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Someone is Watching–Beckett’s “Film”

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)In 1965, Samuel Beckett created his one and only effort at film, a seventeen-minute offering entitled, cleverly enough, “Film.” Starring silent-film veteran Buster Keaton, this brief silent plays just as inscrutably as some of Beckett’s minimalist work. (I’m thinking of “Breath” here.)

Happily we do not have to journey to some trendy theater to witness “Film,” but can enjoy it for free on our computer screens thanks to the nice people at Open Culture.

If you don’t want to wade through a quarter hour of Beckett-style squalor, here’s the synopsis. Keaton, seen only from the back for most of the film, scurries through a rubbly urban landscape, nearly knocking over a couple he encounters. They look straight into the camera and are horrified. By Keaton? That’s not clear. Entering his apartment house, he comes upon an old woman. She too is horrified, but again it isn’t clear if he is the object of her shock. He then enters a singularly dismal apartment with a bed that looks as if someone melted on it.

He draws the tattered blinds, covers the cat, the birdcage, the mirror, and other items around the room. Eventually he sits in a rocking chair and gazes at a print of a curious, Assyrian-looking face. After a moment, he snatches the item from the wall and rips it up. Then he sits again and looks through several photos, apparently of his life, that suggest happier days. When he reaches a portrait of himself much as he now appears, he begins to rip these up, moving backward to his infancy. Then he sees a horrifying figure before him. It is…him. He collapses into the chair, covering his eyes. “The horror, the horror.”

I’m not sure how to respond to a film like this. Part of me wants to dismiss it as mid-century French (Irish) posturing. The attitude is not terribly different from that of the gloomy goth kids one sees today: Life is really terrible and bleak and awful, and we’re really clever and hip for realizing that. Is Beckett really no better than a late adolescent? Having read Waiting for Godot, I have to think he was.

A Christian reading of this film is fairly obvious. Who, after all, is the eye that follows our “hero”? Is it society? Himself? Or is it God? I’m not sure that it really matters? We can assert that God sees all, but the key thing in “Film,” whether we interpret it from a theistic or atheistic viewpoint, is the awareness that the character has of himself. I would argue that the other characters, the three who react in horror to something, are similarly aware of the true nature of themselves.

Keaton’s character realizes himself as those Isaiah prophesies against in Isaiah 64:6-7:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

Beckett correctly sees humanity in all its depravity. That much is admirable, but how do we respond to that depravity? Do we wallow in despair or reach out to the only source of hope. In Beckett’s universe, that hope is illusory and pointless. I’m pleased, on this Good Friday, to suggest that the light Keaton attempts to block out with his shabby curtains is not just an accusing light but a hopeful light.

Posted in Existentialism, Irish Literature.

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From the Porous to the Buffered: Milton’s “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”

