Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Iris Murdoch, The Bell

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bell is Iris Murdoch’s fourth novel. I had never read the celebrated 20th-century British philosopher and novelist before and decided to start with this 1958 book because it is often said to be her first novel that is characteristically “Murdochian” and also her first that makes a claim to greatness.

The novel has an immediately appealing premise. It is set at a remote Court or country house in England near Imber Abbey, where an enclosed order of nuns has existed since the Middle Ages. The Court has been in the family of Michael Meade for centuries, and he decides, after consulting the Abbess, to set up a lay community of believers and devotees who can live and work for the greater good of the Abbey and exist apart from the increasingly complex and alienating modern world:

…the Abbess imparted to Michael the idea of making the Court the home of a permanent lay community attached to the Abbey, a ‘buffer state’, as she put it, between the Abbey and the world, a reflection, a benevolent and useful parasite, an intermediary form of life.

Michael is one of three characters through whose eyes we see the growth and eventual dissolution of this lay community, as it is riven by the human (above all sexual) frailties of its members and visitors over the course of one late summer and early autumn.

Our other two protagonists are Dora Greenfield and Toby Gashe. Dora is an educated young woman adrift; she comes to the Imber community to follow her overbearing and older husband, the art historian Paul Greenfield, despite her own recent affair and the seeming collapse of their marriage. Toby is a much younger man, an aspiring engineer who intends to live at the Court before going up to Oxford because he wants to find a purer way of life. Whatever salvation Dora and Toby hope to discover, however, proves elusive as the plot becomes a tragic farce of hapless love affairs, misunderstandings, schemes, and accidents.

For one thing, Michael makes an odd leader for the community; less commanding than his lieutenant, James Tayper Pace, he is also a closeted gay man whose teaching career was ruined years before by a student named Nick, with whom he’d had the chastest of affairs. When Nick’s sister shows up at the Court, in order to prepare to join the nuns and enter the cloister, a dissolute Nick follows, and Michael must reflect on how to save the young man from his own addictions and self-hatred. A further complication is that Michael is beginning to have feelings for Toby as well, while Toby, a complete sexual innocent (to a somewhat hard-to-believe extent, in fact), is puzzled by his own sexuality and harbors complicated feelings not only for Michael but also for the alluring and flighty Dora.

While this suspenseful soap opera is transpiring, the titular bell (or rather, bells) furnishes a symbol for the moral problems of the individual. The Abbey’s original bell fell into the lake between the Abbey and the Court in the Middle Ages, as a result of a supernatural punishment for a nun’s sexual transgression. That bell was never recovered, but the Abbey is scheduled to receive a new bell at the end of the summer. In the meantime, Toby, diving in the lake, whose mystery, murk, and beauty also represent the mess of the human condition, discovers the old bell in the water and schemes with Dora to reveal it spectacularly.

The Bell is not just soap operatic, however; Murdoch, a philosopher, liked to use novels as Platonic dialogues, as A. S. Byatt explains in her excellent introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, and this novel’s sometimes over-the-top episodes pose questions about faith and doubt, the nature of morality, and the role of art, sex, and religion in our lives.

The moral question is the novel’s main one. Murdoch provides us dueling sermons, each with the bell as organizing metaphor. The robust James Tayper Pace, a character that Murdoch gives little space as she seems to think he is too strong to be interesting, advocates following simple moral precepts rather than examining the conscience. He preaches thusly:

‘A bell is made to speak out. What would be the value of a bell which was never rung? It rings out clearly, it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons. A great bell is not to be silenced. Consider too its simplicity. There is no hidden mechanism. All that it is is plain and open; and if it is moved it must ring.’

Michael, by contrast, advocates a recognition of human complexity and the exploration of that complexity over simple moralism:

‘I will use here, again following the example of James, the image of the bell. The bell is subject to the force of gravity. The swing that takes it down must also take it up. So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.’

Whereas James, without knowing anything about Michael’s sexuality, had said in his own sermon that “sodomy is not deplorable, it is forbidden,” thus to remove the appealing glamor from sin, Michael reflects inwardly during his own sermon:

He did not in fact believe it was just forbidden. God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many people, the core of their personality.


It was complicated; it was interesting: and there was the rub. He realized that in this matter, as in many others, he always engaged in performing what James had called the second best act: the act which goes with exploring one’s personality and estimating the consequences rather than austerely following the rules.

While Murdoch doesn’t quite use Michael’s homosexuality as a metaphor for generalized outsiderdom, she does seem to suggest that the most moral people are not the best rule-followers or the devoutest believers but are rather those who have distance from conventionality forced upon them and who consequently have to make their own moral way with their own inner resources. This struggle is writ large in the lay community as they argue how much space to keep between themselves and the outer world without regressing into a kind of irrelevant neo-medievalist unreality. That Michael praises this struggle as “interesting” brings us out of the world of ethics and into that of aesthetics, and we can’t help but notice that Michael’s recommendation of the free exploration of personality echoes the priority of the novelist.

The Bell is a very briskly-written series of escalatingly intense dramatic incidents and confrontations (many of which are also very funny), but it is more notably illuminated by Murdoch’s old-fashioned essayistic analyses of her characters’ thoughts and feelings, calling to mind writers like George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. In fact, Murdoch believed in the superiority of the 19th-century novel over the 20th-century novel; modernism, she thought, had in its formalism and nihilism evacuated the novel form of its ethical mission to represent human beings and human society in grounded and granular detail, this so that we may understand our fellows better and, more importantly, treat them better.

In his essay on Murdoch collected in The Broken Estate, James Wood sketches a little literary history that explains Murdoch’s intent for the novel as a literary form:

Of all the postwar English novelists, she had the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigor. She takes her place, however awkwardly, in a tradition of flexible, homemade English Christian Platonism which includes Ruskin and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Woolf, in some ways, was the rebel who had to overthrow her father’s moral Platonism and make the Good an aesthetic category only, and one discoverable only by a highly aestheticized fiction. Murdoch may be seen as the rebel to Woolf’s rebellion, closing down Bloomsbury’s aesthetic mysticism (art is never for art’s sake, always for life’s sake, she has written) in favor of a moral, “hard idea of truth.”

I understand the need to rebel against one’s immediate forebears very well, but still, I am with Woolf here. As much as I enjoyed The Bell for its well-constructed plot, its assured pacing, and its sheer intelligence of analysis, I would have enjoyed it more had Murdoch displayed any greater gift for imagery or description, any richer way with words. So much of the novel is straightforward character analysis. I’m not saying “show, don’t tell” is a rule that came down on tablets of stone (hell, it probably came from a CIA memo!), but I might have preferred more freedom of my own to reflect on the fable without having Murdoch’s interpretation always in front of me. Art requires a little mystery, which fact Murdoch seems to resent, and she seems to resent, too, readers’ potential to miss her point. Given the urgency of her sense of the novel’s mission, I understand her anxiety. Wood quotes her statement of what fiction is fundamentally for:

Art and morals are…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality…. The enemies of art and morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis….Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination…. (Wood’s ellipses)

That this is a paraphrase of Shelley’s own Platonist tract, “A Defence of Poetry,” doesn’t dispel some of the problems with the argument. For one thing, I have always found pain a far more reliable reminder than love that something other than myself is real. Also, anyone who denies that hate is also “the perception of individuals” has never hated intensely enough, and is therefore perhaps to be envied: you study your enemies even more closely than your lovers, because your life depends on it. Love, anyway, relies on a certain saving idealization, lest you perceive too many of the beloved’s flaws too closely.

As for “fantasy,” the plot Murdoch cooks up in The Bell, while it never takes leave of the possible, departs so far from the probable that she obviously had a guiltily-nurtured gift for this most crucial tool of any artist. Without fantasy, reality likely can’t be discovered at all; what would be the motive to explore, except for a fantasy of what might be found? And you don’t need to be a Marx to know that reality isn’t just there to be discovered but also to be transformed. Anyone who has ever cooked a dinner, let alone written a novel, surely grasps this.

Murdoch grasps it too. Midway through The Bell, Dora flees what she sees as the moralism of the Court and ends up in the National Gallery of London where she experiences a revelation before “Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters” (see here for the image):

She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the paintings] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. […] [She] felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before [the painting], embracing it, shedding tears.

The work doesn’t teach her anything in particular about reality, still less morality, but exists itself in reality, as a reality, as an instance of the beauty that is and a promise of beauty that may yet be. This epiphany sends her back to Imber, if only because it chastens her desire for an escape, but it does not necessarily make her more moral, only more alive.

“Revelation,” “epiphany.” Let’s add “incarnation.” Here is A. S. Byatt in her introduction to The Bell:

Her own desire to make a world in which consciousnesses were incarnate, embedded in the stuff of things, might seem to derive from George Eliot, who wrote movingly of her wish to make pictures, not diagrams, to “make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate”. Eliot, like Murdoch, was a European intellectual who had also a very immediate sense of human bodies, encounters and absurdities. They shared a preoccupation with the tensions between the formal complexity and design of the work of art and the need to give the characters space, freedom, to be people, not only to represent ideas or classes. It may be that Murdoch thought that Eliot had failed. She asked me once what I thought was the greatest English novel. Middlemarch, I said. She demurred, looking disapproving, and finally said that she supposed it was hard to find which one of Dickens’s novels was the greatest, but that surely he was the greatest novelist…Eliot began, in English, the elegant patterning with metaphor and leitmotiv that Murdoch, who believed that novelists were first and essentially storytellers, sometimes saw as a trap. (Byatt’s ellipses)

In his classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; English translation 1953), a book roughly contemporary with The Bell, Erich Auerbach writes of how Christ’s incarnation, God’s interpenetration with not only humanity but with common (as in lower-class) humanity, breaks the aesthetic hierarchy of the ancient world and sets in train the cultural process that will lead to the triumph in the 19th century of the realist novel, which confers what Auerbach calls “tragic seriousness” on everyday life. What Murdoch resents in the agnostic Eliot is Eliot’s sense that, with God gone from the picture, art will have to take his place. If the novel becomes a matter of aesthetics, does it thereby lose its capacity for ethics?

Despite that religious quandary, Murdoch does not make an assertion of faith. The Bell is not quite a Christian novel. It ends on the note of a declaration from Michael: “there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.” This, with its echo of Kafka’s “plenty of hope but none for us,” is the opposite of the problem Nietzsche diagnosed in us, whom he addressed as “we moderns,” “we knowers”: we still believe in God, he said, because we still believe in grammar. That is, we are officially secular, often officially atheistic if we are modern intellectuals, but we do not realize how many forms of order we take for granted or wish to preserve actually depend on the tacit presumption of monotheism’s assurance of ultimate significance. Murdoch does understand this dilemma and seeks to circumvent it by writing, in a sense, as if there were a God. “[T]he mass existed and he existed beside it,” we read of Michael at the conclusion. We moderns aren’t ready to believe in the mass beyond its bare existence; still, if it exists, who knows but that its ultimate addressee might exist as well?

