Tag Archives: religion

I am free for reading

For Epicurus, human suffering is always finite: “if it is slight, he [Epicurus] says, you may despise it, if it is great it will not be long.” 
—Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (101)

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Stephen Greenblatts’s The Swerve  beautifully illustrates a book’s ability to leap back into history. In one step the reader is taken back to 15th century Italy, into the life and letters of a talented scribe and secretary to the horrible Pope John XXIII. Poggio Bracciolini’s education and rise through the treachery that was the Catholic church at that time is fascinating. The slight indications he gives of rebelling against or resigning to such a corrupt and miserable time are both encouraging (phew! at least some people were alluding to the barbarism!) and deeply disturbing (oh damn, the horror of dogmatists and the rot of power-hungry institutions never ceases!). But Poggio, unlike so many, had a sanctuary: books.

In the north the powerful Visconti of Milan are raising an army; Florentine mercenaries are besieging Lucca; Alfonso in Naples is stirring up trouble, and the emperor Sigismond is applying intolerable pressure on the pope. “I have already decided what I shall do if things turn out as many people fear; namely, that I shall devote myself to Greek Literature…” (153).

I know the feeling…

Ah, the company and comfort of books, where the cosmic can commingle with the common. A book has such long reach—within our hearts and through time. They are a form of connective tissue that can touch us all.

With another step back, Greenblatt takes the reader to Lucretius, and a short hop back further to Epicurus. It will be Lucretius’ book that does the connecting. It is his De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, that Poggio discovers and re-introduces into a world that has tried very hard to have nothing to do with the ideas, inspired by Epicurus, within. In fact it is a world that wants very little to do with ideas, period.

Even more than the theory that the world consisted only of atoms and void, the main problem was the core ethical idea: that the highest good is the pursuit of pleasure and the diminution of pain. What had to be undertaken was the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural—the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures—seem like the enemy of the truth (102).

While reading this book a sort of horror of realization washed over me. This fetish for misery and suffering, the glorifying of pain, or “cleansing power” of trials and tribulations which still permeate our culture is merely a controlling device, and a choice. For Epicurus, and his many followers, to choose pleasure in lieu was simply a more sensible choice. When Greenblatt describes the church’s suppression, through bone-chilling violence and a depraved gluttony for torture and punishment, of the “pagan” Epicurus, one can see how hard it would have been for a man of Poggio’s refined intelligence to ignore the logic. Be kind. Enjoy life. My god! What sort of a mind comes up that! —An evil mind— is the conclusion that the church comes up with. But that conclusion requires a divorce from thinking, thinking things over became tantamount to witchcraft as the story if Hypatia indicates.  Greenblatt tells the history of Hypatia to show the long struggle the church had in convincing people that suffering was where it’s at. She lived around 400 CE in Alexandria and had the misfortune of being smart. Still a liability in our world I’m sorry to say.

Rumors began to circulate that her absorption in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy—so strange, after all, in a woman—was sinister: she must be a witch, practicing black magic (92).

What happens to her next is so disturbing I can’t bring myself to report and only wish I could remove it from my head.

Interwoven into this wonderful story is of course a small history of the writing and transcribing of books. It was a time when good handwriting could lead to a fairly secure existence, but it was also a time when ancient books were being discovered and dragged out of dusty monasteries where if by some miracle they hadn’t been purposely destroyed they had simply been forgotten after their defamation was complete. In my work digitizing medieval manuscripts for the Digital Scriptorium Project I have spent some time bent over very old manuscripts. The black face letterform is so difficult to read that I have often wondered if the books, mostly bibles after all, were really meant to be read (by which I mean understood and reasoned out). Perhaps, it was some purposeful obfuscation? Imagine my surprise to find myself in the company of Petrarch:

Petrarch complained that the writing then in use in most manuscripts often made it extremely difficult to decipher text, “as though it had been designed,” he noted, “for something other than reading” (115).

Why, Petrarch my friend! those are my thoughts exactly!

Greenblatt’s book is a wonderful exploration of the technical, practical, spiritual, and philosophical implications of knowledge. But it seems incredible to me that human history is riddled (still!) with people and societies that expend enormous energy in suppressing knowledge—suppressing the freedom to think. Lucretius referred to the swerve, “the swerve is the source of free will,” Greenblatt explains, “In the lives of all sentient creatures, human and animal alike, the random swerve of elementary particles is responsible for the existence of free will” (189). We are just here, in other words, by whatever random act of molecular organization, but still, here we are: thinking, acting, beings.