John Milton (1608-74)“Way leads on to way,” as Frost tells us, and my recent reading in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has me looking into various unfamiliar ways. Specifically, I’ve been intrigued by Taylor’s references to the Waldensians, a religious movement that ran afoul of Catholic orthodoxy before Luther came on the scene. I had heard of this group before, but I knew only that they were a group deemed heretical. As it turns out, they stand as poster children for Taylor’s complicating account of the move from what he terms a “porous” age, when lives were seen as intertwined with each other and a world seen and unseen, and a “buffered” age, when the only things that matter are within individual minds.
Peter Waldo, the leader of the Waldensians, led his group from the late 12th century into the early 13th, placing him more than 300 years before Luther. Some 450 years had passed by the time of the 1655 massacre memorialized by Milton in this sonnet:
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints, whose bones
       Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
       Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
       When all our fathers worshipp’d stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
       Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
       Slain by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d
       Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubl’d to the hills, and they
       To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow
       O’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
       A hundred-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
What I find somewhat remarkable about the historical background to this poem is that 450-year span. Looking back on the “bad old days” of the Reformation and just before, we are allowed to believe that all dissent was quickly and cruelly stamped out by the Inquisition and other jack-booted assets of the Roman Church. Somehow, though, the Waldensians managed to hang onto their lives and their faith for centuries, predating Luther by a long span and surviving through the most active years of Counter-Reformation adversity.
Looking back on this event from our buffered world, we find conclusions easy to draw. The poor Waldensians simply wanted to worship in their own chosen manner. When they refused to conform to the authorized religion, they were set upon by soldiers. Of course, Charles Emmanuel II, the Duke of Savoy who ordered the attack, would have seen it differently. In his eyes, living within the porous mindset, he could not simply tolerate these people. To allow them to exist outside the control of the church would be like tolerating a carrier of the bubonic plague working in a restaurant. In a day before germ theory, those living in the porous world saw religious dissent as a contagion, a dangerous element that could not be ignored.
Notice that for all his modern aspects, Milton has not moved fully into the buffered mindset of the Renaissance and beyond. He does not say, “Why couldn’t the Pope just leave the poor Waldensians alone?” Instead, he simply inverts the players. In his mind, the Waldensians are those “who kept thy truth so pure of old,” while the Catholic forces are condemned as the “Babylonian woe.” It is virtually impossible for anyone, religious or not, living in the buffered age,  to fully understand the porous mindset. Milton’s sonnet, hardly the finest work he ever produced, provides some small glimpse into it, yet leaves most modern readers a bit uneasy, rather like the closing lines of Psalm 137, which Milton fairly clearly means to evoke:
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Somehow, very little church music sets those words, and especially that last sentence, and offers them for Sunday worship.

Posted in English Literature, Neo-Classicism.

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Appropriated Legends–Longfellow’s Hiawatha

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)When Longfellow published The Song of Hiawatha in 1855, he experiened immediate success. As with most of his work, critical attention in the intervening years has not demonstrated the same sort of enthusiasm. Just as most of the interest in “Paul Revere’s Ride” has been in attacking the historicity of the poem, the bulk of the attention to Hiawatha has focused on demonstrating its lack of fidelity to Native American legends. While such scholarship has value, it suggests that Longfellow’s poem has no value on its own.

One can’t read Hiawatha without hearing echoes of virtually the entire Western canon in addition to the intentional usage of Ojibwe legends. In fact, Longfellow describes the works as “this [American] Indian Edda,” taking the references far into Europe. What did Longfellow intend to create in the pages of Hiawatha? Hiawatha seems at turns to be Achilles, Hercules, and even a Christ figure.

Before the United States got itself into full empire-building mode, the Romantic-infused crowd with which Longfellow ran were grabbing up cultural territory and bending it to their own purposes. One need look no further than the Unitarianism that flowed from Harvard Divinity School during the early years of the 19th century, perhaps best exemplified by William Ellery Channing. The vocabulary of this movement corresponded to the Christian vocabulary, but the meanings were significantly different.

This is, I would argue, what Longfellow does in various poems when he invokes Christian images and themes. At various points in Hiawathawe hear Christian-sounding ideas only to see them resist a thoroughly Christian interpretation. Hiawatha experiences a miraculous, semi-divine birth, and part five’s account of his fasting suggests the temptation of Jesus before transforming into an evocation of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

 ”From the Master of Life descending,
I, the friend of man, Mondamin,
Come to warn you and instruct you,
How by struggle and by labor
You shall gain what you have prayed for.
Rise up from your bed of branches,
Rise, O youth, and wrestle with me!”

As in Genesis, the wrestling goes on a very long time. As in Genesis, the opponent is a mysterious creation, apparently human but apparently somehow non-human. In this case, Hiawatha prevails and, as so often happens in wrestling matches, kills his opponent. He buries him and allows him to sprout into the first maize.

In the final section of the poem, a white Catholic missionary appears and begins teaching about Jesus. Longfellow offers precious little detail on what that teaching involved. Instead, Hiawatha welcomes the missionary, who begins:

 And the Black-Robe chief made answer,
Stammered in his speech a little,
Speaking words yet unfamiliar:
“Peace be with you, Hiawatha,
Peace be with you and your people,
Peace of prayer, and peace of pardon,
Peace of Christ, and joy of Mary!”