A novel this intricately conceived is not to be taken lightly, and I will certainly be reading more Iris Murdoch in the future; but the modernist intuition that a novel must live in its own right rather than just pointing us toward some external source of meaning is neglected to this novel’s detriment. If Murdoch recalls her forebears Eliot and Woolf without equalling their achievement, this painful self-mortification must be the reason why.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books are so famous, so ubiquitous in the culture, that you feel you have read them well before you ever read them. You feel, in fact, that you don’t need to read them. This is what kept me from reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) for so long. (And I should note that I’ve seen neither the 1990 film nor the recent series.) Then, as with so many other famous books, I read it and found it to be very different from what I was expecting.

Often summarized as a dystopian/feminist riposte to the rise of the Christian Right in 1980s America, and moreover a riposte with ongoing relevance as this movement remains a potent political force in U.S. life, The Handmaid’s Tale is in fact a defense of liberal culture and as much an entrant in the so-called sex wars dividing the feminist movement in the 1980s as it is an attack on conservatism. It is, as well, a recursive and unreliable metafiction rather than a straightforward narrative, though this is not made clear until the conclusion.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person narrative of a 33-year-old woman who serves as a conscripted surrogate mother to an elite family in a near-future America, rechristened Gilead, and ruled by an authoritarian fundamentalist regime called the Sons of Jacob. Now named Offred (“of Fred,” signaling her possession by the Commander in whose house she serves), our heroine has vivid memories of life before the country’s takeover. Through her eyes, we see the new world of Gilead, with its ordered hierarchies of class and gender and its organized violence, and we also see the old world—our world—defamiliarized through her recollections of her husband and child, her gay best friend, her feminist mother. In a move that likely influenced Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Offred is an avowedly normal person, one without exceptional reserves of heroism:

I’ll say anything they like, I’ll incriminate anyone. It’s true, the first scream, whimper even, and I’ll turn to jelly, I’ll confess to any crime, I’ll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall. Keep your head down, I used to tell myself, and see it through. It’s no use.

Her observant passivity, as well as exhibiting realism about most people’s capacity for heroism, also makes her an ideal guide to the landscape Atwood wants to explore, and her sardonic, lyrical monologue, full of wordplay and symbolism, makes what could be a one-note narrative of misery more emotionally various.

Offred’s narrative ends ambiguously, in media res, but an epilogue, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” set at an academic conference two centuries in the future, both contextualizes her narrative and makes us doubt its reliability. We learn that we have been reading a future (male) academic’s transcription and organization of an audio recording of Offred. The text is presumably colored by his own—and his time’s—bias and agenda, which, Atwood carefully hints, is not at all free from the misogyny informing Gilead.

From its Chaucerian title and Swiftian epigraph to its Orwellian afterword, then, The Handmaid’s Tale places its main narrative—an impassioned, intelligent monologue associated with the realist novel and akin to those of Moll Flanders, Pamela Andrews, or Jane Eyre—within a tradition of satire (of which the dystopian, with its caricatural extrapolation of bad present-day tendencies into a future defined solely by them, is a subgenre). Of satire, Atwood’s teacher Northrop Frye observes in The Anatomy of Criticism:

The satiric attitude here is neither philosophical nor anti-philosophical, but an expression of the hypothetical form of art. Satire on ideas is only the special kind of art that defends its own creative detachment. The demand for order in thought produces a supply of intellectual systems: some of these attract and convert artists, but as an equally great poet could defend any other system equally well, no one system can contain the arts as they stand. Hence a systematic reasoner, given the power, would be likely to establish hierarchies in the arts, or censor and expurgate as Plato wished to do to Homer. Satire on systems of reasoning, especially on the social effects of such systems, is art’s first line of defense against all such invasion.

In other words, satire is literature’s immune response to religious, political, and philosophical encroachments on its autonomy. Frye sees this autonomy as beginning with Homer, who in the Iliad describes both Greeks and Trojans with sympathetic understanding, thus turning the poem into complex, dialectical art rather than a propaganda tract that speaks for only one side. It is this vision of literature, which arguably came to fruition with the dialogism of the realistic novel, that Atwood is protecting within the carapace of her satire. In the high tradition of the twentieth-century dystopia—a basically liberal genre—Atwood is warning us against extremism, totalitarianism: in a word, ideology.

This admonition accounts for the elements of the novel that I was not expecting: not only the anticipated critique of religious patriarchy, but also Atwood’s accusations of complicity directed against second-wave feminism. Early in the novel, Offred recalls attending a book-burning with her mother and her mother’s feminist friends; their immolation of pornography seems of a piece with the novel’s other images of women abused and tortured for sexual transgression:

I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.

Likewise, the language of the “aunts,” those who instruct the handmaids in Gilead’s ideology, echo certain strains of feminist complaint:

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Offred even at one point addresses her absent mother with the accusation that feminist separatism is adjacent to female subordination:

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

Atwood is here not only at one with the dystopian Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also with Orwell as the inner critic of his own party, the Orwell who wrote in “Inside the Whale,” “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”

With the novel’s floral motif (“They’re the genital organs of plants”), Atwood announces that nature (a vital feminine force) is on the side of her heroine, even if this sacred feminine, this real Holy Grail, is presently in thrall to man:

The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.

Nature, like Offred’s own complicated inner life, itself often moved by love and desire even in the most atrocious circumstances, suggests that there is always an outside and an underside to ideology, a nature and a human nature that surges up, that expresses itself in literature and art, despite all attempts at repression.

The novel’s argument, therefore, is only locally against American fundamentalism; it is more broadly directed against any and all reductionisms, whatever their alibi (right or left, Christian or feminist), taking the helm of the state, controlling culture, and subduing the individual. She specifies the female individual not only to advance feminist ideals but to take a stance within the broad and various field of feminism. This stance no doubt accounts for Atwood’s controversial objection to what she sees as the potentially totalitarian excesses of today’s #metoo movement:

If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

Writing in the Guardian, Moira Donegan observes that this debate about the #metoo movement reveals a divide in feminism between individualist and social visions; I think it is fair to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is a consummate work of the individualist imagination. In any case, the apparent longevity of these cultural debates, and the political context that necessitates them, mean that The Handmaid’s Tale will retain its relevance for some time to come.Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 8.38.07 AM

Because Atwood does seem to believe in the autonomy of art, its inability to be reduced to ideology, I would like to pay her the compliment of concluding with an aesthetic evaluation of her work. My ideological analysis aside, did I, do I, like The Handmaid’s Tale qua novel? Well, I have mixed feelings, some of them unrelated to this specific book.

I increasingly distrust dystopia as a genre, on grounds both aesthetic and political. It just makes everything too easy, I think: yes, if [X] in contemporary society were magnified times 100 and [Y] diminished times 100, it would be a terrible thing. But in the world I live in, [X] and [Y] (let us say liberal cultural norms and the conservative backlash thereto) exist in a precise and complex interrelation, and if this relation were to shift, everything would be so different as to have little relevance to my actual existence right now. Why not write about [X] and [Y] in all their present-day singularity, Henry James’s “present palpable intimate”? Aren’t the oversimplifications of dystopia for children, a moral pedagogy for those not yet equipped with the tragic awareness of competing goods? This will be a too-extreme argument in the present atmosphere of total aesthetic relativism, so let me move on to some more specific observations.

For one, Atwood is uninterested in the theology of Gilead; she seems to regard it solely as the alibi of power-hungry brutes. But the novel would have been much more interesting had it contained any element of ideological debate or awareness, something comparable to Goldstein’s tract in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And while Atwood amusingly sets the tale in Cambridge, MA, and bases her theocracy on the Puritans, her novel gives no flavor of the most interesting aspect of Puritan culture: its incessant and paranoid inwardness—the self-scrutiny, self-doubt, and self-torment of John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, a quality of interiority from which the liberal individualism Atwood seems to celebrate took some cues. An Offred who actually begins to doubt herself, to search herself, would be a richer character, and the novel would thereby be deepened. Or what if her oppressors—the Commander and his wife—were wracked with Puritan self-consciousness, and a defiant Offred were able to turn it against them? Evoking Puritanism without doing its specificity any justice seems a missed opportunity for inner and outer conflict in a novel that sometimes plods along with its passive protagonist.

Meant to be a statement on America, a warning that “it can happen here,” The Handmaid’s Tale actually evades cultural specificity. Would American fundamentalists really rename the country? They love America—real American fundamentalists would dress Offred in the flag! Gilead, by contrast, resorts to quasi-Orientalist stereotype: it just looks like the Iranian Revolution with more Catholic iconography—veiled women and sinister Gothic ceremonies. Moreover, the American experience that most resembles what Atwood describes is slavery rather than Puritan theocracy. In fact, it would be useful to know when Atwood first read Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a book whose themes—and whose problems of textual transmission and verification—are echoed in and by Offred’s own narrative. Such resemblances account for charges that Atwood perpetuates “white feminism.”

Offred as narrator, too, never comes into focus for me. Her trauma is often implied—she has lost not only her freedom, but all of her loved ones—and I suspect Atwood intended the sarcastic tone of her narration to come across as a compensatory avoidance of feeling. Yet Offred often sounds too much like, well, a satirical novelist, like Margaret Atwood. As Mary McCarthy complained in an early review:

But the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of ”A Clockwork Orange” – the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed. The writing of ”The Handmaid’s Tale” is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality.

I agree with McCarthy when she finds Atwood’s science fictional imagination wanting; as Jennifer Helinek wittily observes of the novel’s “compubanks” and “compucounts” and the like (not to mention its “prayvaganza”), “the people in charge of pre-Gilead America appear to have been underpaid Fisher-Price employees.” As for the novel’s lyricism—McCarthy dryly refers to the book as “a poet’s novel”—it sometimes “dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry,” to quote Zoë Heller’s actually rather unfair comment on a better novel that treats Atwood’s themes, Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory. I become the earth I set my ear against, for rumors of the future. Each twinge, each murmur of slight pain, ripples of sloughed-off matter, swellings and diminishings of tissue, the droolings of the flesh, these are signs, these are the things I need to know about.

But there is also much to admire in The Handmaid’s Tale. Its rich and allusive imagery turns it into a summa of and a metacommentary on the novel of female experience; Atwood so often implicitly asks us to think of Hawthorne’s red letter and Brontë’s red room that her book gives us another view of a vital literary tradition.

Further, the intense irony introduced by the epilogue, with its snickering sexist and relativist professors in a multicultural far future, undoes the oversimplifications of dystopia and practically enjoins us, as Gerry Canavan argues, to read the novel again and again with different perspectives and possibilities in mind. Atwood so brilliantly alters her tale in its last 20 pages that its preceding 300-some pages become bewildering complex, an interpretive labyrinth, whereas they had appeared on a first reading to be almost transparent.