As frightening as it is to consider the horror of a religious tradition that actively worshipped suffering, and the inevitable conclusion that we are not yet very far from that mindset—and further still, that new crops of warped religious fundamentalists constantly threaten human dignity and intellectual freedom,  it is heartening to know that no matter how many steps back one travels in history there are always to be found a few that pause and say, “hang on a minute, why are we suppose to be miserable? After all, life can actually be pretty sweet, one doesn’t even need that much. And don’t worry about the what is beyond life—after all, you’ll be dead.” Lucretius, as Epicurus before him, was committed to the idea that this life, being all that we truly know, is worth enjoying, indeed it is meant to be enjoyed.

*Title from p. 153: “Your Poggio,” he wrote, “is content with very little and you shall see this for yourself; sometimes I am free for reading, free from all the care about public affairs which I leave to my superiors. I live free as much as I can.”

*Photo of one of the manuscripts I photographed for the Digital Scriptorium project, refreshingly not in gothic script, with charming doodles such as the above- Omnia Vincit Amor!

Good Luck to the Reader!

Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God.
Bede’s preface to The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (3)

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One of the most interesting aspect, for me, of Bede’s history was the amount of enjoyment I got from reading it despite its rather obvious propagandist leanings. There is something very likable in the man. His effort to make such an early historical record of England is, really, immeasurably worthy. And anyone who begins two out the five parts with an exhortation of “good luck to the reader!” is a friend of mine. That said…

But I neither praise nor approve of him in so far as he did not observe Easter at the proper time (137).

There were aspects that sent me deep into thought and bemused contemplation over the extent to which ‘rules’ and arbitrary customs take over in the determination of someone’s worth or belonging. I had no idea for instance that the question of Easter’s ‘proper’ date was so controversial. The preceding sentences to the one I quote above outlined Bishop Aidan’s copious recommendations. The man could not have been a finer human being as far as Bede tells us, and yet, and yet, Bede will withhold praise of his character over the agreement of a moveable feast?! That seems incomprehensibly pedantic.  Worse still because at this time there was open discussion regarding the co-opting of pagan festivals as a way to ease heathens into the ways of the church. Perhaps this merely exposes my own discomfort with the ‘letter’ over the ‘spirit’ that prevails in so many dogmas. But this is the stuff of strife. Viewed objectively,  it’s ridiculous, yet deadly.

Nevertheless, Bede spends so much time on this argument that I became fascinated by it. The problem seems to turn on the confusion of calendars (Julian v Gregorian) further complicated by astronomical science which makes following the stars too precise to rely (as the Jews apparently did) on the full moon to mark things properly. Some factions wanted to stick with the Jewish method, but again, this was explained as a temporary device by John the Baptist to ease potential followers of Christ (who were of course mostly Jewish at that time and place) into the fold gently. Wikipedia has a very handy chart that helpfully displays the resulting discrepancies:

Table of dates of Easter 2001–2021
(In Gregorian dates)
Year Spring
Full Moon
Astronomical
Easter
Gregorian
Easter
Julian
Easter
Jewish
Passover
2001 8 April 15 April 15 April 15 April 8 April
2002 28 March 31 March 31 March 5 May 28 March
2003 16 April 20 April 20 April 27 April 17 April
2004 5 April 11 April 11 April 11 April 6 April
2005 25 March 27 March 27 March 1 May 24 April
2006 13 April 16 April 16 April 23 April 13 April
2007 2 April 8 April 8 April 8 April 3 April
2008 21 March 23 March 23 March 27 April 20 April
2009 9 April 12 April 12 April 19 April 9 April
2010 30 March 4 April 4 April 4 April 30 March
2011 18 April 24 April 24 April 24 April 19 April
2012 6 April 8 April 8 April 15 April 7 April
2013 27 March 31 March 31 March 5 May 26 March
2014 15 April 20 April 20 April 20 April 15 April
2015 4 April 5 April 5 April 12 April 4 April
2016 23 March 27 March 27 March 1 May 23 April
2017 11 April 16 April 16 April 16 April 11 April
2018 31 March 1 April 1 April 8 April 31 March
2019 21 March 24 March 21 April 28 April 20 April
2020 8 April 12 April 12 April 19 April 9 April
2021 28 March 4 April 4 April 2 May 28 March

