Archive | June, 2010

The Uncoupling of Jesus Christ.

30 Jun

Hope is a long leash
drawn in slowly.

Wendy Cope, After Prague

 I came to The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ well disposed to Philip Pullman, and I left with my illusions intact.  Pullman tackles the central conundrum of the Christianity: how did the oh-so-radical Jesus leave the oh-so-conservative church as his sole legacy? Pullman’s answer: He didn’t. It was all the fault of his bookish younger brother. Jesus was the radical political rhetorician, Christ was the gullible historian. His point, historically speaking, is this: The son of god and the word of god were different creatures, and the latter was the more corruptible.

As the impostor-angel tells Christ:

We who know must be prepared to make history the handmaiden of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom [of God: everyone seems certain it’s around the corner, in keeping with other accounts of the period] than what was…. When you look down upon the story as God looks down on time, you will be able to have Jesus foretell to his disciples, as it were in truth, the events to come of which, in history, he was unaware.

St Matthew and the Angel, Caravaggio


If I had a kid (Christ forfend, and Jesus save her) this would be the book I introduce Christianity to her with.  All the biblical highlights exist, subtly and seamlessly twisted into new meaning. He envisions a world in which the miraculous and the mundane aren’t distinct; where myth and miracle are reinforcing, and a miracle is only as good as its chronicler.  When they discover that they can (sort of) pull them off, the question of miracles begins an intense debate between the brothers. Jesus is of the opinion that ‘conjuring tricks’ can be of no service to spreading God’s message or love. Christ sees in them instrumental value, arguing that people need “signs and wonders”, and, conversely, that miracles are a good way to collect what we would call social capital.

This conversation leads into Christ’s proposed church:

I can see the laws an the proclamations issuing from the centre to the furtherest edges of the world. I can see the good rewarded and the wicked punished. I can see the missionaries going out bearing the word of God to the darkest and the most ignorant lands, and bringing every loving man and woman and child to the great family of God- gentiles as well as Jews. I can see all doubt vanquished, I can see all dissent swept away, I can see the shining faces of the faithful gazing up in adoration on every side.

Jesus is skeptical, as anyone would be after that little soliloquy:

Do you think your mighty organisation would even recognise the Kingdom if it arrived? Fool! The Kingdom of God would arrive at these magnificent palaces and courts like a poor traveller with dust at its feet. The guards would spot him at once, ask for his papers, beat him, throw him out into the street.…

And, later, he remains a prophet, if not quite in the mold Christ intends:

And from time to time, to distract the people from their miseries and fire them with anger against someone else, the governors of this church will declare that such-and-such a nation and such-and-such people is evil and ought to be destroyed, and they’ll gather great armies and set off to kill and burn and loot and rape and plunder, and they’ll raise their standard over the smoking ruins of what was once a fair and prosperous land and declare that God’s kingdom is so much the larger and more magnificent as a result.

A prophet who damns neoplatonism, no less:

I’m not one of those logic-choppers, these fastidious philosophers with their scented Greek rubbish about a pure world of spiritual forms where everything is perfect and which is the only place where the real truth is, unlike this filthy real world which is corrupt and gross and full of untruth and imperfection.

As surely as he systematically destroys the holy cows of christian faith, Pullman is charitable to everyone traditionally considered “evil” in that scripture (save Pontius Pilate, who is perhaps irredeemable): Judas is Christ’s informant, but only because he thinks recording his master’s speeches is worthy work; Nicodemus sees to the crucified body’s internment when none of the apostles can be bothered; even the Sanhedrin who betray Jesus are simply civic authorities caught between Jesus’s radicalism and his popularity.

All through, perhaps paradoxically, I felt far greater affinity to Christ than to Jesus. His motives and jealousy are relatable; his credulity is explained by the great desire I share for a clean-cut world that matches neat legal definitions and well-plotted stories. He is the insecure introvert obsessed of his stylus, who “clings to rules because he fears there is no passion there at all”, the brother who is not bursting with hope for humanity. This could be me, circa whatever BC.

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A List for Today

The Heirophant, Fifth of the Major Arcana in a standard Tarot deck

Ten Interesting Facts about Reformation Popes.

  1. The first Medici pope- Leo X- incensed Martin Luther by his ‘indulgences’.
  2. The second Medici pope- Clement VII- incensed Henry VIII by his intransigence when it came to the question of divorce.
  3. He was killed by a “death-cap mushroom”. Post-burial, his body was exhumed, stripped of all valuables, and dragged across Rome.
  4. Clement’s successor- Paul III, was a Roman mobster who spent his papacy securing fortunes for his children.
  5. He authorised slavery in the papal states: he issued the famous Bull which legalised the slave trade and repealed the ancient Roman law which provided slaves some right to sue for their freedom.
  6. His successor, the allegedly gay Julius III, devoted his career to pushing through the Tridentine formulae, which were to change the face of Catholicism indelibly.
  7. With Marcellus II, the next pope, died the last hope of a truly reformed Catholic church. The accession of the hardline Bishop Carafa as Paul IV saw the imposition of the Spanish inquisition on the papal states, the creation of the jewish ghetto in Rome, and the stamping out of the mystical Spirituali. This was a pope who turned on his own folk,  persecuting Reginald Pole (who oversaw the Marian reconstruction in England) and cutting off Michelangelo’s pension.
  8. Pius IV, next in line, was yet another Medici, but not consequential enough to be called a “Medici pope”. His successor Pius V nailed in Mary Stewart’s coffin by excommunicating Elizabeth I.
  9. Gregory XIII,  post Pius, instituted the Gregorian calendar and sealed in the Tridentine   counter-reformation.  Popes named Gregory have proved good for the church- it was one so called who instituted “Christendom” in the 12th century by seizing upon a chaotic political situation, and it was “Gregory the Great” back in the 6th century that united a schismatic church under the banner of strict trinitarianism.
  10. There have been no popes named after any of the apostles, though there have been no dearth of Pauls. Odd, innit, in a religion with such a complex relationship to its conversos? (In this context, I mean catholicism when I say religion. Protestantism, evangelical from the get-go, has reconciled such stress with less dithering).
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The Would-be Medici.