As much as I would like to serve as an historical apologist for Christianity, I am fairly certain that this was not how the first encounter between Christians and any Native American group went down. And after welcoming these people who, if they are teaching any Christianity worth crossing waters to teach, will be undermining nearly every important thing that the previous twenty-one sections of the poem have presented as true, Hiawatha get into his magical canoe and heads off into the mists.

Longfellow appropriates the stories and images of the Jewish and Christian scriptures in order to graft them into his own Romantic legend just as surely as he appropriates the Native American legends for inclusion in his work, bending them both to his own ends. But what is that end? Longfellow seems intent on crafting a vision of America where benign Christianity gently pushed back a magical and heroic age. Yet one has to wonder, as the drumbeat of Longfellow’s trochaic verses ends, if we are truly to believe this to be a satisfying end. On the other hand, it is perhaps as satisfying an end as Homer gave Odysseus or Achilles.


Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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Art Gratia Artis–Longfellow’s “Nuremberg”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)Margaret Fuller had limited respect for Longfellow, saying things roughly the equivalent of those who dismiss Norman Rockwell as a talented illustrator. One of her quibbles with the poet lay in his tendency to translate, either literally or figuratively, the things of foreign climes for the American readership. How odd then that perhaps her most fulsome praise of Longfellow comes as he writes a poem from Germany.

InNuremberg are charming passages. Indeed, the whole poem is one of the happiest specimens of Mr. L.’s poetic feeling, taste and tact in making up a rosary of topics and images.

Like most of Longfellow’s output, “Nuremberg” is charming, tripping easily off the tongue. But in reading those lines, I find myself stuck on a couple of the poet’s illustrations, namely Nuremberg residents Albrecht Durer and Hans Sachs.

Not thy Councils, not thy Kaisers, win for thee the world’s regard;
But thy painter, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Sachs thy cobbler bard.

In both of these figures, Longfellow seems to find artistic heroes, the sort of creators whom Emerson or Keats champions. Consider his coverage of Durer:

Here, when Art was still religion, with a simple, reverent heart,
Lived and labored Albrecht Dürer, the Evangelist of Art;

Hence in silence and in sorrow, toiling still with busy hand,
Like an emigrant he wandered, seeking for the Better Land.

Emigravit is the inscription on the tomb-stone where he lies;
Dead he is not, but departed, — for the artist never dies.

How intriguing that “Art” carries a capital letter but “religion” does not. Indeed, if I read the poet correctly, I am to understand that Art itself was a religion, yet my understanding of Durer’s work would definitely subordinate art to faith. In the second line quoted above, again, Longfellow inverts what I would understand to be the proper order of things. Durer was far more the artist of evangelism than the Evangelist of Art.  A couple of lines later, Durer’s tombstone is considered. Apparently, in Longfellow’s view, Durer’s epitaph is irrelevant. “Emigravit,” suggests that the artist buried within has departed, yet the poet would keep him there, “for the artist never dies.” Had he not departed, one imagines the painter of the Reformation rolling over in that grave.

The same can be said for the “cobbler-poet” Hans Sachs. What has Longfellow to say of this figure?

Here Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet, laureate of the gentle craft,
Wisest of the Twelve Wise Masters, in huge folios sang and laughed.

He then goes on to speak of Sachs’ old home, now converted to a tavern. Does he do Sachs justice? A notable poet, indeed, Sachs was, like Durer an artist of the Reformation, someone risking reputation and possibly life in the advance of something far more significant and enduring than mere artistic expression.

Virtually every image that Longfellow captures during his tour of Nuremberg originates with a Christian passion but is stripped down to a celebration of the human spirit. I would argue that both Fuller and Longfellow are entitled to their humanism, but for either of them to read that humanism back into the lives of those who championed a perilous religious freedom strikes me as dishonest and unkind.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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The Story Teaches–Longfellow’s “Village Blacksmith”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)On the centennial of Longfellow’s birth, William Dean Howells wrote an appreciation of the poet’s work in The North American Review in which he praised the work but pointed out what he perceived as  ad  defect.