To say that a novel remains relevant because the themes it treats are still with us is to say nothing about the quality of the novel. The quality of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to me mixed—as befits a defense of impurity and ambivalence, of the liberal imagination—but I believe its textual richness and intelligence will keep it alive, as alive as Chaucer or Swift, even after the likely disappearance of its polemical targets from the earth.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Pynchon’s freewheeling narrator of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) tells us, “Well, and keep in mind where those Masonic Mysteries came from in the first place. (Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you will ever find here.)” Similarly, the underground cult classic compendium of conspiracy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy (an important influence on both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) opens with this epigraph from Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo: “Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.” Anyone seeking the crossroads where modern or postmodern literature, the occult, and fringe politics converge should acquaint themselves with Reed’s strange and brilliant book.

Mumbo Jumbo is set during the 1920s, “[t]hat 1 decade which doesn’t seem so much a part of American history as the hidden After-Hours of America struggling to jam. To get through.” America is experiencing an outbreak of the phenomenon (“an anti-plague“) called Jes Grew, essentially Reed’s name for the culture of the black diaspora, especially as expressed through music, whether ragtime, jazz, or blues (the name derives from an epigraph attributed to James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry: “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew,'” both an ironic appropriation of a racist artifact [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] and a refusal of individualist proprietary attitudes toward culture). As in the 1890s with its ragtime vogue, the Jazz Age threatens to overwhelm “Western Civilization” with a pleasure-loving and peaceable way of life opposed to the sterile and exploitative lifeworld of, locally, “neuter-living Protestants,” or those whom Reed more broadly calls Atonists, or monotheists (worshippers of the sun):

The Atonists got rid of their spirit 1000s of years ago with Him. The flesh is next. Plastic will soon prevail over flesh and bones. Death will have taken over. Why is it Death you like? Because then no 1 will keep you up all night with that racket dancing and singing. The next morning you can get up and build, drill, progress putting up skyscrapers and…and….and…working and stuff. You know? Keeping busy. [Reed’s ellipses.]

The novel, though relatively short, tells the labyrinthine story of the agencies trying to advance or stop the spread of Jes Grew.

On the pro side, there is the novel’s hero, the Harlem houngan PaPa LaBas, proprietor of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral. He teams with a cadre of magicians from Haiti—itself under U.S. occupation—stationed on a Marcus Garvey ship in New York harbor as they strive to recover the fragmentary text or scripture of Africa’s diaspora magic, dance-dictated in the night of time by Osiris to Thoth. In the absence of this book, Jes Grew is only an aural, oral, and bodily tradition and is therefore at a disadvantage under monotheism’s textual onslaught, its Bibles, Korans, Constitutions, Interpretations of Dreams, Communist Manifestoes, academic treatises, high literary traditions, and yellow journalism. Similarly, the novel also bears a significant subplot about a group of art “thieves” who strive to liberate the works of the global East and South from Europe’s and America’s museums; in his portrait of this multicultural group, Reed charts some of the fissures and fractures among people of color, noting that, for instance, a common enemy in European empire does not necessarily make for frictionless comity between black and Asian peoples.

Against Jes Grew’s supporters is the Wallflower Order, who are in their time of Jazz Age extremity forced to call in white intellectual and ageless Knight Templar Hinckle von Hampton (Reed’s satire on white Harlem Renaissance impresario Carl Van Vechten), who plans to defeat black insurgency by coopting it. He starts a little magazine called The Benign Monster, the title itself suggesting the intelligentsia’s gentrification of radical energies, and seeks a “Talking Robot”—i.e., a black intellectual who will mislead black audiences back to the monotheistic path of Atonism. Hinckle’s pathetic struggle is actually portrayed with some sympathy amid the satire—I got the sense that, racial polemics aside, Reed knows he has more in common with a modernist literary intellectual than with a Voodoo magician. Nevertheless, Reed unsparingly excoriates European literature from Milton to Freud to Styron:

John Milton, Atonist apologist extraordinary himself, saw the coming of the minor geek and sorcerer Jesus Christ as a way of ending the cult of Osiris and Isis forever. […] It is interesting that he worked for Cromwell, a man who banned theater from England and was also a hero of Sigmund Freud. Well the mud-slingers kept up the attack on Osiris, a writer Bilious Styronicus even rewriting Osirian history in a book called the Confessions of the Black Bull God Osiris in which he justified Set’s murder of Osiris on the grounds that Osiris made “illicit” love to Isis who, he wrote, was Set’s wife. He was awarded the Atonists’ contemporary equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for this whopper.

In fact, an overhasty reading of Mumbo Jumbo might lead one to expect that its ideological conflict is a matter of black vs. white—because in modern Europe and America, it is. But Reed’s most ambitious joke is delivered in a climactic thirty-page summing-up that parodies detective-novel exposition resolutions, conspiracy theories, and religious revelations all at once. PaPa LaBas, attempting to arrest Hinckle von Hampton, explains to a Harlem society gathering that, “if you must know, it all began 1000s of years ago in Egypt.”

The conflict between Jes Grew and the Atonists dates back to the fraternal quarrel between Set and Osiris in the Egyptian pantheon: Osiris learns the arts of peace and plenty at college from Ethiopian and Nubian students, and he disseminates this gnosis throughout the world, particularly to Native Americans. Set, by contrast, is “the stick crook and flail man,” advocates for discipline and thus eventually ends up worshipping Aton, the transcendent sun god, and beginning the monotheist cult that in various iterations—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and capitalist—would war throughout history on Jes Grew and the liberation it stands, or dances, for. Moses himself is revealed to have effectively swindled the secrets of Osiris for himself, which resulted in his getting only the negative side of the magic; this negative side became monotheism as we know it, everything that “the people of the book” have wrought.

In other words, all human culture, like the human race itself, comes out of Africa: European cultures are without autochthony or autonomy and are only offshoots, even where they are most racist or conservative, of one or another side in an intra-African quarrel, the latest round of which is presumably Kanye West vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.[1]

Which brings us around to the perhaps less salubrious politics of the novel. Mumbo Jumbo is not really “woke” or “PC” or whatever we’re calling it now. For one thing, it expresses sufficient quantities of anti-Islam sentiment to get Reed brought up on hate speech charges in Europe, as he seems to think that Islam is, no less than any other form of religious or secular monotheism, an attempt to repress the authentic black mysteries. It is the black Muslim intellectual Abdul who comes into possession of the scripture that is the novel’s quest object, and he burns it: “Censorship until the very last.” And despite the attractions of Reed’s emancipatory occultism, what does his displacement of Hebrew religion with Egyptian magic, his execration of Moses, Marx, and Freud imply? A reader can surely be forgiven for detecting a classically anti-Semitic subtext here. And, as befitting the work of a male author who has been known to worry that feminism is a tool of the white power structure used to disarticulate black and brown traditions and scapegoat men of color, the novel’s female characters tend to be either helpmeets or harridans (or both), even the goddesses Isis and Erzulie.

On the other hand, the lessons of Mumbo Jumbo might well be applied to today’s cultural appropriation debate. Reed’s position is quite subtle: he mocks and derides cultural exploitation and co-optation at the level of production, which is the point of his satire on modernist literary culture’s attempts to capture and neutralize the energies of black rebellion; on the consumption side, however, Reed seems to see the diffusion of Jes Grew as humanity’s only salvation—to see black culture as a force that, at the level of the dancing body, takes over whites rather than being taken over by them. The novel, I therefore take it, counsels against castigating every white person who takes a selfie while wearing an item of non-western origin, even as it also takes aim at corporations, universities, and other institutions profiting from the creativity of populaces they exclude and exploit.[2]

Finally, I have not yet mentioned the novel’s form. I have made it sound too linear, too much like a thriller with philosophical weight. But it is rather a collage and a montage, written in telegraphic prose, splicing in quotations and images, doing without quotation marks, transitions, or the pretense of God-like objectivity. One of its dedicatees is “George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat,” and the novel’s style of radical juxtaposition and teasing polyglot wordplay is a fitting homage to Herriman’s brilliant Jazz Age achievement in comics. Reed’s ludic style protects his conspiracy theory from seeming like the work of a mere crank, though I’m sure he believes the spirit, if not the letter, of it. The novel promotes play and humor as against the droning solemn seriousness of monotheistic religion and literary culture:

LaBas could understand the certain North American Indian tribe reputed to have punished a man for lacking a sense of humor. For LaBas, anyone who couldn’t titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian connoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation. Nowhere is there an account or portrait of Christ laughing. Like the Marxists who secularized his doctrine, he is always stern, serious and as gloomy as a prison guard. Never does 1 see him laughing until tears appear in his eyes like the roly-poly squint-eyed Buddha guffawing with arms upraised, or certain African loas, Orishas.

So, if you are looking for a serious laugh, I highly recommend Mumbo Jumbo.

[1] Note that, by the terms laid out in Mumbo Jumbo, Coates, despite a superficially Reedian invocation after Zora Neale Hurston of “the bone and drum,” is arguably the authoritarian Atonist, promoting the traditional cypto-monotheist political left as the black man’s salvation in a white man’s magazine, while West disseminates magickal-musical thinking far and wide in a popular idiom on a populist platform, even quoting Carl Jung’s contemporary avatar Jordan Peterson just as Reed approvingly quotes Jung. My point is not to side with West over Coates or Reed over the western world, but to get the tally correct; I will say that “left” and “right” are becoming ever less reliable guides to cultural politics, though the comrades tell me that that is itself a right-wing position. “[A]s gloomy as a prison guard” indeed.

[2] Speaking of appropriation, Ted Gioia notes all the elements E. L. Doctorow seems to have lifted from Mumbo Jumbo for his own Ragtime, published just three years later. It’s not for me to judge who has the right to what; I will only suggest that Reed’s novel is about a hundred times more interesting than Doctorow’s.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Hamlet (Norton Critical Edition)Hamlet by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why is this bizarre, disorderly, long, and poorly transmitted tragedy from the turn of the seventeenth century the central work of the western literary tradition, its hero the keystone in the arch of modern literature? Because the distance he created between himself and the world is the chasm across which the serious artist has ever after beheld society—not as celebrant bard (Homer) or religious preceptor (Dante), but rather as jeering fool or insurgent radical.

Hamlet, the son who cannot fill his father’s armor, the poet and playwright who would rather compose a play than plot revenge, the inward emigrant who sniffs something rotten in the state, the maddened misogynist whose abuse compels his spurned lover to become a mad artist in her turn—it is Hamlet that and who taught the Romantics and the modernists, the Marxists and the feminists, everything they know. Unless we are satisfied that the social, political, and metaphysical world in which we find ourselves makes sense and can appease our desires, we are all the children of this prince who died before he could reproduce anything but his skepticism, disgust, and spoiled faith, which are his bequest to us.

