Primitivism

When [people] finally got around to writing theories about what they had been doing for some time, such action was inevitably looked upon as a succession of events beginning in the past. In many instances the sequential ordering of the text, the series verborum or narrationis, was simply and crudely imposed on events in the real world. As a consequence of this interpretive activity, the issue of oral and written communication cannot be separated from that of reform, utopia, and primitivism. . . . [An] approach . . . augmenting self-knowledge of course favored the search after origins or first principles that we associate with primitivism. To be better was to be earlier and to be earlier was to find ultimate precedent, which, not surprisingly turned out to be a text. – Brian Stock, “Medieval Literature, Linguistic Theory, and Social Organization”, in Listening For The Text, pp.38-39

St. Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century. Many of us have this image in our head; in fact, Paul dictated most of his letters. Being from Tarsus, he looked less like a Dutch bookkeeper and more like a contemporary Turkish shop owner.

St. Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century. Many of us have this image in our head; in fact, Paul dictated most of his letters. Being from Tarsus, he looked less like a Dutch bookkeeper and more like a contemporary Turkish shop owner.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling expanding marriage rights to all persons takes place in a community and context defined and limited by a particular document: The United States Constitution. Public disagreements, when not veering into bigotry, have centered around the meaning of words. “Right”, “freedom”, “equality” are secular holy words in the United States. For that reason, their meaning is contested on a daily basis. How best do we understand them so they can regulate our behavior as citizens, allow us legal and civic space to participate in the common life?

Many people insist that it is best to understand these words as they were understood by those who wrote and ratified them 226 years ago. The simplicity and clarity of James Madison’s text, it is said, does not lend itself either to innovation or the accrual of meaning over time. To be “free” as the Constitution guarantees it, to have a “right”, means nothing more or less than what it meant in 1787.

We Americans, then, are a textual community rooted in a species of primitivism, as Brian Stock defines it. All sides in the discussion claim the Constitution as their authoritative text. The matter is not Constitutionality or its lack. The argument is over the definition of words.

In much the same way, Christian communities, rooted in a particular text, make appeals to it both for innovation and steadfastness; we demand adherence to the text of Scripture with most Christians knowing little to nothing of its content. We are offered particular moral precepts, particular personal and social values, and insist best contemporary practice is exhibited within the stories and exemplars of Scripture. We insist that Jesus was a contemporary radical disguised as a poor itinerant Jewish carpenter-cum-teacher; his death on a Roman cross-tree is proof that his was understood to be a revolutionary movement by the authorities of his day. We are told that particular legal codices not only should but do continue to apply to current social life.

Much of contemporary Biblical scholarship and theology centers around the search both for textual clarity (arriving at as clear an original MSS as possible) and original meaning. With these accomplished, we are told, we will be better able to appropriate the texts for our own time. Since the first historical critical readings of the Bible in the early 19th century (although late medieval and Renaissance scholars engaged in a limited historical criticism), this has been the goal; each interpretive method offered a path through the thickets of additions and subtractions; through difficult questions of editing; once through we shall not only have the authoritative text, but the authoritative interpretation. Whether it’s the Jesus Seminar, the writings of Marcus Borg or N. T. Wright, or the body calling itself The Center For The Study Of Christian Origins, both the work and the larger ecclesiological goal is the Church Universal understanding itself as indistinguishable from our origins.

Not only Biblical primitivism, but also Doctrinal primitivism reigns in many of our churches, particularly my own United Methodist Church. We are told ad nauseum that we as a Body have lost our doctrinal roots. A return to strict adherence to Christian doctrines will help us overcome our current social and cultural decline and internal malaise. Overcoming contemporary liberalism, conservatism, contextual theologies, fundamentalist theologies all require adherence to Church doctrine, which itself is a body of texts rooted in interpretations of the Scriptural texts.

As I pointed out elsewhere, the pursuit of understanding, particularly of societies and cultures long dead, using languages that are also dead (or at best only dimly related to contemporary languages), is an expression of hubris I find both interesting and tiresome. Whether it’s the Scriptural texts or the doctrinal texts, the assumptions behind the claims of a practical primitivism are neither sound nor falsifiable. There is simply no way contemporary scholars, even after decades of work, building on previous centuries of work, can hope, say, to arrive at a clear original presentation of a manuscript. Even form criticism, which pays attentions to minutiae of sentence structure in an attempt to identify additions to a text, can never answer the question of what might have been removed from a text and for what reason. No doctrinal purist can answer with anything like clarity what words like “salvation”, “grace”, “Incarnation”, or even “God” meant for people in the first, second, ninth, or even 17th centuries. For one thing, those words as they appear above didn’t exist. They are contemporary English words that reflect as best as possible an on-going tradition rooted in ancient dead languages (rooted in ancient dead societies and cultures). Pretending the modern English word “salvation” means the same as its first century Greek equivalent is to play kindergarten games with serious issues. It does violence both to the original understandings – whatever, in the end, they may be – as well as reducing our current understandings to little more than word play.