At any rate, after much debate and detailed, repetitious explanation of the errors of everyone’s ways but the Church (as defined by St. Paul’s Rome) they come to agreement and can get onto other important matters such as the proper shape of a tonsure. I had to suppress many an urge to exclaim, “ah, come on fellas!” But my ire rose when matters moved to women…oh lord how it does gets old. I’m not even going to get started, but I will say this: I simply don’t understand the obsession with virgins. I also gave up trying to figure out if this bit from Chapter X. On marriage (182) means what I think it means:

Let none be guilty of incest, and let none leave his wife except for fornication

 

Huh. Okay then. I decided to re-direct. Yes, focus on the good. The notes by Judith McClure and Roger Collins are wonderfully droll in their polite but insisting correction. Something in the tone of their consul to “resist the temptation” to draw such-and-such a conclusion, or correct an “erroneous interpretation,” or “false impressions” given by Bede, left me smiling. My favorite may be when Bede’s phrase “an adequate number of followers” was dismissed with, “that’s a little weak.” It actually became fun to guess whether or not an endnote would be a benign expansion of information or a hilariously understated correction of a gaping error.

Errors aside, the greater difficulty is always in dealing with those who are assured they possess certainty.  This week (and it is hardly a unique week in human history) the events in Paris rear the ugly head of doctrine. It doesn’t matter to me that one can argue some are better than others. So long as one is fixed in their precious beliefs, real communication and peace are in serious doubt. Without the intellectual freedom to agree, disagree, or metanoia, we are all in danger. Perhaps that is why I was most deeply moved by this short speech by AEthelbert, king of Kent to Augustine and St. Gregory upon their efforts to convert him:

“The words and the promises you bring are fair enough, but because they are new to us and doubtful, I cannot consent to accept them and forsake those beliefs which I and the whole English race have held so long. But as you have come on a long pilgrimage and are anxious, I perceive, to share with us things which you believe to be true and good, we do not wish to do you harm; on the contrary, we will receive you hospitably and provide what is necessary for your support; nor do we forbid you to win all you can to your faith and religion by your preaching” (40).

Reasonableness itself. Would all of humankind were so civilized.

*photo of purse cover from Sutton Hoo

I ask you, my human mind…

The human intellect is full of its own emptiness, better at looking than at seeing. – Saint Augustine, Confessions (285)

IMG_1391It was necessary for me to weave several books in and out of Augustine’s Confessions. As long as we are in a confessional state of mind, I will say that I had to keep my foot, so to speak, in the door of my mind to make sure it stayed open, and the effort was fatiguing. I may have read ten or fifteen other books while reading this one.

Who, after all, made me? (139)

That is not to say that the words, ideas, struggles and sublime beauty of language are not all present in the telling.

I was loosened from error, but not fastened to truth (109).

Nor is it to say that I did not, rather generously, ignore the oft repeated insulting words directed at my inferior sex.

Do we remember happiness, then, as we remember mathematical truths? […] No, I ask simply if happiness is a thing remembered – for how could we love it if we could not recognize it? (230)

When Augustine exhausts his intellect considering, memory, time and the cosmos – it is a wonder to behold. His algorithmic approach is astonishing, and his language, the pure beauty of his language, is a marvel.

How could times pass before they were there for the passing? (266)

But I can not help returning again and again, as Augustine himself did, to the epic battle he created between the body and the spirit. Whywhywhy?

He gives up sex, he cannot give up food and drink without sacrificing his life, but he is determined not to enjoy it. And no smell, however sweet will tempt him  (there is something of the Mr. Darcy in Augustine: “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”). In the end he closes all of his senses, even (although he is a bit of a cheater here) to the one thing that really tricks him up: music.

A delicious physical sound should not melt our reason (241).

Ah, but it does. His and mine. As a friend of mine said to me recently, “Music is one of things we humans get right.” And I suppose this brings me to the heart of my confusion. Who, after all, made us? Why these bodies that touch, these smells, tastes, feelings, sounds? Why this moon, this sun, our stars, the mountains, the ocean? Why make something if only to demand a complete renunciation? Why are men so hell bent on religions of deprivation?