28 Jun

It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our sceptre, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.

        Calvino, Invisible Cities.

It can hardly be a secret that all things medieval fascinate me right now. Inveterate telly hound that I am, showtime’s recently deceased Tudors was almost the first thing devoured. I might have started Wolf Hall before, but there is no doubt which was finished first (as well I could, given the final season had barely begun back then).  I wasn’t really interested in the television show post Cromwell’s execution (the end of the third season). Besides, even Michael Hirst began to think it was unconscionable to make Henry look like the delectable Jonathan Rhys Meyers by 1540; and Henry finally got crotchety and fat, which was my cue to exit. He had run through four wives by then, the onset of the fifth being well underway.

The Tudors has Katherine Howard (wife 5) played like the original valley girl, though contemporary portraits indicate a rather more sober woman. She was the one who infamously cuckolded Henry with his valet, and who can blame her? Imagine being 17 and married to a man three times your age. An obese man with a stinking leg wound; who, in words of a contemporary Reformer “celebrates each wedding by burning someone at the stake” and has a history of disposing of wives like so much short change. This Katherine must have realised her young life was not long for this world, and proceeded to enjoy it as best she could. This is, of course, assuming that the charges against her weren’t as trumped up as those against her Boleyn predecessor.

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The Step Between.

27 Jun

‘When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?’

In and Out of Cipher.

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote.
Derek Walcott,  from The Sea is History

Umberto Eco tells us there is a fate that links the historical novel to medieval topics, that our conflicts can be traced to the tumultuous, ongoing, break between the dark ages and ‘today’– the chugging engine of modernity.  We live, he claims, within a wave of the neo-medieval. The trick is to identify what brand of Middle-Ages is being traded, and Eco identifies ten variations upon the theme. Of the lot, he comes out in favour of the philological Middle-Ages, which “lack sublimity, thank God, and thus look ‘human’”. He would rejoice in Wolf Hall’s painstaking historiography.

If the medieval does haunt the modern, Eco himself fed our steady fascination. No one stalked the antecedents of modernity better than Eco in Name of the Rose or Baudolino.  And no one, Eco inclusive, has injected the modern as precisely into the feudal as Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall. Mantel is aided by her choice of protagonist. A more modern man than Thomas Cromwell you would be hard-pressed to find in our postmodern, neo-medieval times. One might long for Fr. William’s lucidity while parsing the difference between Reginald Pole and Martin Luther, but he remains too enmeshed within the organisation of an earlier time to look through it as astutely as Mantel’s Cromwell does.

Plenty of critics have emphasised the confusion created by Mantel’s consistent use of the third person nominative to refer to Cromwell: there is only one ‘he’ in her novel. I found the device ingenious: substituting the omnipresent divine ‘Him’ with a personal ‘him’ as the driving feature of narrative is a splendid caption for the altering gestalt she captures.

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A Whiff of Scandal.

25 Jun

Dulle Griet, or Mad Meg, by Bruegel

An edited version of this post appeared in OpenDemocracy, here.

Five years ago, the Tamil actress Khushboo said something innocuous in the course of an interview. She expressed surprise that adult men expected virgin brides, and went on to say that it was prudent to use protection while one does the big nasty. I gather (the original interview was impossible to trace) she said so within the pages of a sex survey, a titillating cocktail of statistics, porn, and pop psychology that the news-glossies run in slow weeks in the hopes of drawing out a less repressed Indian. (Sample question: do you routinely participate in mixed-gender orgies with your spouse?) In a sea of salacious oh-no-you-wouldn’t content, Khushboo’s plug for protection and sex-ed appears (to me) remarkably level-headed.

Khushboo acknowledged people had sex outside of marriage in a survey based on that exact premise. The culture-warriors, of which species India has an infinite variety, understood that to mean she endorsed it. Of course, she might have added that people enjoy sex of every stripe, she might have recommended fornication fervently and described in vivid and scurrilous detail, and undoubtedly she now wishes she had. This might make her later fate slightly more comprehensible. Unfortunately for both of us, posterity has only recorded the most responsible of her comments, and has judged her extremely harshly for them.

The fracas followed a week later, a long time in news cycles; a flawless edifice built around the magic point where text starts to get flayed of its context for popular amusement. In the intervening time, Khushboo raised the ire of a fellow member of the Tamil film fraternity by successfully forcing an apology from him when he likened actresses to prostitutes. To the extent that actresses in Tamil Nadu are routinely sexually exploited, the noble hero was certainly right, yet I doubt his analogy was motivated by feminist concerns about equality of labour and the casting couch. This man had some politicos in his posse, as such men do, and they obligingly raised a ruckus on the flimsy grounds they were forced to work with.

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Pie in the Sky

24 Jun

I am the sort of person that prefers time divided up into centuries. All the same, sometimes 1911 seems long ago and a whole world away. Last night, I was lucky enough to encounter Joe Hill before the blues.

The Preacher and the Slave

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

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