I understand the lure of primitivism. At the end of the day, however, the claims of many primitivists, regardless of their scholarly credentials, should be stopped by the simple act of demanding what their original meanings have to do with people living in an age unimagined and unimaginable to those original authors. Not that historical, textual, and literary criticism isn’t necessary. Rather, there must come a point not only when scholarship needs to end and proclamation should begin; there also needs to be just a bit more humility in our claims at understanding “original meaning” in any text, whether it’s the United States Constitution, Christian doctrine, or the Bible. As the task of the Biblical reader is to allow the text to read our lives, to interpret our faith, and to let it be the foundation for our proclamation and mission, we should always remember that scholarship ends when practical theology begins. If we aren’t engaging in an interchange that moves first from Scriptures to us, then we aren’t reading the Bible correctly, no matter how much information we have in our heads about the original languages, the authors and editors, and how the words of the text were understood by those who first wrote them down.

Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching And Jazz”

At the second Dial [Records] session, in July [1946], Parker had a mental breakdown triggered by his abuse of inferior-quality narcotics and perhaps the tensions caused by public attacks on his music. The crisis was cruelly captured by the microphones as Parker attempted to play “Lover Man” while reeling around the studio. He considered the release of that record humiliating and a personal betrayal by producer Ross Russell. Yet we dare not dismiss this most controversial of all jazz recordings. Opinions have finally settled on Free Jazz and Ascension, but “Lover Man” can still get an argument going – does it appeal only to the voyeur in us, or is it musically valid? Why did so many musicians memorize the solo down to the last painful misstep? Undoubtedly, Parker commands attention, eve in this state, climaxing faltering phrases with an emotionally devastating arpeggio at measure twenty-four. – Gary Giddins, Visions Of Jazz, p. 275

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No jazzman, not even Miles Davis, struggled harder to escape the entertainer’s role than Charlie Parker. The pathos of his life lies in the ironic reversal through which his struggles to escape what in Armstrong is basically a make-believe role of clown – which the irreverent poetry and triumphant sound of his trumpet makes even the squarest of squares aware of – resulted in Parker’s becoming something far more “primitive”: a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos, onstage and off, served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which has only the slightest notion of its real significance. While he slowly died (like a man dismembering himself with a dull razor on a spotlighted stage) from the ceaseless conflict from which issued both his art and his destruction, his public reacted as though he were doing much the same thing as those saxophonists who hoot and honk and roll on the floor. In the end he had no private life and his most tragic moments were drained of human significance. – Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching And Jazz”, in The Collected Essays Of Ralph Ellison: Revised And Expanded, John F. Callahan, ed., pp. 260-261

"In attempting to escape the role, at once sub- and super-human, in which he found himself, he sought to outrage his public into an awareness of his most human pain. Instead he made himself notorious, and in the end he became unsure whether his fans came to enjoy his art or to be entertained by the "world's greatest junky," the "supreme hipster." " Ralph Ellison

“In attempting to escape the role, at once sub- and super-human, in which he found himself, he sought to outrage his public into an awareness of his most human pain. Instead he made himself notorious, and in the end he became unsure whether his fans came to enjoy his art or to be entertained by the “world’s greatest junky,” the “supreme hipster.” ” Ralph Ellison

Jazz is difficult. The music itself places unbelievable demands even on the casual listener. Whether trying out something by Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, or settling in for World War II-era swing, or perhaps a popular tune by Duke Ellington, one can hardly just sit and listen. From the most basic element, the rhythms, up through harmonies that are too often opaque to melodies that seem to appear and disappear like images out of a fog, it takes discipline just to relax and understand what hits your ears.