[I]t is interesting to note how, in certain of his most popular poems, which are often his best, the ethical strain seems an afterthought, and the moral is as plainly a tag as any text coming out of the mouth of a saint in an archaic picture. “The Village Blacksmith” is entirely a poem, if you leave off the needless last two stanzas in which it becomes a homily.

Struck by this claim, I went back to read that poem and to pay special heed to what Howells declared to be the useless final stanzas. Indeed, the first thirty-six lines concisely present images of sight and sound that clearly describe this man and place him within his community. Given the brevity of the portrayal, the reader feels that they know a great deal about the blacksmith from those lines. Then we come to the last twelve lines. Since you may not have that entire poem committed to memory, I’ll repeat those offending stanzas here.

Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!

In retrospect, Howells has a great point. Do we really need to have a neon sign illuminated with an arrow saying, “Here’s the Point”? Consider a poem by a much less gifted artist, Eugene Field’s “Little Boy Blue,” which my father, late in his life, could not recite without tearing up. In that work, Field exhibits the confidence to simply paint the picture and trust in his own abilities and the cleverness of his reader to understand the message.

Longfellow, at least in this example, lacks the confidence that animated the best narrative writers of the Bible. In the spare stories of Genesis or Mark, we have sufficient details to understand. Rarely do the Biblical writers find themselves explaining the “moral of the story.” As I recall, in only one case, the Parable of the Sower, does Jesus explain the meaning behind his allegory.

Howell’s appreciation of Longfellow is intriguing for its contrast with his reputation in literary circles today. While my undergraduate American Literature survey completely ignored this writer, Howells held him up as comparing favorably with Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. What accounts for the drop in Longfellow’s stock? Or was Howells the one misjudging the poet’s merits? These are good questions that probably resist simple answers.

One thing that comes to mind is that Longfellow’s strengths lie in his form. Perhaps no American poet has ever shown such a facility for making complex verse forms sing. At his best, Frost does this, but Longfellow rarely fails to sound as if he as absolute control, working in a variety of forms. Form, it seems, warrants little respect today, perhaps because the poem has shifted its venue from the family sitting room to the college classroom.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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Nature vs. Nature–Longfellow’s “Nature”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)Why is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow not a Transcendentalist poet? One has only to read Longfellow’s verse in close proximity to that of Emerson or Thoreau or Jones Very in order to recognize that he is the better poet, and his themes mark him as clearly a romantic in orientation, far more inclined in that direction than, for example, Washington Irving. Longfellow’s sympathies lay with the Unitarian cause, virtually a prerequisite for Transcendentalist membership. And although Longfellow seems to be a product of a previous generation, he was four years the junior of Emerson and attended Bowdoin with Hawthorne, who might have become a Transcendentalist under different circumstances. Where, then, does Longfellow not fit into this camp, an outsider status that, in my opinion stands to his credit?

Both Emerson and Longfellow wrote considerably on the topic of nature, in fact, both penning a work with that single word as the title. Longfellow’s “Nature,” far less significant than Emerson’s, is  a sonnet that can be seen to illustrate the distinction between the Transcendentalist and this poet.

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
   Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
   Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
   And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
   Nor wholly reassured and comforted
   By promises of others in their stead,
   Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
   Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
   Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
   Being too full of sleep to understand
   How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
Henry James, Sr. famously declared Emerson as our “fair unfallen friend,” pronouncing him “literally the most childlike, unconscious and unblushing egoist it has ever been my forgune to encounter in the ranks of manhood.” Such could not be said of Longfellow. Like Hawthorne and perhaps Melville, Longfellow found himself drawn in the direction of the Transcendentalist zeitgeist, but held back by an awareness of the fallenness of human nature. In fact, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Melville could be described as populated different points on a spectrum of awareness of sin from the semi-optimistic Longfellow to the fairly bleak Melville.
What was Longfellow’s view of nature? The poem above, rather like Emerson’s Nature seems at first blush to say very little about nature itself. Where are the flowers and ducks and rocks and trees? That wasn’t what interested the man. Where Emerson sees nature as a source of mystical knowledge, a force that leads to life, Longfellow recognizes nature as a force leading to death with only the hope of a hazy hereafter to lessen the pain. Nature, in Longfellow’s eyes, “takes away our playthings one by one.” Here, the poet describes a very ambivalent view. In the final lines, the subject is “too full of sleep to understand how far the unknown transcends the what we know.” What does that mean? Is Longfellow referring to an ineffable afterlife, something that the dimming faculties of humanity cannot comprehend? Or is he suggesting that this lack of perception has nothing of consequence to perceive? While I incline toward the former, I believe these lines can be read both ways.
As attractive as the Transcendentalist camp might be, I find Longfellow’s view to be more realistic. And as I read him, I wonder whether the little glimmers of a nascent Christian thought that I perceive were placed there by the poet or inserted by the reader.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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Angels on Assignment–Longfellow’s Evangeline