But let’s not look directly at this black sun (“Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun”), lest we be blinded. To approach obliquely, consider the tragedy’s comic-relief villains, or rather henchmen to the main villain, the sycophantic and hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are the perfect pair, nearly twins; who can tell them apart?

Claudius. Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.
Gertrude. Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz…

They are the play’s only perfectly symmetrical pair; they stand for difference in perfect accord, a world that can successfully make unity out of disparity, and yet they are wholly contemptible. All the other doublings in the play are distorted reflections: the two Danish kings, the warrior who smote the sledded Polacks on the ice and the smooth-talking Machiavel who favors diplomacy to war, are as “Hyperion to a satyr”; the two Hamlets, father and son, are as different as demigod and man (“no more like my father / Than I to Hercules”); the two vengeful sons, Hamlet and Laertes, dither manically and speed to vengeance, respectively; the two princes, Hamlet and Fortinbras, are polished intellectual and warlike general, respectively; the play’s two women, Gertrude and Ophelia, are passionate sensualist and pious nymph, respectively; the play’s two mad artists, Hamlet and Ophelia, differ in being man and woman, respectively, which means they have access to drastically different resources and levels of freedom in elaborating their dissent from the sane world.

We are invited endlessly to compare by the play’s seeming symmetries, but find in comparison only failed alliances and missed connections. Perfect understanding is mocked in the image of the bumbling duo, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are easily dispatched in the prince’s only planned act of violence. Before he hoists them on their own petard, the prince even reproves them for imagining that they can understand him—reproves them, that is, for thinking even that a man may be identical to himself, let alone to another:

You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?

He upbraids his mother in similar terms earlier in the drama, when she encourages him to “cast [his] nighted color off” and asks why “seems it so particular” to him that his father should have died, since the death of fathers is both natural and common:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Those trappings and suits of woe, which would become the uniform of European and American bohemia, did in fact come to denote Hamlet’s followers truly, just as they do denote Hamlet truly. Consider the genuine strangeness of what he is actually telling Gertrude: don’t let my sad clothes fool you, he says, I really am sad. Even in identity, there is no union but always some surplus or deficit. That is a paradox this play, so much concerned with the difference between appearance and essence, would appreciate. “The apparel oft proclaims the man,” the superservicable and prying courtier Polonius informs his son in the course of a long speech advising the young man to cunningly manage his social role—a speech that concludes, in hilarious contradiction, with “To thine own self be true.”

Anyway, when Hamlet appears in excessive mourning before his mother at the beginning of the play, he does not know that his father was murdered. His crisis, the heart of his mystery, inheres in something other than the drama’s central conflict of regicide and revenge. It is nature and the common themselves that throw Hamlet into grief, woe, and dolor. Given this fact, the news from the ghost that his own death was in fact “unnatural,” in the sense that fratricide transgresses natural bonds of affection, should lift Hamlet’s spirits. Death is now a matter of justice; it is morally comprehensible. Rebalancing the scales of nature by taking Claudius’s life for the old king’s will end the mystery and restore nature. But as with all the play’s maladjusted pairs and doubles, the scales cannot balance—and even if they could, as with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their adjustment would necessitate stupidity, unthinking compliance to authority.

The ghost does Hamlet a different service than suggesting a path back to sanity: he provides an excuse for insanity. “I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on,” Hamlet tells Horatio and the night watch after his colloquy with the spirit; but his disposition hasn’t been quite right since he came onstage in scene two. His madman act is the goad and alibi for three acts worth of improvisatory genius, as the prince cavorts about the stage delivering quasi-esoteric observations about the various sites of rot in the prison called Denmark. Providing a hint to psychoanalysis[1], the “science” that would base itself on this play, Hamlet also freely and recklessly disgorges his hatred and disgust, particularly at women. We can understand, though, that these misogynistic expectorations are an attempt to exorcizes what he is ashamed to behold as the woman in himself. Himself in disguise, himself in the act of infidelity to his beloved, he rails at women’s putative deceit and betrayal:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance.

But Hamlet, in an act of bizarre symmetry, reveals to Ophelia the suppurating core at the heart of even the most eminent men’s sexual facade; and when Hamlet kills her father, Ophelia, now fatherless as the prince, has as little reason as he does not to spill Denmark’s secrets in riddling, punning poetry. She becomes in act four what her ex-lover has been since act two: a modern artist, attempting to evade the illusions of ideology that constrain her with cryptogrammic truths:

By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;
By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

These lines, in which Shakespeare reveals as clearly as he possibly can that Hamlet and Ophelia have made love, expose the prince’s abuse of his lover as more far-reaching than even his cruel behavior (“get thee to a nunnery”) had previously intimated. Yet telling the truth in the face in the lying world changes nothing for the better and offers no relief to Ophelia, just as it will not do for Hamlet, because the wound, the “imposthume,” is inward—inside the self as well as inside the state. One of the play’s cautions is against warmongering, but we can also read it as a warning against projection: Denmark, the “warlike state,” per Claudius, likes to find its enemies outside itself, just as Hamlet blames women for his own problems and Ophelia’s inner life fails her after her men have left her in turn. The enemy in each of these cases is as much the self as the other. Neglect of this intimate enmity in the state and in the psyche causes so many of the play’s catastrophes, up to and including the climactic fall of the state to a foreign invader, Fortinbras—precisely the threat feared in the first place. And so Ophelia dies, submitting herself to the killing flux of nature that only social identity—here figured, again, as clothing—prevents us from confronting every day:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Note, though, that Ophelia does not commit suicide (a topic of mocking dispute for the gravediggers of act five); she simply “goes with the flow” and allows herself to drown.

Doesn’t Hamlet do just the same? Consider the famous question: why does Hamlet delay? Because he is enjoying himself—uttering “wild and whirling words,” “words, words, words,” even writing some words—the “dozen or sixteen lines” he interpolates into The Murder of Gonzago, which Harold Bloom once tantalizingly speculated were not additions to the plot but rather the player king’s speech on the evanescence of affection and the futility of intention, a kind of stealth soliloquy on the prince’s part:

But, orderly to end where I begun,
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own…

More unbalanced pairs: will/fate, purpose/result. Intention and action are no guarantees. Perhaps it is better to act only in the sense of the theatrical masquerade, where no one expects real results. The play’s elaborate metatheatrical and metafictional gestures, its self-interrogation about what it means to act vs. to be, offer an amusing commentary to Shakespeare’s own artistic wildness, which was so to trouble and even offend critics of neoclassical (Johnson, Voltaire), realist (Tolstoy, Shaw), or religious (Tolstoy again, George Steiner) sensibility. For Hamlet is himself such an anti-Shakespearean critic, advising austerity to the players while he himself plays the fool:

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o’erstep not them modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure…

Our hero “recks not his own rede.” By the time he says these lines, he has lost all faith in “the modesty of nature,” and in the play itself, the mirror fails as a motif, as discussed above. To quote Oscar Wilde:

[T]his unfortunate aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to Nature, is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.

Hamlet’s true artistic gift is not for the composition of poetry (“I am so ill at these numbers”) but rather for an extravagant and improvisatory and paradoxical performance of authentic self, one staged in the hearing, to sound in the “mildew’d ear,” of Denmark’s eavesdropping auditory-surveillance state, where there may be a listener behind every arras. Hamlet goes so far in crafting a persona that may pierce all veils with the madman’s impunity that he prophesies centuries of regicide and revolution in one aphorism: “The king is a thing…of nothing.” Hence his inability to leave off playing (in all senses) and act (only in the one sense: that of changing the world for real). Hamlet is playing at the otherwise unspeakable truth.

As with Ophelia, though, the truth cannot save Hamlet. Nature is unnatural, “an unweeded garden” full of wandering spirits and incestuous killers and faithless lovers, and every attempt to rationalize it only creates the hypocrisy and organized violence of the court and the state. Polonius, a prying soulless dishonest sycophant, is the deep truth of the state, its “imposthume of much wealth and peace” that leads to meaningless slaughter; hence his own slaying does not draw to an end with him but is only succeeded by his resurrection as the equally verbose and officious Osric, an otherwise puzzling character who shows up just before the end of the play so we will not mourn the court that is about to be vanquished.

Because nature and culture are only two expressions of the one underlying disorder, because death is the final truth of essence and appearance (“let her paint an inch thick, to this favor must she come”), the only solution is to ride the wave to its crashing, to let the waters take you when and where they will. This is what Ophelia does, and, at the end, what Hamlet does too. In act five, still uncertain about his revenge, he agrees to the fatal fencing match with Laertes. Intuiting something amiss, he nevertheless tells Horatio that he plans to go ahead with the game:

[T]here’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

The black mass which ensues, parodying the play’s earlier resort to Catholic imagery by turning communion into poisoning, both does and does not contradict Hamlet’s rather Protestant assurances about God’s Providence.[2] It also shows the inseparability of play, whether at theater or fencing, and reality. Just as everything is natural and nothing is, just as everything is real and nothing is, so everything is and is not fated to happen. If it exists, how can it be unnatural, still less unreal? If it happened, how could it have happened otherwise? Because death (as well as war and betrayal and falsity and disease and hatred) is both natural and common, nothing adds up or balances. It may make sense to God, but it never will to us.

Shakespeare thus not only invents the modern artist in Hamlet and Ophelia, but offers us, in their final passivity, their dead-end faith, a way out of our black-clad if high-spirited and eloquent despair: give up the dream of putting the time or the world back into joint. “The readiness is all,” so we had better get ready. “Let be”—and what will be, in the end, is the unbeing of death. Before the curtain closes, though, the author of this purgatorial play—not to mention its hero—put on a hell of a show.

[1] Perhaps the social sciences—psychology, anthropology, sociology—are just the codifications of poets’ tropes and narratives.

[2] Every age creates its own Shakespeare, and our epoch’s bard is, we have decided, a crypto-Catholic (whereas previous eras have posited a Romantic genius, an English patriot, a psychoanalyst, an Existentialist, a dead white male, etc.). This is not because we have any particular concern for Catholicism, but because it allows Shakespeare to survive the postcolonial and feminist critique of the canon in the guise of an oppressed minority, which Catholics were in the England of Elizabeth’s reign. How to explain Hamlet‘s provocative evocation of the Catholic vs. Protestant conflict, with its ghost on leave from Dante’s Purgatory and its hero on leave from Luther’s Wittenberg? Whether our poet was reflecting on his own “double consciousness” or just brilliantly manipulating that of the audience, his aesthetic aim in this play is the same: to give us in the two sects yet another irreconcilable pair that demonstrates the inherent disorder or imbalance at the heart of being.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Bernard Malamud, The Assistant

The AssistantThe Assistant by Bernard Malamud

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Assistant (1957) is Bernard Malamud’s second novel. Frank Alpine, its eponymous anti-hero, becomes a clerk in the failing Brooklyn grocery store of Morris Bober after Bober is robbed and assaulted. The Italian-American orphan and drifter Alpine slowly intricates himself into the ways and values of the Jewish Bober family; he comes to admire the old man’s goodness and persistence and to fall in love with Helen, the Bobers’ smart, ambitious daughter.