It becomes so much more complicated when reading too many jazz critics. Often fans who immerse themselves in the music like Baptist are the river, critics are vociferous in their demands both upon readers and musicians. They too often write using musicological terms they really don’t understand, but pretend to do because it’s part of being a jazz critic. The result is both the music and the ever-growing literature about it, its practitioners, and its various sub-genres have a cultic, gnostic quality about it. Venturing in to jazz leaves many wondering when the dark room, robed figures, and ceremonies will occur. The music invites you in. Writers about the music, however, are guardians at the gate, ensuring this music that is both their mainstay and first and perhaps only real love remains pure, unsullied by the messiness of a world that seems neither to appreciate the intricacies of the art nor wish to use the common vocabulary to express their understanding of the music.

Which is why the few essays Ralph Ellison wrote about jazz and musicians – including Charlie Christian, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Rushing, and Charlie Parker – are such a treat. Ellison was many things, but most of all he refused to deny the humanity both of the music and those who performed it. He understood the music as a racial phenomenon in a country then undergoing agonizing changes regarding the racial status quo. He was not a reductionist, however, or essentialist. The music was racial because it was birthed by African-Americans, raised by and among African-Americans, and its most important and innovative performers were African-American. It was only because of the equivocal status of the black man as entertainer in a society of white supremacy that left Ellison far more clear-eyed than many critics, at the time and since, not only about the music, but the musicians and the audience as well.

A review of a posthumous collection of essays about alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, Ellison pulls no punches in his view that the book is inadequate to its subject precisely because, as Giddins would write decades later, the book itself is little more than offers to sit and stare at the antics of a drug-addled clown rather than a serious musician of incredible gifts. The musical revolution Parker and others sparked could not have been accomplished without intimate understanding of music in all its intricacies, followed by hours and hours of practice, trying and trying to get to the place the musicians keep hearing in their heads. Ellison wishes the book were not another recounting of the too-worn ground of Parker’s life outside the music around which everything else swirled and whirled.

And who is the Parker revealed in this book? Ellison’s description is justly famous:

Bird was a most gifted innovator and evidently a most ingratiating and difficult man – one whose friends had no need for an enemy, and whose enemies had no difficulty in justifying their hate. According to his witnesses, he stretched the limits of human contradiction beyond belief. He was lovable and hateful, considerate and callous; he stole from friends and benefactors and borrowed without conscience, often without repaying, and yet was generous to absurdity. He could be most kind to younger musicians or utterly crushing in his contempt for their ineptitude. He was passive and yet quick to pull a knife and pick a fight. He knew the difficulties which are often the lot of jazz musicians, but as a leader he tried to con his sidemen out of their wages. He evidently loved the idea of having a family and being a good father and provider, but found it as difficult as being a good son to his devoted mother. He was given to extremes of sadism and masochism, capable of the most staggering excesses and most exacting physical discipline and assertion of will. Indeed, one gets the image of such a character as Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, who while many things to many people seemed essentially devoid of a human center – except, and an important exception indeed, Parker was an artist who found  his moments of sustained and meaningful integration through the reed and keys of the alto saxophone. It is the recordings of his flights of music which remain, and it is these which form the true substance of his myth.(Ellison, pp. 263-264)

The book Ellison is reviewing sets to one side the most important thing Charlie Parker brought to this world, preferring a kind of forensic voyeurism that in the end celebrates what should be decried, and makes of Parker the one things he never wished to be: just another black entertainer performing for whites on those white’s terms. Ellison neither denies nor downplays the person Parker was; on the contrary, for Ellison it is precisely this that made him the artist he was. The book Ellison considers is little more than those fans who, as Giddins notes, memorized Parker’s most tortured recording precisely because it was so tortured (and please note, Giddins joins in the musical autopsy, insisting “Lover Man” has merit not only despite but precisely because of all the pathologies that flow through each phrase). Giddins is little more than a late-coming white hipster, denying a fascination with Parker’s human excesses while reveling in them as some kind of well-spring of his art.