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)Longfellow’s most renowned longer work, Evangeline, inspired by Hawthorne, has even more of the trapping of Romance than the novels that Hawthorne labeled in such a manner. What could be more sentimental than a tale of star-crossed lovers who, separated during the throes of war, finally, after years of searching, find each other just as one of them expires. It’s the sort of stuff that James Cameron grafted onto the Titanic to win a Best Picture Oscar.

Rather than focusing on the dactylic hexameter of the poem or its great liberties with the historical record, I would like to spend a bit of time considering the characters and their interplay with Biblical texts.

The main character, of course, is Evangeline Bellefontaine. The obvious Biblical tie-in with her name is with the idea of good news and the genre label applied to the first four books of the Greek New Testament. At the top level, her name evokes those books and the life of Christ, but as we dissect the word, we find the angelos part of that suggesting not just news but the messenger who brings divine news, the angel. There can be little doubt that Evangeline is portrayed as an angel. Where Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne is eventually seen as (among many other things) an Angel, Evangeline seems to be that from her first appearance in Longfellow’s work. Her surname, meaning “beautiful fountain,” also presents Biblical evocations. In Song of Solomon 4:12, a chaste young woman is called a “fountain sealed.” Elsewhere, fountains, springs, and other local water features suggest wisdom and blessing. In John 4, as Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman, he declares himself as the living water:

 “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Is it too strong a statement to suggest that Jesus is calling himself the “belle fontaine”?

Gabriel LaJeunesse, on the other hand, does not carry quite the messianic baggage as Evangeline. His first name, obviously, is taken from the most prominent angel in the Biblical tradition, tasked with announcing the impending births of both John the Baptist and Jesus. His surname refers to youth. Gabriel is almost if not equally as blameless as Evangeline. His only real fault, we could suggest, is moving around the country too quickly and thus staying just out of his beloved’s reach.

What then can we make of these two characters, both of whom seem angelic both in naming and in behavior? It takes little imagination to hear echoes in this story of Jesus’ parables of lost things in Luke 15. Evangeline, the Good News Beautiful Fountain Christ figure, seeks tirelessly for her beloved just as the shepherd leaves the 99 to pursue the 1, the woman searches for the lost coin, and the father stands outside watching for the prodigal son to return. Her response, when finally reunited with Gabriel is not to lament the lost years or the shattered dreams of a life together and family. Instead, she reflects on the moment and offers a brief prayer of thanks:

All was ended now, the hope, and the fear, and the sorrow,
All was ended the aching of heart, the restless, unsatisfied longing,
All the dull, deep pain, and constant anguish of patience!
And, as she pressed once more the lifeless head to her bosom,
Meekly she bowed her own, and murmured, ‘Father, I thank thee!’

The lines before these allude to the blood around the door at the first Passover and a return to an Eden-like existence in the “forest primeval” of Acadie. I could go on in exploring the Christian themes to be found in this largely ignored poem, but their lack of profundity in expression probably makes what has been said sufficient.

A.H. Strong comments  on Longfellow’s theology,

He never reached Dante’s heights, because he had never sounded Dante’s depths. It was only the superficial aspects of Christianity which he described. He did not understand the plan of God; but he did accept its results. Let us be thankful that, even so, he could give comfort to multitudes of God’s children.