Grant this thing I love, since my loving it was your grant (273)

I probably did help matters by listening to Mozart’s Requiem while reading the bulk of this book. But, I am preparing to sing it with my Glee Club and I have no hope or wish to extinguish the awe I feel when singing or listening to such profoundly moving music.

*title from page 268. Penguin edition translated by Garry Wills

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Pears and Proletariats

‘What are you laughing for, Professor?’
‘What do you mean – laughing? I’m in absolute despair,’ shouted Philip Philipovich. ‘What’s going to become of the central heating now?’
‘Are you making fun of us, Professor Preobrazhensky?’ 

– Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog (28)

IMG_1271I am reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions. It’s the sort of book that sets my mind in fits and starts of questions and quagmires. Augustine’s subject is approached with such confident absolutism, that I begin to feel as though I have been thrown into some sort of alternate universe where everyone has agreed on a premise of possibly illogical terms.

‘You know how much work I did on the subject – an unbelievable amount. And now comes the crucial question – what for? So that one fine day a nice little dog could be transformed into a specimen of so-called humanity so revolting that he makes one’s hair stand on end.’ (108)

My first moment of pause came when Augustine lamented his theft of some pears from an orchard. He wrote, “there was no beauty in the pears I stole” hastily acknowledging that they were, of course, the beautiful creation of “you” – God (Penguin classics, 34). Nevertheless, they weren’t so hot as far as pears go. But that is not the point. The point is, he stole them just to steal them and he is a sinner.

Dog laughed, causing maid Zina to faint. Later pronounced the following 8 times in succession: ‘Nesseta-ciled’. […] The professor has deciphered the word ‘Nesseta-ciled’ by reversal: it is ‘delicatessen’…quite extraord…(61)

Now, hang on a minute, I said to myself. What does God have to do with ownership? Before we skip on down the lane of sin, can we stop a moment and ask why a “God given fruit” came to be “owned” by one over another in the first place? Good, bad, sin , God…who defines the terms?

You act just as if you were were on parade here,’  he said. ‘Put your napkin here, tie your tie there, “please”, ” thank you”, “excuse me” – why can’t you behave naturally? Honestly, you stuffed shirts act as if it was still the days of tsarism.’
‘What do you mean by “behave naturally”?’ (91)

Feeling depressed, I went to the library to get some lighter fare.  I spent some time searching for a book that had apparently gone missing and ended up with The Heart of a Dog, the Russian satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov set in the post revolution days of Moscow about a doctor who performs an operation switching out the pituitary gland of a (recently dead) human into a dog. A madcap, biting, and brisk tale in which the illogic of a dog’s move up in the world creates an absurdity of right question – why one man has seven rooms when others have just one….and wrong answer.

Doctor Bormenthal: ‘I shall personally throw Shvonder downstairs if he ever appears in Professor Preobrazhensky’s flat again.’
And Shvonder said: ‘Please enter that remark in the report.’
(128)

I told a friend that I was reading The Heart of a Dog as a sort of demented companion to Confessions. She said, “You know…Dog is God spelled backward…”

*The Heart of a Dog translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny
*Confessions translated from Latin by Garry Wills

**another Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita

That Dweam within a Dweam

Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering. There we have the fundamental fact.
-Denis De Rougemont, Love In The Western World

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Jupiter and Io c. 1530 Correggio

Looking at slides in my art history class recently I saw a painting of Tristan and Isolde. Or maybe it was in the text book as I was reading. I see it in my mind. It was a depiction of the moment when King Marc switches his sword for that of Tristan’s which lay between the sleeping lovers (Isolde being the King’s wife). Perhaps I imagined it. I can not find it now, nor clearly remember where I saw it.  I didn’t even like the painting that much, at the time I think I compared it to Correggio’s passionate Jupitor and Io which is wonderful.  But I had one of those countless moments of curiosity–what about Tristan and Isolde? I then went on to look for the myth–which I also did not immediately find. I instead happened upon a book about the myth. This is the sort of thing that will drive me mad. I swear I saw a painting. It was real. But there is no proof. The painting in my mind does not exist as far as Google is concerned–certain death if ever there was.  Which is actually perfectly to the point of the book I read as a consequence of my apparently imagined painting.