Both bad luck and moral weakness afflict this ensemble, however. Morris’s masochism and ineffectuality slowly doom his business, even as his daughter dithers over her romantic and educational possibilities; more seriously, Frank Alpine’s drive to behave well and improve himself is constantly detoured by his capacity for dishonesty, theft, and even rape.

The slim, stark novel sometimes reads like one of Hardy’s or Dreiser’s naturalist tragedies as the characters’ innate and determined doom closes around them. But the three main characters—Morris, Helen, and Frank—wrestle with moral questions, invoke Catholic and Jewish metaphysics, and struggle to make themselves better people by aiming at otherworldly ideals; The Assistant therefore transcends naturalism. Despite its economical, persuasive, and even gritty realism, Malamud’s novel has the air of parable.

The Assistant is very much of its time and thus easy to contextualize narrowly: as a sociological phenomenon, the book represents the midcentury success of Jewish writers in American literature, while its protagonist Alpine is an exemplary postwar character, an ambiguous, delinquent seeker of existential authenticity and identity. Its religious and parabolic dimensions, though, also make it seem universal and out of time.

For Malamud, he is doing no more than following in the high tradition of the novel. The novel, in fact, is a motif and theme in this novel. When we are first introduced to Helen Bober, she is reading, Don Quixote, proverbially the first novel, precisely because its hero is both undone and redeemed by his idealism. Later on, when Frank encounters her, they have this exchange:

He asked her what book she was reading.

The Idiot. Do you know it?”

“No. What’s it about?”

“It’s a novel.”

“I’d rather read the truth,” he said.

“It is the truth.”

Dostoevsky’s novel is another Don Quixote, an attempt to write the life of a “positively beautiful man.” The Russian novelist appears again when Helen, who has been meeting Frank at the library, instructs him to read several classic novels:

She wanted Frank to like novels, to enjoy in them what she did. So she checked out Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment, all by writers he had barely heard of, but they were very satisfying books, she said. He noticed she handled each yellow-paged volume as though she were holding in her respectful hands the works of God Almighty.


Crime and Punishment repelled yet fascinated him, with everybody in the joint confessing to something every time he opened his yap—to some weakness, or sickness, or crime. Raskolnikov, the student, gave him a pain, with all his miseries. Frank first had the idea he must be a Jew and was surprised when he found he wasn’t.

It is remarkable not only that Malamud associates novels with the Bible (“the works of God Almighty”) but that Frank, and behind him his author, associates the arch-anti-Semite Dostoevsky with a sense of Jewishness. Something similar happens when Frank gives Helen a beautiful leather-bound collection of Shakespeare, the only gift of his that she keeps (a wooden rose she discards is one of the novel’s other motifs).

Malamud’s recruitment of the anti-Semitic writers Shakespeare and Dostoevsky to his own moral and artistic cause should be a model to the contemporary writer and thinker; as it is a productive rather than reductive, expansive rather than restrictive, humane rather than brutal, and open- rather than close-minded gesture, this widening of compass and consciousness would do much to repair the damage that sour self-righteous puritanism has done to cultural liberalism in the last decade.

At the same time, literature is not necessarily enough for this novel. When Frank upbraids Helen for not forgiving him for raping her in literary terms—”‘Those books you once gave me to read,’ he said, ‘did you understand them yourself?'”—I doubt Malamud expects us to take his side. (Despite any stereotypes one has about 1950s literary culture, the rape is not treated as anything less than totally reprehensible in the novel, though Frank is depicted as redeemable.) What means more to Frank than Raskolnikov are his memories of tales about St. Francis he heard from a priest in an orphanage. Frank defends their truth to a skeptical interlocutor almost as Helen had defended Dostoevsky to him, with the claim that the “stories” about the saint indicate a “fresh view of things.” Despite the novel’s similarity to scripture, religion may be more important.

The novel’s horizon is not Catholicism or religion in general, though, but a certain vision—not of Judaism, but Jewishness. This, which has proved controversial among Malamud’s readers, comes out in Frank’s discussions with Morris:

“But tell me why is it that Jews suffer so damn much, Morris? It seems to me that they like to suffer, don’t they?”

“Do you like to suffer? They suffer because they are Jews.”

“That’s what I mean, they suffer more than they have to.”

“If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don’t suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.”

“What do you suffer for, Morris?” Frank said.

“I suffer for you,” Morris said calmly.

Jewishness is, in other words, obligation, even at the expense of the self, to others. On this definition, it is not an identity or an ethnicity but an ethic, as Malamud demonstrates when he portrays almost every other Jewish character in the novel as living for comfort and pleasure and baffled by Morris’s self-abnegation, even as Morris’s spiritual son is the gentile orphan Frank. (Notably, Morris’s own son, Ephraim, died in childhood.) Malamud’s definition of Jewishness is actually compatible with his implicit praise of his own literary tradition, the novel, even when practiced by non-Jewish writers, as Cynthia Ozick explains in “Toward a New Yiddish” (1970):

The novel at its nineteenth-century pinnacle was a Judaized novel: George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant: they wrote of conduct and of the consequences of conduct: they were concerned with a society of will and commandment.

But according to a 2008 essay called “Why Malamud Faded,” Cheryl Miller explains that Philip Roth judged Malamud’s moral fiction to be anathema to the Jewish-American writer’s postmodern need for freedom:

In Malamud’s portraits of “victimized Jewish men,” Roth sees the valorization of Jewish weakness, the fetishizing of Jewish pain. Are there no Jews, he asks, who desire vengeance, who ever act against their better natures? Are there no Jews whose “secret desire” is “really to give way and be bad—or at the least, if [they] could manage it, worse?”

Compare, Roth suggests, Malamud’s 1957 novel The Assistant with Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” an essay published in the same year. The two works involve strikingly similar situations: the robbery and beating of an elderly shopkeeper by two masked hoodlums. For Mailer, the assailants are the heroes, bold men who have broken with convention and who “dar[e] the unknown.” In Malamud’s telling, it is the shopkeeper, the powerless Jewish grocer Morris Bober, who is a model of courage and moral integrity, while his attackers are puny cowards.

More effective than argument is portraiture, and Roth’s portrait in The Ghost Writer (1979) of the Malamud-like E. I. Lonoff as a man whose idealism is a delusive sublimation of all-too-human desire is brilliant considered in its own terms. But while it negates it does not cancel Malamud’s vision. Human beings want and need incompatible goods simultaneously: freedom and community, lust and love, money and charity, the flesh and the spirit. In the world of literature, we can have them by roving among the divergent worldviews of writers and thus clarifying our own values. It is not for me to say who is right about Jewish identity; I only claim to know a good book when I read one, and The Assistant is better than good.

I happened to read Joann Sfar’s wonderful graphic novel The Rabbi’s Cat (2007) concurrently with The Assistant. Sfar’s titular rabbi explains to his co-titular cat:

Western thought works by thesis, antithesis, synthesis, while Judaism goes thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis….

Again, I don’t wish to make religious and cultural arguments, but it was philosophy that made extravagant claims for synthesis, while literature usually, and nowhere more than in the novel, allowed for the permanent antitheses of irony. Along these lines, The Assistant itself seems to end three times in three successive paragraphs:

Frank had only six customers all morning. To keep from getting nervous he took out a book he was reading. It was the Bible and he sometimes thought there were parts of it he could have written himself.

As he was reading he had this pleasant thought. He saw St. Francis come dancing out of the woods in his brown rags, a couple of scrawny birds flying around over his head. St. F. stopped in front of the grocery, and reading into the garbage can, plucked the wooden rose [Frank had given to Helen after the rape, which she threw away] out of it. He tossed it into the air and it turned into a real flower that he caught in his hand. With a bow he gave it to Helen, who had just come out of the house. “Little sister, here is your little sister the rose.” From him she took it, although it was with the best wishes of Frank Alpine.

One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between his legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.

No doubt because I am an “Italyener” and a “goy,” as the Bobers call Frank, I might have preferred to finish on the note of Frank as author of the Bible, one or both Testaments, the ambiguity itself a testament to the literary. That, I admit—and not Catholicism or Judaism—is my religion. But then we get a Catholic vision, its sensuous romanticism punctured, or severed, rather decisively by a Jewish one. Frank’s penis—cursed by Helen in the aftermath of the rape (“she cried, ‘Dog—uncircumcised dog!'”)—gets its comeuppance as Jewishness receives its validation as the best way to be human in the world. Otherwise, though, the ending is completely open, just like that of Crime and Punishment.

Comparisons to Dostoevsky are hardly misplaced: The Assistant is an intelligent, wise, and suspenseful novel, simply written but masterfully constructed; it would be a terrible shame if it ever faded.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Dante, Paradiso

Paradiso (The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume III)Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is what you’ve heard about the Divine Comedy: the Inferno, with its poignantly vivid tortures and its cacophony of wicked voices, is the most entertaining canticle, beloved of various and sundry; the Purgatorio, with its wistful focus on the lives and ambitions of poets and its chastened mundanity, is of special interest to writers and artists; and the Paradiso, with its saints in chorus, its mystical refusals of imagery, and its long disquisitions on Scholastic philosophy, can be appreciated exclusively by the faithful, and even they might nod off.

Being a contrarian by nature and a producer of “fresh content” by mission, I am supposed to tell you that everything you know is wrong. I will, eventually, but for now let’s give the devil his due: Dante’s Beatrice-guided tour of Paradise is depressingly devoid of drama. At one point when Dante seems to feel fear, Beatrice rebukes him and reminds him that nothing bad can happen in Heaven.

What can happen in Heaven? Dante can have the secrets of the universe revealed to him. Beatrice and a host of sometimes literal luminaries (St. Thomas Aquinas, the emperor Justinian, Charles Martel, St. Peter Damian, St. Bernard, and more) explain to Dante the nature and purpose of God’s creation, from the dark spots on the moon to questions of salvation. Dante doesn’t even have to ask, because everyone in Paradise can read his mind. The Paradiso, therefore, very often reads like a beautiful digest of medieval thought rather than much of a narrative or drama—interesting on historical grounds, but a good deal less exciting than even Dante’s earlier rivals in epic poetry, Homer or Virgil.