That assessment seems solid. The poet’s strength of thought did not mount to the strength of his verse, exactly the opposite that we saw with Michael Wigglesworth. Still, Evangeline has been too long relegated to the lower tiers of significance in American literature.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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Man Outfeminists Women–Henry James, The Bostonians

Henry James (1843-1916)I’ve made no secret of my disdain for some of the early feminist novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While some believe that Kate Chopin–who, by the way, demonstrated great skill in writing short stories–struck a mighty blow for feminism with The Awakening. I see that novel as holding its protagonist up as a spoiled and foolish child. Similarly, I’ve found commented here on two of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novels, which are idealistic to an embarrassing extent. I’m even an outlier on Hedda Gabler. If that is the best sort of a presentation that feminism can make, then the school is in truly pitiful straits. But then along comes Henry James and The Bostonians.

Leave it to James to craft a novel in which the women’s suffrage and emancipation movement is held up for fairly sharp ridicule while at the same time the limited range of experience open to women of a certain class during that time is presented in heartbreaking fashion.

Some who summarize this novel describe the relationship between the three main characters as a love triangle. In fact, in the early chapters of the book, a pair of far-flung cousins, Bostonian Olive Chancellor and Mississippian Basil Ransom, meeting for the first time, attend a gathering of social reformers and both fall under the spell of a young woman, Verena Tarrant. The precise relationship between Olive and Verena is uncertain, although Olive’s moves to have Verena abandon her parents’ home and move in in the Back Bay give some evidence to suggest a romantic interest. Basil’s romantic interest is not in the slightest way disguised.

In reality, the nature of the relationship between Olive and Verena–lovers or mentor-student–is not nearly as relevant as the power exercised by Olive toward Verena. As surely as Olive tells herself that she seeks only to advance “the cause” of emancipating women, she is guilty of restricting her protege. And as surely as Basil insists on his love for Verena, his goal, it seems clear, is domination much more than nurture.

In the wonderfully written final scene, covering the last several chapters, we find Verena about to give her breakthrough performance as a lecturer to a capacity crowd at Boston’s Music Hall. Olive, it seems, stands on the verge of a vicarious triumph when Basil appears in the building. His mere presence disrupts Verena’s focus and prevents her from mounting the stage.

There is no true feminist in this novel. Olive seeks to control Verena just as surely as Basil does. Basil never even spends a moment considering that Verena might present her lecture and then head off to marital bliss. The marvelous last moments of the book show the characters in their true light, Olive and Basil fighting for supremacy with Verena as the spoil of their conflict.

Ransom, palpitating with his victory, felt now a little sorry for her [Olive], and was relieved to know that, even when exasperated, a Boston audience is not ungenerous. “Ah, now I am glad!” said Verena, when they reached the street. But though she was glad, he presently discovered that, beneath her hood, she was in tears. It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.

Throughout this book, James skillfully presents Olive as the manipulative user, determined to make Verena into the mouthpiece she herself could not be. Basil is portrayed as a bit rough around the edges but basically a determined and decent person, a conservative but a compassionate conservative. Only in those closing moments do we recognize him as every bit as manipulative as Olive. He will cause more tears, but so, probably, would have Olive.

The tragedy of The Bostonians lies in the fact that no one will allow Verena to be Verena. She must either be a true believer of the feminist faith or reject all of that and worship at Basil’s marital altar. There seems no room for anything like love at either of these ideological poles.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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Certainty about Uncertain Dates: Thomas Sheehan Rides Again

skepticAs mentioned in my previous post, I have been listening to a Stanford University Continuing Education course on The Historical Jesus presented by Thomas Sheehan. While I would not expect a Stanford professor to take a high view of the Bible’s validity, I would expect this man to take a high view of truth. Unfortunately, he does not do that. Our case for today is the claim, repeated several times, that Luke did not know when the ascension of Jesus took place.

Let’s review. The ascension takes place in Luke 24 and in Acts 1, a sort of “Previously on the Jesus Story” bridge betwen these two books. In Luke 24: 50-53, we read this:

And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy,and were continually in the temple praising God.