Suffering and understanding are deeply connected; death and self-awareness are in league; and European romanticism may compare to a man for whom sufferings, and especially the sufferings of love, are a privileged mode of understanding  (51).

M. Rougemont book (published in 1940, France) has an interesting, if depressing thesis of what has made the myth of Tristin and Isolde (or Iseult as he calls her) so enduring. He frames it as a kind of Christian heresy and then goes on to relate it to the modern breakdown of marriage. I must necessarily skim the surface here. Rougemont’s idea is complex and he offers up a lot of evidence as a defensive measure against his critics. He wants to understand the preponderance of adultery as a plot line and fixates on Tristen as a subverted reaction against marriage. He implicates the Troubadours and the Cathars as misguided primary sources, and then goes on to expose the literary thread that supports his thinking.

But Racine, in being content to represent ‘passions excited’ and to produce the ‘sadness’ in which he invites us to find an indefinite ‘enjoyment’, betrays a rather morbid acceptance of the defeat of mind and of the resignation of the senses (202).

This is “love” that can never be consummated because that would be the death of the romance–the only proper release being actual death as in Romeo and Juliet. Cervantes ridicules the pain-of-passion novel, while Stendhal, and many or most others revere it–mistakenly, according to Rougemont:

On this theory, falling in love is to endow a woman with perfections she does not in the least possess. And why do we do this? Because we need to love, and because the only thing that can be loved is beauty (225).

This is a tragedy of objectification. I am sure it can go both ways, but more often than not women are mere two-dimensional objects in which their true selves are not valued and ignored. The fact that most of Rougemont’s examples are married woman (thereby creating an unattainable object of desire for the man) matters to his idea that the love is of an object (because, again, it is not a stretch, traditionally, to view a woman as an object) That a “passion” of epic, religious proportions (like the passion for God or Jesus which can never, by virtue of its very nature, until death, be realized) is foisted upon actual feeling breathing humans is a serious failing indeed. But Rougemont describes the problem as a confusion that the worship of (the pagan idea of) Eros has wrought on the Christian concept of love which is a communion (with God, ultimately). But, it is significant to me that he defines the word passion as it means in the Christian Biblical sense instead of how I might mean it, not to mention D. H. Lawrence, where passion is simply a deeply felt awe of our shared humanity.

As I have said, passion means suffering. Therefore, inasmuch as our notion of love enfolds our notion of woman, it is linked with a theory of the fruitfulness of suffering which encourages or obscurely justifies in the recesses of the Western mind a liking for war (243).

There were many moments while reading this book that I felt a strong need for a good therapist. One for everyone in fact. But, let’s calm down here for a moment. Anna Karenina without adultery is Levin and Kitty: a sweet but far less complex and riveting story. Can not a snake just be a snake? Or drama be drama? One could just as easily argue that the preponderance of the adulteress is better drama–being that much more outside the patriarchal norm of our society.

Rougemont waits until the near end to give his assessment of the state of things. In his view ‘passion,’ as he defines it, is a throwback to paganism, and paganism he casts as some sort of debauched bacchanal. In order to have a compliant society, which is, I think, one of his concerns, marriage must be preserved. How does one preserve marriage when we are all, according to him, infected with the desire for romantic passion, which marriage destroys? By adhering to the contract (a nod to Deuteronomy?). He emphasizes making a decision to put the contract above all else. It is a sort of because-I-said-so mentality that smacks of the sort of  patriarchal thrust the non-secular world is founded upon. I am not a hedonist, but the free-thinker in me provokes me to ask: is there nothing in between, or dare I say–outside the choice of being a martyr to contract or debauched excess?

It is interesting to take a moment to consider the more matriarchal aspects that paganism can represent, which Rougemont ignores. What?! a man dismissing a female perspective? How unusual. One doesn’t have to be a scholar of the ancients to figure out that the earliest pagan societies were not all a sexual free for all or societal anarchy. So much of philosophy, history, and religion is written and thought out by men that alternative perspectives are regrettably absent.  The more I read, the more I really started to go in a very different direction from Rougemont. When I got to this line from page 312: “Christianity has asserted the complete equality of the sexes…” I was truly perplexed, but then, the Bible has always been abused as a book of selective interpretation.