As for Beatrice, I admire Dante’s Troubadour audacity in elevating his school crush to a level of holy authority just below the Blessed Mother, but Bea must be second only to Milton’s God in the annals of Christian poets’ divine disappointments. Unlike the solicitous and even maternal Virgil of the previous canticles, Beatrice lords it over Dante like a stern schoolmistress or martinette. She rarely—at least in translation—speaks a word in tenderness or spontaneity; comparing herself to Jupiter when he accidentally annihilated his mistress, she notes, “‘Were I to smile, then you would be / like Semele when she was turned to ashes'” (note the gender swap—Dante=Semele, Beatrice=Jupiter—more of which below). She sometimes seems like a machine programmed with the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas—as, to be fair, do the rest of the saints in Heaven. At times in reading the Paradiso, the incorrigible post-Christian reader feels a nostalgia for the agitations of hell.

For the purposes of this piece, I am going to omit discussion of the Paradiso‘s philosophical particulars—if you would like to know why there are hierarchies among the angels or whether or not there are degrees of divine dessert among unbaptized infants, the answers are there in the poem, even if I have not managed to hold them all in my mind or understand all their logics (“‘he who hears, / but does not hold what he has heard, learns nothing,” chides Beatrice—o mea culpa, bella donna!). Instead I will seek elements of literary (as opposed to philosophical) and human (as opposed to divine) interest.

Dante begins the poem with a petition to Apollo, lord of light and of boundaries. This is in fact a poem of light as it narrates Dante’s increasing powers of sight as he approaches the divine:

From this you see that blessedness depends
upon the act of vision, not upon
the act of love—which is a consequence…

It is also, like the trilogy of which it forms the final part, a poem of boundaries: Paradise, like Hell and Purgatory, is carefully ranked according to the merit of each of its constituent elements. God does not permeate the universe equally, and where His light shines lowest, matter is freest to take its errant course, hence the presence of those who have failed in some way even in the lowest layers of the heavens.

While Dante refers early in the Paradiso to “the mighty sea of being,” his Apollonian imagination inclines to nothing so chaotic as the ocean. (The aforementioned Semele, by the way, was pregnant with Dionysus—Apollo’s archetypal opposite—when she was incinerated by Jove.) When sea imagery recurs, Dante deploys it to make sure we as readers are kept in our place as possibly unworthy subordinates in his poetic armada:

O you who are within your little bark.
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,

turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail: you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.

The waves I take have never been sailed before…

Despite this adventuresome rhetoric, and despite a climactic comparison of himself to Jason, Dante’s poetic project is less an uncharted voyage than the charting of everything. Recall that Ulysses, reimagined as an irrepressible explorer, was damned. When Dante reaches the sphere of the Primum Mobile at the height of Heaven, he looks down at earth for the second time in his ascension. The first time, he noted that, from his height, the earth appeared “scrawny.” Now he overlooks the distant Mediterranean, as if to put Ulysses the secular quester in his place at last, far below the spiritual pilgrim:

I saw that, from the time when I looked down
before, I had traversed all of the arc
of the first clime, from its midpoint to end,

so that, beyond Cadiz, I saw Ulysses’
mad course and, to the east, could almost see
that shoreline where Europa was sweet burden.

Why does Dante disparage the earth, which he twice calls a “threshing floor,” the unglamorous site where godly wheat is separated from infernal chaff? As Beatrice explains, implying more than perhaps she means, the fault is time, the medium through which the errant will moves and matter decays:

“The will has a good blossoming in men;
but then the never-ending downpours turn
the sound plums into rotten, empty skins.

For innocence and trust are to be found
only in little children; then they flee
even before a full beard cloaks the cheeks.”

The Paradiso is a politically as well as religiously didactic poem. Dante does envision a political solution to the corruptions of earth. Beatrice continues: “‘on earth no king holds sway; / therefore, the family of humans strays.'” Dante deplored the political conditions obtaining in Europe around the turn of the fourteenth century. He believed that the church had corrupted into a worldly and temporal power, even as the rightful temporal power—the secular emperors—were weak. Division is again the solution: let the church tend the spirit and the state discipline the body. Charles Martel complains to Dante:

“But you twist to religion one whose birth
made him more fit to gird a sword, and make
a king of one more fit for sermoning…”

These political issues are not abstractions to Dante. His own city has fallen into moral ruin, and he himself has been exiled from it. In Paradise he meets his ancestor Cacciaguida, who gives a lyric portrait of Florence’s golden age, and, in some of this canticle’s best-known lines, prophesies Dante’s banishment:

“You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others’ stairs.”

Upon reaching the court of Heaven, where the highest saints and the angels are arrayed as the white rose of Paradise around the blinding Borgesian aleph that is God, Dante, despite his conviction that the temporal and spiritual powers must be kept apart, cannot help but see the sight as a barbarian’s first glimpse of the finest political order, the Roman Empire itself:

If the Barbarians, when they came from
a region that is covered every day
by Helice, who wheels with her loved son,

were, seeing Rome and her vast works, struck dumb
(when, of all mortal things, the Lateran
was the most eminent), then what amazement

must have filled me when I to the divine
came from the human, to eternity
from time, and to a people just and sane

from Florence came!

His final guide, the mystic St. Bernard, introduces the personae of Paradise as “great patricians / of this most just and merciful empire.” Spiritual and secular authority, which Dante had taken pains to separate, here collapse back into each other so that Paradise is an ideally ordered empire. Dante seems to be at the verge of the post-Christian world, very nearly imagining, like Hegel or Marx, that God might be nothing other than the imagination’s projection of good governance onto the heavens.

Though Dante was thus (to use an anachronistic term) a totalitarian, he was no phallocrat. Writing in the mariolatrous Middle Age—St. Bernard, reports one of Allen Mandelbaum’s endnotes, did much to revive the cult of Mary—and nearly deifying his first love, Dante places an ideal image of woman at the center of his vision and pictures Paradise as centered upon a rose, not a phallic but a vulvic image. No wonder the Apollonian male poet allows himself to be figured by his beloved as Semele, mother of Dionysus.

These initially puzzling slippages of our poet’s ordered intelligence, which seems to confuse sacred/secular and male/female when it had been so concerned throughout the poem to separate their spheres, are explained when Dante finally does behold God, or the Eternal Light:

In its profundity I saw—ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered…

God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.

By conceiving his self, his book, and his universe as a unity, Dante accomplishes the transfiguration of epic into lyric that will become the mark of modern poetry from Wordsworth to Whitman to Walcott. But if epic is imperial, lyric is personal, the staging of a psyche in motion, as when Dante, just before mounting up to God, records his struggle to recall and write his vision:

As one who sees within a dream, and, later,
the passion that had been imprinted stays,
but nothing of the rest returns to mind,

such am I, for my vision almost fades
completely, yet it still distills within
my heart the sweetness that was born of it.

I have never read a better analogy for the attempt to write poetry or fiction than that of trying to remember a dream whose emotional impression colors the whole day even after its events have evanesced from the mind. In the endnotes to Mandelbaum’s translations, the editors comments on this passage:

Dante, the poet attempting to record his vision, is like a man awakening from a dream he does not remember, filled with the emotion of a dream, but with no clear recollection of its particulars. We are reminded of Coleridge’s preface to “Kubla Khan,” where the poem itself is presented as the recollection of a dream. Reading this last canto, it is easy to see how the Romantic poets were attracted by Dante. The stupendous tension of the remainder of the poem derives in large part from Dante’s dramatization of his present struggle to recollect (i.e., imagine) and describe (i.e., create in words) the content of his final vision.

Earlier in the poem, Beatrice explains to Dante that God—whom we know from his sculptures in Purgatory to be an artist—created the universe for the same reason that any artist creates, not for company and certainly not for gain but merely to affirm that what exists exists:

“Not to acquire new goodness for Himself—
which cannot be—but that his splendor might,
as it shines back to Him, declare ‘Subsisto,’

in His eternity outside of time,
beyond all other borders, as pleased Him,
Eternal Love opened into new loves.”

Not just a static affirmation then, but one in motion. God seeks “new loves”—should this not be foreclosed by Beatrice’s logic when she claims God seeks no “new goodness”?—and so blossoms as the rose does. Again, we suspect that Dante can’t do it: he cannot separate divinity from nature, nature from art, though Aristotle or Aquinas tell him he must. God is a rose is an artist.

Dante’s final vision is of the Trinity, specifically of its second person; he beholds a man inscribed into a circle, our effigy fused with divinity in the Incarnation. At the center of the universe and the middle of the rose, he finds the figure of the human. So in his archaic, forbidding poem, we might find ourselves, “more truly and more strange.”


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Dante, Purgatorio

Purgatorio (The Divine Comedy, #2)Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allen Mandelbaum begins his introduction to his wonderful translation thusly:


For the Virgil of Dante’s Purgatorio, “love is the seed in you of every virtue/and of all acts deserving punishment” (XVII, 104-105). To find one same source for all good and all evil is to insist on the need for the education of desire.The descent through Hell and ascent through the seven terraces of the Mount of Purgatory are the tale of that education of Dante’s hungering, longing, thirsting will.

The Purgatorio is the most human canticle of the Divine Comedy, many commentators say, since it alone takes place on earth—specifically on the mountain of Purgatory, which rises to the heavens at the opposite pole from Jerusalem in medieval cartography, and which was the last sight that greeted the living Ulysses on his doomed quest for knowledge in the Inferno. In line with this latter parable, Virgil cautions Dante against relying on reason, rather than seeing with the eye of faith, as they traverse the terraced mount:

“Foolish is he who hopes our intellect
can reach the end of that unending road
only one Substance in three Persons follows.

Confine yourselves, o humans, to the quia;
had you been able to see all, there would
have been no need for Mary to give birth.”

The Purgatorio‘s spirits, suffering but hopeful, penitent but genial, seem more “realistic,” in the sense of representing human norms, than the frenziedly static images of sin in Hell, even though these shades undergo purging tortures not a little infernal, from the literal burning of the lustful to the sewn-shut eyelids of the envious. There is a tone of we’re all fellow sufferers and pilgrims here similar to the fellowship that can develop on a bus or a plane. There is much philosophical verse: Virgil on love, Marco Lombardo on free will, Statius on the birth of souls, and more. The long-awaited and climactic appearance, in the Earthly Paradise, of a Beatrice full of maternal anger amid a pageant so allegorically intricate that commentators must sometimes admit ignorance is a memorable moment, if obscurely dismaying to the modern mind. Beatrice’s rebuke of Dante makes me wonder—and Mandelbaum does not clear this up, nor to my recollection does Dorothy L. Sayers in her translation/commentary—from whence Dante derives her spiritual authority, which he likens to that of Christ; he has boldly added a major figure to the Christian pantheon, drawn from his daily life.