In Acts 1:3-11, the story is considerably more developed, although I have omitted several verses for brevity:

To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. . . . And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”


Why does that mean, in the mental universe of Prof. Sheehan, that Luke is uncertain about when this event took place? He notes that while in Acts, the date is placed forty days after the resurrection, in Luke it is, according to his reading, on the very day of the resurrection. Of course, Luke 24 does not say that Jesus ascended on the very day of the resurrection, but Sheehan’s reading is possible. But is it correct?

For Sheehan to be correct, then the placement of the ascension on resurrection day must not only be possible but must be the only plausible reading. In order to evaluate this claim, we need to determine why Sheehan and others believe that Luke 24 dates the ascension in such a manner.

Reading through Luke 24, we encounter a series of events. First, we have the women going to the tomb followed by Peter going there. Then we encounter the long “Road to Emmaus” passage, which would certainly be dated to that auspicious Sunday (unless these were particularly ill-informed disciples).  Next, as the Emmaus-bound disciples report their experience to the eleven, Jesus makes an appearance, speaking and eating. Finally, we have the verses quoted above in which Jesus led the group out to Bethany and made his departure.

Certainly this sequence could be read as the events of a single day, but then maybe such a reading is not as plausible as it might seem. The Road to Emmaus sequence terminates after the disciples implore their unknown fellow traveler (Jesus) to stay with them since “the day is nearly over.” Over an evening meal, Jesus reveals himself, leading the disciples to book it back to Jerusalem, some six miles distant. Surely this can’t place them back in the city before 9 or 10pm. Then Jesus appears and speaks and eats. So are we to believe that the ascension took place in the middle of the night? That would have to be Sheehan’s assumption, or perhaps it came early the next morning.

Of course, the real question is whether the apparently continuous sequence of events in Luke 24 are indeed to be read as a single day. It certainly sounds as if it could be, and since Luke is usually quite free with time markers, it seems reasonable to believe that the absence of a time marker–e..g., “and then forty days later”–the adjacent events are immediately after one another. But is that conclusion warranted.

The word at the head of verse 50 does not indicate time with any precision. Although it is translated “then” in Sheehan’s favored NRSV, other translations reasonably render it as “and.” For sake of fairness, however, let’s use “then.” Does the word “then,” in this case, indicate that the event begun in verse 50 takes place immediately after that in verse 49?

Let’s consider the case in English. If I say, “I earned my master’s degree. Then I took my doctorate,” does it indicate that I immediately processed from the M.A. program into the Ph.D.? Certainly not. At times, the English word “then” indicates immediate sequence, but many other times it simply indicates a general chronology. “We’ll finish school and then get married” does not suggest that the wedding needs to be held on the evening of graduation day.

Of course, Luke did not write in English. Are there cases in the gospel in which a “then” indicates something other than an immediate sequence of events? Interestingly there are. My first two examples are rather flippant, both coming from Luke 2. In both 2:40 and 2:52, we learn of Jesus growing and maturing. Amazingly, according to Sheehan’s logic, that growth must have taken place on the same day as what came before. Granted, that’s a rather unconvincing argument.

But look at the top of Luke 9. “Then Jesus called the Twelve together.” The word rendered “Then” is the same Greek word that we find in 24:50. Would Sheehan insist that this event must take place on the same day as the miracle recounted in Luke 8? Certainly it could be the same day, but must it be? Might as many as 40 days have intervened?

Reading on through the chapter we learn that Jesus sent out the Twelve, admonishing them not to take any money with them. In 9:7-9, we discover that while the Twelve were out doing their missionary project, Herod sought out Jesus. That sequence begins with that same Greek word, translated as “Now” in the NRSV. Apparently, Jesus sent the Twelve out to do their project and Herod happened to seek Jesus on that very day.

Later in the chapter, we learn that the disciples returned, apparently on the same day since Luke does not give any indication of time passing. The spiritual boldness of going on a missionary trip without money is undermined when we find that the trip lasted less than a day. And then the very same day, with his tired disciples around him, Jesus fed 5,000. What a day!

In the next chapter, Jesus again sends out emissaries, seventy-two of them this time, only to have them return on the very same day. How do we know it was the same day? According to the Sheehan Axiom of Chronology, if no indication of time passing is given, then the events must have happened on the same day.