While Rougemont is onto something regarding the fundamental selfishness of love borne of vanity and boredom: love that is in love with love rather than a person (whom if one actually loved they couldn’t help feeling concern or in other words, that “feminine” sensibility called caring) He does not allow for actual romantic love, which of course exists. There are far more examples of couples, married or not, that show two people whom want to spend time with one another and want to make love to one another. It’s not complicated, it’s just perhaps not great drama. I am not prepared to be declared ill for appreciating desire or for caring about the happiness of those I love. After all, there is evolution and progress in the balance of personal and societal good. We should always strive to thoughtfully make a more lovely life for ourselves and for all.

Expertise and its Exposé

Margarita recognized him immediately, she let out a moan, clasped her hands and ran to him. She kissed his forehead, his lips, pressed her face against his prickly cheek, and long pent-up tears streamed freely down her face. She uttered only one word, senselessly repeating it over and over, “You…you…you…”
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (243)

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One of the many wonderful jokes in the book The Master and Margarita is the Devil’s inability to impress the good people of Moscow circa 1930 of his unsavory powers, poor Dear. Time and again he is assumed to be a German or an agent of some frightening official governmental agency- and really, what could be worse?

“Well,” the latter said pensively, “they are like people anywhere. They love money, but that has always been true…People love money, no matter what it is made of, leather, paper , bronze, or gold. And they are thoughtless…but, then again, sometimes mercy enters their hearts…they are ordinary people…On the whole, they remind me of their predecessors…only the housing shortage has had a bad effect on them.” (104)

Just so- as only a housing shortage can. I sympathize. In this reworking of Faust and Pontius Pilate, Bulgakov combines life’s most ordinary details with the theater of mystery. The eponymous Master and Margarita do not even enter the novel until about one hundred pages in, it’s the Devil’s work apparently to earn the respect of the already fearful, weary denizens of Russia and establish oneself as the cynosure. But, Satan, although necessary, never was the center and finally the heart of the story unfolds:

“Just like a murderer jumps out of nowhere in an alley, love jumped out in front of us and struck us both at once! The way lightening strikes, or a Finnish knife! She, by the way, would later say that it wasn’t like that, that we had, of course, loved each other for a very long time, without knowing or even having seen each other, and that she was living with another man…and I was then…with that…what’s her name…” (116)

A Finnish knife, I love that. The Devil is a magician and a consultant, a fair dealer that understands compassion, not to mention what is perhaps particularly devastating to human beings: when Margarita helps host Satan’s ball she is given the most sage advice:

And another thing: don’t ignore anyone! Give a little smile if you don’t have time for a word. Even the tiniest nod of your head will do. Anything you wish, but not indifference. That causes them to wither…” (224)

Bulgakov invariably speaks in code, leaving hints and tidbits throughout the novel to exact revenge, or poke fun at individuals, groups and even certain apartment buildings. Musical, literary and religious references abound, every number, name, and event is significant and adds to the fun of reading the book.

As it turns out we are, most of us, alike. Not even the Devil’s minions are immune to life’s humiliations- Trying to get seated at a restaurant frequented by writers, even they cannot escape the double whammy of bureaucratic harassment and artistic limitations:

“Are you writers?” asked the woman in turn.
“Of course we are,” replied Korovyov with dignity.
“May I see your ID’s” repeated the woman.
“My charming creature…” began Korovyoy, tenderly.
“I am not a charming creature,” interrupted the woman.
“Oh what a pity[…]But here is my point, in order to ascertain that Dostoevsky is a writer, do you really need to ask him for ID? Just look at any five pages of any of his novels, and you will surely know, even without ID, that you are dealing with a writer[…]”
“You are not Dostoevsky.”

No, but Bulgakov understands and wants to say that the possibility exists, and the way is through mercy. In his novel, that is an area of agreement between both Satan and Jesus. Compassion is the key to art, to peace, and to life.

“Follow me, reader! Who ever told you there is no such thing in the world as real, true, everlasting love? May the liar have his despicable tongue cut out!
Follow me, my reader, and only me, and I’ll show you that kind of love!”

If we are going to be followers, we might as well follow the love.