The pageant in the Earthly Paradise that concludes the canticle is spectacular in its bravura imagery and that imagery’s encoded representation of Christian history. To my mind, however, it also shows the limits of the allegorical method, since the vehicles of its metaphors are simply fantastical, with none of the earthiness of Dante’s human figures: women dancing who are green, red, and white, thus representing certain virtues, for instance, or a chariot emblematizing the church drawn by a griffin standing for Christ. I’m sure I just lack the proper taste and knowledge to appreciate medieval art, but these passages (cantos XXVII-XXXIII) with their imagery mostly untethered from human reality struck me as a poetic anticipation of CGI. Similarly, the poem’s long explanations of how shades can feel pain or how there can be wind in the Earthly Paradise feel to my post-Romantic sensibility, its faith in open-ended symbolism, like an overindulged “world-building” impulse. What can I say? Dante is a genius, no doubt, but Joyce once hesitated between Shakespeare or Dante for his desert island book before finally deciding on “the Englishman”—whereas I would not hesitate at all.

On a happier note, before the parade in the Earthly Paradise begins, the Purgatorio is a poet’s canticle, full of artists and striking disquisitions on art. God, for one thing, is Himself an artist: He has carved imposing reliefs modeling humility and chastened pride into the mountain walls, representations so real that “even Nature, there, would feel defeated,” as they trick Dante into thinking he hears the songs and smells the smoke he only sees. Dante compares himself to a child and Virgil to his mother, and the heaven-bound poet Statius, paying tribute to Virgil, calls the Aeneid his nurse and mother: poets honor their precursors in what Dante would boggle to hear me call a queer genealogy. (Would he be less comprehending at another modern critical tradition’s calling it a patriarchal one? Dante curses Eve for getting us evicted from Eden, and he dreams an alluring Siren—”that ancient witch,” Virgil calls her—whose “belly” exudes a “stench”; to these wicked women Mary and Beatrice stand as antitypes, so that the moral cosmos is organized around poles of abstracted femininity.) The Troubadours, Dante’s predecessors in the beautiful new style of love poetry, are hailed in the appearance of the Provencal-speaking Arnaut Daniel from out of the lust-purging fire:

“I am Arnaut, who, going, weep
and sing; with grief I see my former folly;
with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near.

Now, by the Power that conducts you to
the summit of the stairway, I pray you:
remember, at time opportune, my pain!”

The poets do allow, though, that the fame of art is fleeting:

“Your glory wears the color of the grass
that comes and goes; the sun that makes it wither
first drew it from the ground, still green and tender.”

Again, the poem’s theme is “the education of desire.” Virgil explains that human love and desire are, when misdirected by the bad exercise of free will, the sources of sin, even as they may the source of virtue; in a similar psychological monism, Dante refutes Plato (and his inverted latter-day disciple Freud) in denying that there can be any division in the soul. This theme is enacted by the poem’s structure: Dante allows us to understand that his strict narrative structure and verse form impose the discipline on art that will allow it to serve the end of virtue. Virgil advises Dante to use his will to choose between good and evil, to recognize the “keeper of the threshold / of your assent”—and perhaps that is the role played in art by form:

[B]ut since all of the pages predisposed
for this, the second canticle, are full,
the curb of art will not let me continue.

Even so, Virgil, representing the apogee of poetry as well as the limits of secular perception, is left behind at the threshold of paradise. His last words to Dante:

“Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
against that will would be to err: therefore

I crown and miter you over yourself.”

Nevertheless, Dante has three prophetic dreams and an ecstatic vision, whose sights he refers to as his “not false errors”; he is likewise told in the Earthly Paradise that the pagan poets’ vision of the Golden Age intuited Eden:

“Those ancients who in poetry presented
the golden age, who sang its happy state,
perhaps, in their Parnassus, dreamt this place.”

Our poet can’t help himself: even the phantasmagoria of the visionary, even the verses of the unchristened, tell the truth: art is real, beauty will save the world. Hence, despite every misgiving, Beatrice’s instruction: “‘when you have returned beyond, transcribe what you have seen.'”

Weighing in on the perennial question of how to separate the great art from the sinning artist, Dante allows that he will almost certainly have to spend time on the Mount of Purgatory to purge the very pride without which he certainly never would have embarked on such an audacious epic (“already / I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace”). When among the prideful, as they learn humility by being bent like crushed caryatids under heavy stones, Dante’s own pity enjoins him to bend with them even though Virgil counsels him to “stand like a sturdy tower that does not shake” and he himself says elsewhere that “erect” is “the stance most suitable to man.” For the curbed Christian, it sometimes seems, the energy of desire might at any moment be aimed in the wrong direction. I couldn’t help but admire Ulysses in the Inferno, and I was sad to see Virgil go here, especially as he is replaced by a Beatrice whose severe reproofs leave Dante in tears. “[W]e are worms,” Dante says, waiting to attain our final form, on butterfly wings in Paradise. But I prefer the early cantos, their simplicity and starkness:

Daybreak was vanquishing the dark’s last hour,
which fled before it; in the distance I
could recognize the trembling of the sea.

We made our way across the lonely plain
like one returning to a lost pathway,
who, till he finds it, seems to move in vain.

On Dante’s earth, language becomes the body, the face, rather than accommodating fantastical beasts in forests rustled by the wind from heaven: in the visages of the starved gluttons of Purgatory, Dante perceives the word “man,” or “omo,” formed by the flesh-purged lines of brow and nose. One sees “man,” too, in Belacqua, made sluggish by sloth, his tragicomic posture often all we can manage on earth:

And one of them, who seemed to me exhausted,
was sitting with his arms around his knees;
between his knees, he kept his head bent down.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Toni Morrison, Paradise

ParadiseParadise by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paradise was not well received upon its publication in 1997—influential critics like Michiko Kakutani, James Wood, and Zoë Heller disparaged it, and even Oprah’s audience, instructed to read it for the talk show host’s book club, demurred, prompting Oprah to call Morrison to offer the viewers encouragement. One of the studio audience members protested that, confused by the novel’s multiple perspectives and non-linear chronology, she was lost on page 19; Oprah asked Morrison what the poor woman was to do; and Morrison’s reply—which I have never forgotten—was, “Read page 20.” Unsurpassable advice! Profiling Morrison in 2012, Boris Kachka summarizes the case against Paradise:

Both Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld came out in 1997, the year Paradise did. Both addressed historical eras and themes, as Morrison does, but both spoke directly to contemporary anxieties in a way that Paradise did not. Roth and DeLillo were nostalgic for an old American consensus and alarmed at its disintegration, and both used voices resonant with modern paranoia and neurosis. In contrast, Morrison still seemed to be in cross-racial dialogue with the same long-dead ­Modernists on whom she’d written her thesis in the fifties.

This is both right and wrong: Morrison does reject any nostalgia for postwar consensus (whether or not Roth and DeLillo express this nostalgia is another matter), but in so doing she very much speaks to “contemporary anxieties”; the problem is simply that many readers did not like either what she said or how she said it. They are entitled to their opinions about the “what,” but once you have allowed such opinions to cloud your view of the “how”—for example, none of the above critics show any awareness that Paradise is often supposed to be funny—then you have lost critical control.

Let’s get the “what” out of the way right now: Paradise bears an epigraph from a gnostic gospel narrated by a female deity, and it concludes with the theophany of a black madonna. Searching for a term to describe its apparent ideology, I could come up with nothing more neutral than “New Age.” It is a novel that, parodying the Bible, at least entertains the notion that our religious sensibilities must expand to include female divinity. While this view would undoubtedly not interest Philip Roth much, it, along with other dissident religious approaches harking back to gnostic and pagan cults, was undoubtedly reflected in much late-twentieth-century Anglo-American culture. Such views are embarrassing to the liberal intelligentsia because said intelligentsia legitimates itself by its appeal to secular knowledge and often materialist or at least spiritually orthodox intellectual methods, and not without reason. This religious reflex, I believe, and not simply snobbism or sexism, accounts for the critical cringe Nick Salvato writes about with respect to Tori Amos, some of whose songs (see “Marys of the Sea,” for instance) could furnish a soundtrack to Paradise.

But I did write above that Paradise “entertains” its religious thesis rather than straightforwardly promoting it. As Boris Kachka notes, Morrison remains faithful to modernism. If modernist writers from Eliot to Woolf shared one thing in common, it was a commitment to putting forth their spiritual intuitions in obsessively fragmented and recursive literary forms, to remind readers to take no single narrative on faith, especially not narratives about faith. This brings us back to Oprah’s audience and their problem with Paradise: the novel has no single viewpoint, no clear chronology, no central character, and no reliable perspective. The most basic facts of the narrative remain in doubt by its conclusion. Even the miraculous resurrections with which it seems to end could be explained by a mixture of lucky escape and hallucination. Condemning religious orthodoxy and political ethno-nationalism for their shared demand of unthinking assent, Morrison leaves her readers free to differ with her suggestion that they worship the goddess.

“They shoot the white girl first,” the novel famously begins. Its opening chapter is really its penultimate one, narrating the story’s climax: in July 1976, nine leading male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby, OK, murder five women who are living in a former convent near the town. This first chapter is maddeningly indirect, as none of the men or women is named; moreover, we see through the men’s POV so that the perspective is unreliable from the start (“They are nine, over twice the number of the women” they are seeking, the second paragraph begins; but, as Ron David long ago pointed out, nine is not “over twice” five; these little word problems occur throughout the text, making it impossible to read passively). The opposite of a mystery novel—though something of a mystery play—Paradise tells us who committed the murder in the first chapter and then spends the rest of the book seeking an explanation.

The next eight chapters, each bearing a woman’s name, tell the story of how four women on the run assembled in the late 1960s and early 1970s in an embezzler’s mansion that became a Catholic convent and Indian boarding school before falling into disuse. In the stories of these women—Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas—Morrison enumerates the threats faced by the poor, the young, or the female, such as poverty, state violence, domestic violence, and sexual predation from the “mundane” (Mavis’s marital rape at the hands of her husband) to the more outlandish (the Eyes Wide Shut scenario to which Seneca is subjected by a wealthy woman named Norma Keene Fox). Animal imagery abounds in the women’s stories, from aforementioned predator “Keene Fox” to the name of Mavis’s mother (Birdie Goodroe), as does classical and mythical allusion (Pallas, Seneca), to signal that this novel asks to be read skeptically as a work of exaggeration, as fable and myth rather than strict social realism.

In fact, Morrison parodies realism with aplomb in the Mavis chapter, throwing brand names and other “dirty realist” paraphernalia onto the page with witty abandon—this to trick us into thinking that Mavis is “the white girl” of the first sentence by writing about her in the literary idiom associated with the white lower class. Realism too, Morrison here tells us, is a fable, one whose moral we might distrust. As in her oft-misunderstood statement about Bill Clinton as the first black president, Morrison is making the point that “tropes of blackness” are often simply tropes of poverty, the latter fact deliberately obscured by the powers-that-be to divide the poor.