Two examples may not seem like much, but it has already been noted that Luke uses a good many time markers. The inventory of unclear time markers is limited in Luke’s gospel. Also, many times when he uses a less-than-specific conjunction–e.g., and, then, now–it really does not matter if the events happened in immediate sequence or simply in that order. For example, in Luke 8, Jesus delivers and then explains the Parable of the Sower. Did he explain the parable on the same day he taught it? Probably, but would it change things if the disciples didn’t ask him about it until the next day? And did Jesus’ mother and brothers show up (8:19) on that very day or perhaps a few days later? The exact chronology is not important, although the sequence seems to be important.

Do these two significant examples prove that forty days transpired before those final verses of Luke 24? Obviously they do not, but they certainly put the lie to the smug certainty with which Sheehan asserts Luke’s confusion, uncertainty, or apathy regarding relative dates. The problem with this stripe of interpreter comes when he assumes that he knows the truth and then sloppily compiles evidence to support that supposed truth and then weighs all other evidence in the light of the supposedly verified “truth.”

Humility has never been the hallmark of the typical academic. All too often it is not the hallmark of Christians, which is a shame.

Posted in Biblical Literature.

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The Smugness of the Certain–Thomas Sheehan and the Historical Jesus

skepticLately, I’ve been listening to an audio lecture course, courtesy of Stanford University, in which Thomas Sheehan opines–although he insists repeatedly that he is speaking historically and scientifically–on issues related to the historicity of the gospels, the nature of the historical Yehshua–Sheehan resists the Greek form of the name and insists continuously that “Christ” wasn’t Yehshua’s last name, as if any serious person believed it was. As I listen to the professor profess, I have to admit that I’m galled by the constant laughter of one of his auditors. The tone of her laughter strikes me as communicating a very clear attitude: “I’m so glad that I’m one of the enlightened and educated sorts who don’t fall for all that obviously false Christian claptrap.”

Sheehan himself is slightly less smug. He believes that once you thoroughly demythologize Christian scripture, you can find something valuable. In other words, Sheehan is an intellectual descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, someone who believes you can carve up the teachings of the scripture, pluck out the things that don’t suit your intellectual cast, and not kill the host. Like magic, this writer believes, the true and pure teachings can be drawn out of the thoroughly polluted containers provided by Paul and Luke and company. Amazingly, those true teachings just happen to correspond with the things that Sheehan and his audience would like to believe to be true.

I intend to return to this material when I’ve listened further into the lectures, but one piece of unintentional undercutting came from episode two, which I heard while slugging through my miles on the treadmill last night. Granted, the anecdote that the professor relates is not central to any of his arguments–frankly, he doesn’t make all that many genuine arguments, opting instead to draw fairly broad inferences from cherry-picked evidence and attempt to pass these off as “obvious”–but the tale does illustrate the glass houses in which many skeptics think themselves impregnable.

According to Sheehan, the first female governor of Texas, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, once opposed bilingual education, protesting that “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for the children of Texas.” That’s the sort of thing that causes immense mirth in Sheehan’s audience, laughter only tempered by the inconvenient fact that Ferguson was female. “Wait, we disdain Christian conservatives, but we adore powerful women. Which prejudice trumps the other?”

Of course, like most of those delightful stories, this one turns out to be nonsense. It seems that Ma Ferguson, if she made this statement, followed in a long line of others, who are typically recorded as displaying their laughable ignorance in some “smart set” publication. In 1881, when Ma Ferguson would have been six, the New York Times places a similar statement in the mouth of “an old farmer.”  Three years later, The Universalist Quarterly and General Review ascribes it to “a pious deacon.” By 1905, still years before Fergusons stint as governor, the New York Times found an “elderly Irish” woman defending English and in 1912 Puck placed the phrase into the mouth of a “well-known and eccentric preacher” from a hundred years previous.

One wishes to ask Prof. Sheehan, if you are this careless about a small matter on which you seemed so marvelously certain, how should we trust your various pronouncements on matters of more substance. But of course the smug and delighted lady near the microphone won’t ask this question.

Posted in Commentary.

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