*Title from page 100-101, The Devil (as the magician Mr. Woland) is introduced onto the stage- “And so, since we all applaud both expertise and its exposé, let us welcome Mr. Woland!”

*Thanks to the wonderfully named tumblr blog wordskillunltd for the recommendation.

Start With The Sun

“We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos.” D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse

Apocalypse by D. H. Lawrence is a fascinating breakdown of the Book of Revelation (apokalypsis is ancient Greek for revelation) and also an inspiring philosophy of the same theme found in Lawrence’s novels.

“Men are far more fools today, for stripping themselves of their emotion and imaginative reactions, and feeling nothing. The price we pay is boredom and deadness.”

Lawrence fairly rails against the writer of the Apocalypse, practically accusing John of Patmos of outright theft and then hypocritical, hysterical disavowal of the re-purposed ancient pagan symbols and mythology. The Apocalypse’s brand of Christianity “is popular religion, as distinct from thoughtful religion.”  He describes it as a sort of ideology of the weak which prays only for their day of bloody vengeance. Lawrence prefers to speak to “the tenderness and gentleness of strength,” going so far as to define the word “aristocracy” as an embodiment of his concept of true strength,

Brave people add up to an aristocracy, the democracy of the thou-shalt-not is bound to be a collection of weak men. And then the sacred “will of the people” becomes blinder, baser and more dangerous than the will of a tyrant.”

Why? Because,

“They will only listen to the call of mediocrity: which is evil. Hence the success of painfully inferior and even base politicians.”

The Apocalypse as told in the Bible, according to Lawrence, is a muddled version of the deep symbolism of mythology or paganism which, in an effort to co-opt the story, the fathomless rich mystery of symbolism has been reduced to mere blunt one-dimensional allegory. Lawrence detests allegory.

“We are back again at the level of allegory, and for me, the real interest is gone. Allegory can always be explained: and explained away. The true symbol defies all explanation, so does true myth. You can give meaning to either – you will never explain them away. Because symbol and myth do not affect us only mentally, they move the deep emotional centres every time.”

And I have to admit, his criticism of Pilgrim’s Progress on this note is something I agree with, we can not be reduced to – “Obstinate,” “Faithful,” “Wanton,” without causing some serious harm to the complexity of our being, as well as our intellect.

“How beastly their New Jerusalem, where the flowers never fade, but stand in everlasting sameness! How terribly bourgeois to have unfading flowers!”

Some of  Lawrence’s theories are more widely accepted now, which dates his book slightly: after all, the number of people who cling to the idea that any person born before the days of Homer must be Urdummheit (a German word for primal stupidity) surely shrinks and yet…and yet,

“Today the antichrist speaks Russian, a hundred years ago he spoke French, tomorrow he may speak cockney or the Glasgow brogue. As for Urdummheit, he speaks any language that isn’t Oxford or Harvard or an obsequious imitation of one of these.”

On second thought, change Arabic for Russian and I take his point.

“- Any how there is far too much destroying in the Apocalypse.
It ceases to be fun.”

As always Lawrence’s wit stays sharp, if his message weren’t so moving and profound one might think he was simply irritated by the banality of it all:

“Soon after 1000 B C the world went a little insane about morals and sin.”

It is our fragmentary existence that is our undoing. As Lawrence sees it, the fact that the Apocalypse was written at all proves to us that we are in fact resisting, “unnaturally.” Otherwise there is no purpose to the destructive message; it has to be against something. It is against our unified wholeness, and wants only to destroy and take revenge for the pain the very fracturing has given rise to. Lawrence insists that we cannot love or even truly live if we are fragmented individuals:

“We cannot bear connection. That is our malady. We must break away, and be isolate. Beyond a certain point, which we have reached, it is suicide. Perhaps we have chosen suicide. Well and good. The Apocalypse too chose suicide, with subsequent self glorification. But the Apocalypse shows, by its very resistance, the things that the human heart secretly yearns after. ..What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolate salvation of his “soul.” Man wants physical fulfillment first and foremost, since now, once and once only, he is in the flesh and potent. For man, the vast marvel is to be alive.”

For Lawrence, what is essential is that we worry about our lives, in our bodies, here and now and not so much for our souls in a future unknowable then and wherever. He wants for us all to feel alive so that we can BE alive.

“What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and to re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family. Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.”