Those eight chapters also interleave the women’s stories with the story of the founding of Ruby, “the one all-black town worth the pain.” Summarizing this straightforwardly is no easy feat since the narrative comes piecemeal and from partial perspectives. The basic story is this: a group of very dark-skinned black people who had lived near Louisiana since the mid-eighteenth-century found themselves, at the end of Reconstruction, dismissed or oppressed not only by whites but also by lighter-skinned blacks. This led them to found their own town called Haven in 1890 in Oklahoma, when many all-black towns were created due to the federal government’s encouragement of homesteading. When Haven fell into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth-century, the grandchildren of Haven’s founders set out again and founded a new town called Ruby.

In the 1960s and ’70s, however, Ruby is torn by the social conflicts tearing apart the rest of the country—between men and women, old and young, conservative and radical. These conflicts center on the town’s symbolic center, a brick oven that bears the words “the furrow of his brow.” The contending ideological forces in the town differ over how this message is the be completed: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” as the conservative town elders insist, or, in the preferred message of the young radicals, echoing the gnosticism that Morrison evokes with her epigraph, “Be the Furrow of His Brow”? Or even, as one of the town’s female citizens thinks, “Be the Furrow of Her Brow.” Eventually, the town elders come to see the convent women as the source of their troubles—”not a convent but a coven”—and go on a witch hunt.

Just before they are hunted down, the women consolidate themselves into a quasi-religious order. The old woman Consolata, who was kidnapped from a Rio slum by the nuns and who has lived in the convent ever since, becomes the “new revised Reverend Mother” for a kind of mystery cult wherein the women shave their heads and heal themselves with “loud dreaming” and artistic expression. These scenes provoked a not entirely unpersuasive objection from Zoë Heller in the London Review of Books (“the narrative itself dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry”), but just as Morrison is unsparing in her portrayal of the racism and colorism that led the men of Ruby to their extremes of intolerance, so her tongue never quite leaves her cheek in her depiction of this New Age religion, which makes the women too otherworldly to function: “Gradually they lost the days.” Warned by a female citizen of Ruby that they are about to be attacked, the women “yawned and smiled,” a small detail but a crucial one: Morrison, who once rather hair-raisingly wrote that it is “wildly irresponsible” not to inquire about women’s complicity in their own rape or abuse, places supreme importance on personal autonomy and the material means of self-reliance. In the last glimpse we get of the convent women, after they have either come back from the dead or are appearing as ghosts to their loved ones, they are on the road and they are armed.

“Come back from the dead”: yes, however hedged by modernist technique, Paradise entertains a spiritual notion. It does not entirely dismiss Christianity; Ruby’s newest clergyman, Rev. Misner, is sympathetic to the young radicals in the town and muses with eloquence and authority on liberation theology:

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fastened to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO and supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives.

All the same, the definition and defense of female divinity comes into view as the novel’s theme. To the men of Ruby, the women they hunt are “[b]odacious black Eves, unredeemed by Mary.” But Consolata tells us that “Eve is Mary’s mother,” and the novel ends, very beautifully, with Consolata in the arms of black madonna, presumably like that worshipped in her native Brazil:

In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.

There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.

When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.

In other words, don’t divide Eve from Mary, whore from madonna, but adopt a holistic spiritual view capable of embracing flesh and spirit, capable of leading us away from domination based on or justified by difference.

Do not miss, as the early critics did, the ending’s emphasis on “endless work” (nor the admission that “down here” is all the paradise we’re likely to get). What is the “endless work”? The work of interpretation. Midway through the novel, Ruby’s resident writer Patricia, who has been assembling a genealogy, discovers that the men of the town have been maintaining their racial purity through incest in a parody of white racism (“They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him”). Upon finding this out, she burns her family trees—this to suggest that any attempt at purification is to be rejected as an arbitrary imposition. Ruby’s elderly midwife, Lone, takes a view of God that is more in keeping with the novel’s narrative mode:

Playing blind was to avoid the language God spoke in. He did not thunder instructions or whisper messages into ears. Oh no. He was a liberating God. A teacher who taught you how to learn, to see for yourself. His signs were clear, abundantly so, if you stopped steeping in vanity’s sour juice and paid attention to His world.

Read the clues, try to assemble the narrative, but accept in advance your defeat even as you press forward in trying to understand. I accept—there is so much more to say about Paradise. About characters and their names (“His grandfather had named his twins Deacon and Steward for a reason”), about twins and doubles. I have merely alluded to Morrison’s parody of the Biblical Exodus and its American re-creation by the Puritan settlers, and I have not even mentioned how the novel emphasizes that both Ruby and the convent exist only because the land was cleared by the state of its prior Native American inhabitants. I have not mentioned the novel’s love of nature, its endless invention, its food (the hot peppers that grow only at the convent).

Nor have I mentioned Paradise‘s flaws: it really is too short and feels thinner than it should as a result, with poetic prose often doing duty for narrative and characterization (James Wood was not wrong in this complaint). A novel of this spiritual and political ambition should be as long as The Brothers Karamazov, and I am convinced that Morrison would not bore us at that length.

Well, every narrative is flawed, including that of Paradise, as Paradise itself tells us. Even so, after twenty years we can say that its first critics judged it too hastily or too ideologically. It sits on the shelf without embarrassment next to the most ambitious fictions of its time. Don’t take my word for it. Read it and “see for yourself.”


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic GospelsThe Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this 1979 classic of popular non-fiction, religious scholar Elaine Pagels explains to a broad audience the theological significance of the trove of early Christian writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Not only that, but she also places these documents in their social and political context, largely to explain why the diverse body of thought labeled “gnostic” was so decisively defeated by the ideas and institutions of what would become Christian orthodoxy. Finally, Pagels, while unsurprised by gnosticism’s defeat, suggests the perennial appeal—if only to artists, mystics, and other anti-social types—of the gnostic vision, with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience as against all hierarchies and establishments.

What is gnosticism? While Pagels is at pains to emphasize the diversity of the Nag Hammadi writings (the “gnostic gospels” of her title), some generalizations can be made. Gnosticism tends to posit the creator God of the Hebrew Bible as a mere demiurge, who fashioned this botched reality we inhabit out of malice or stupidity; the true God lies well beyond nature, and is only evidenced by the sparks of divinity lodged in the souls of human beings, like gems scattered amid offal. Because this world is not merely fallen but evil or illusory, then human hierarchies and institutions are religiously irrelevant, and the believer comes to God not by following someone else’s rules but by attaining private knowledge (gnosis) of the God within. Having dismissed nature and the body, the figure of Christ becomes less important as the incarnate God, a God who is also flesh and who died a real death; Christ is rather a kind of alien emissary modeling the ascended human rather than the descended deity: “Jesus was not a human being at all; instead, he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception,” Pagels explains. Finally, with hierarchies made irrelevant by the distance of the true God, the gender distinction so important to Christian orthodoxy is de-emphasized and a greater place allotted to female spirituality and indeed female divinity. Gnostics have no need of codes and canons: “like artists, they express their own insight—their own gnosis—by creating new myths, poems, rituals, ‘dialogues’ with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions.”

The body of thought that would win out over gnosticism stressed, by contrast, an ordered hierarchy:

As God reigns in Heaven as master, lord, commander, judge, and king, so on earth he delegates his rule to members of the church hierarchy, who serve as generals who command an army of subordinates; kings who rules over “the people”; judges who preside in God’s place.

As Christianity expanded, its institutions could not sustain the kind of spiritual anarchy gnosticism portended if it was to organize a mass constituency:

Seeking to unify the diverse churches scattered throughout the world into a single network, the bishops eliminated qualitative criteria for church membership. Evaluating each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness, as the gnostics did, would require a far more complex administration.

Pagels concludes that “the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion.”

The above summary hints at who Pagels seems to be asking us to root for: the plucky anarcho-feminist artists against the stodgy authoritarian bishops. This is a more serious book than that, though. In one chapter, Pagels stresses the importance to believers of Christ’s incarnation, especially in the context of Christian persecution: how gravely moving it is to worship a God who was willing to suffer just as you suffer. The gnostic’s quasi-Platonic hologram Christ is, in a sense, much less interesting or original, another theophany who doesn’t really bleed or weep as we do. Moreover, gnosticism is a private religion, with each member his or her own church, whereas, Pagels explains, “[r]ejecting such religious elitism, orthodox leaders attempted instead to construct a universal church.” Pagels understands that in religion (as in politics) there is a necessary tension between the individual and the collective, insight and iteration, agency and structure, anarchy and community. She shows the gnostic traces in orthodox thought from the Gospel of John to the dissents of the church fathers—because even the orthodox sometimes sense the need to make a separate peace with our alien cosmos—just as she carefully notes the less appealing qualities of gnosticism’s more chaotic theology.

But gnosticism is appealing for all that. Pagels observes that, while it was extirpated by orthodoxy, it survived throughout the Christian era from medieval heresies (e.g., the Cathars) to Protestant mysticism. She several times mentions psychoanalysis as a modern manifestation of gnosticism: “For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly—a religious quest.” Not to mention the Romantic poets and post-Christian philosophers and proto-Existentialist novelists who have been drawn to a sublime of spiritual insight beyond matter and humanity:

William Blake, noting such different portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, sided with the one the gnostics preferred against “the vision of Christ that all men see” […] Nietzsche, who detested what he knew of Christianity, nevertheless wrote: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, attributes to Ivan a vision of the Christ rejected by the church, the Christ who “desired man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely,” choosing the truth of one’s own conscience over material well-being, social approval, and religious certainty.

Pagels does not mention, because, I assume, it was much less visible in 1979, gnosticism’s massive influence in late-twentieth-century popular culture, an influence that is probably at least partially attributable to her own book; see a semi-whimsical old Tumblr post of mine for details, and see Victoria Nelson for a more responsible treatment.

Most disappointingly to me, she also does not mention the political interpretation of gnosticism: Eric Voeglin, for instance, believed that modern political movements like Marxism and fascism, with their “ruthless critique of everything existing” (per Marx) and their consequent desire to re-organize all human life via the state according to otherworldly ideas of justice, derived essentially from gnostic thought—a controversial idea updated for the post-Cold-War period and its perhaps now collapsing neoconservative/neoliberal consensus by such thinkers as John Gray and Peter Y. Paik. Pagels’s focus on gnostic anarchy and individualism may well be an antidote to such attempts to materialize the alien God through the bloody rites of mass politics. Likewise, Herman Melville imagined in his remarkable short lyric “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century” that gnosticism enjoins withdrawal from all activity, an ineradicable spiritual impulse despite its worse-than-uselessness to the organization of humanity:

Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.

Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!