred rites of his profession, he confronts the banality of evil and comes to finally realize the true power of the promise he brought to those who came to him:
He had an immense self-importance; he was unable to picture a world in which he was only a typical part — a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had did; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.
This is a book about religion and faith, but The Power and the Glory doesn’t require its reader to have an inclination towards either. It is an adventure story, recounted in bold, confident sentences, about a normal man who fears that incorrect choices will cause him to suffer. This fear is real and it manifests itself in the priest’s moral and ethical dilemmas. We are asked to ponder those things that lead from sadness to strength. The priest is us: we see ourselves completely in him and give him our sympathy.
From a 1961 letter by Flannery O’Connor to an English professor, who wrote her asking for an interpretation of her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In his letter, the professor concludes that the second half of the story is imaginary, an interpretation that seems to give Ms. O’Connor the vapors:
The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be. If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology. I am not interested in abnormal psychology.
There is a change of tension from the first part of the story to the second where the Misfit enters, but this is no lessening of reality. This story is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the everyday doings of people in Georgia. It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious.
Bailey’s only importance is as the Grandmother’s boy and the driver of the car. It is the Grandmother who first recognized the Misfit and who is most concerned with him throughout. The story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him.
The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.
My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.
Director Paul Verhoeven explains why his film RoboCop is a Christ allegory, and suggests what the American Jesus might be like—
The point of RoboCop, of course, it is a Christ story. It is about a guy who gets crucified in the first 50 minutes, and then is resurrected in the next 50 minutes, and then is like the supercop of the world, but is also a Jesus figure as he walks over water at the end. Walking over water was in the steel factory in Pittsburgh, and there was water there, and I put something just underneath the water so he could walk over the water and say that wonderful line, “I am not arresting you anymore.” Meaning, I’m going to shoot you. And that is of course the American Jesus.
From Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 lecture, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction“–
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.
Hear O’Connor read a version of her lecture here.