Ellison, on the other hand, uses the apocryphal nature of the origin of Parker’s nickname “Bird” as a starting point for understanding who Parker was. Rather than celebrate the mythic legend (which Ellison reminds readers was originally a word used to describe the life of a saint) of the tragic, tortured artist, Ellison looks to birds, particularly the mockingbird, to understand just who Parker was and what his music was about. At once mocking and celebratory, imitative and inventive, incredibly fast yet often too clear both in intent and completeness, Parker was the mockingbird sine qua non, taking even the most popular songs and transforming them into barely recognizable works that might at best nod at the original harmonies while moving beyond them. He often used the higher chord intervals – ninths, in particular – as the source of his melodic inventions, while playing with harmonic modulation to prevent even the most basic blues, which were in his music blood from years of woodshopping around Kansas City’s notorious nightclubs, from growing stale. Only someone with an expansive mind, a demanding desire to play something no one has ever heard (including the musician), and willing to push through hours of practicing and jamming could ever have done even a small part of what Parker achieved. That Parker did so, all the while living an often vagrant, piecemeal life filled with drugs and booze, women and his wife and child, destroying the vessel through which he offered the world himself in a musical tone as bitter and sharp as he was is nothing short of a miracle.

Ellison recognizes this without dwelling gratuitously on the gory details of the worst of Parker’s too-often-celebrated personal pathologies. He keeps the “Bird” front and center because the real myth of Charlie Parker isn’t his overindulgence. It is, rather, the song that will ensure this bird lives forever. Ellison isn’t a bird-watcher (how Ellison refers to the voyeuristic celebrants of Parker’s dysfunction). He is, rather, an ornithologist. In that regard, his review of what must have been a most unfortunate volume offers readers an opportunity to return to Parker and his music free from the necessity of keeping Parker’s life in front of his art. Ellison offers the opportunity even for the uninitiated to hear Parker’s pain and pleasure, his deep devotion to music and his appalling disregard for himself, others, and even his songs through the music. Rather than settle for simple answers or join a cult, Ellison wants us to join together and listen, again, and remember Parker’s singular genius, a genius that couldn’t flinch in the face of drugs, racism, disregard, misunderstandings, confusion, love, and even impending death.

Mockingbirds don’t flinch, but lead predators on a merry chase, after all, refusing to settle on a song, sometimes bringing lovers to tears, but never surrendering their identity as mockingbirds.

Holocaust Testimonies II(b): Memory And The Eternity Trap

As memory plunges into the past to rescue the details of the Holocaust experience, it discovers that cessation play a more prominent role than continuity. – Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies:The Ruins Of Memory, p.75

The realization that horror never leaves but is ever-present leaves one in anguish over any possibilities.

The realization that horror never leaves but is ever-present leaves one in anguish over any possibilities.

Venturing in to Lawrence Langer’s guidebook for understanding the verbal testimonies of Holocaust survivors, it becomes apparent very quickly that we are entering . . . not a place or time at all. Oh, we who were neither there nor alive can look back and say things like, “The Third Reich began its imprisonment programn with Dachau in the spring of 1933”; we can pinpoint when the death camps, as opposed to the consentrationslager began churning out their product. It was in 1942, not long after a Conference in Wansee among those higher-ups in the Nazi regime responsible for what was ignominiously called “der Judenfrage“. That, however, does nothing more than locate along some arbitrary scale when particular events took place. We as observers can use this particular way of “understanding” to shield us from the multiple horrors these naked facts hide from us.

I originally began reading Langer as a way to remind myself that I was, indeed , familiar with real evil. Human evil at its most depraved. Spiritual evil at its most murderous. I am now not so sure that doing so for my selfish purposes honors the lives of those for whom this was more than just a lived experience but an always-present reality from which there was no escape. At the same time, both Langer’s reflections and the testimonies themselves lead the reader willing to expose himself or herself to the threats they pose to conclusions that are as frightening as they are inescapable.

The major theme of Langer’s book, subtitled as it is “The Ruins Of Memory”, is how the Holocaust exists in the memories of those who came out the other side of this event. The chapter titles of his book – “Deep Memory”, “Anguished Memory”, “Humiliated Memory” and so on – point to part of his project: in order to understand the oral testimonies of Holocaust survivors (as opposed to written accounts , which follow different rules) we have to recognize how memory operates in the lives of those for whom the Holocaust is a lived experience.

Again and again, Langer leads the reader to the conclusion that something more than “memory” – he follows one survivor, Charlotte Delbo, and her distinction between “common memory” and “deep memory” – is involved. Reading the transcriptions of the testimonies, the reader can only conclude that the events they relate do not exist in time at all; indeed, Langer is at pains to highlight the temporal disruption the Holocaust creates from the personal to the historical level. Precisely because of this disruption, we are doing more than reading the stated recollections of those who once were in Treblinka, Auscwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen; they are there, have been there, and will be there. Time ceases to have any meaning; as such there is never an escape from the torments of the camps. The life, skin, sense of smell, sense of self is, in each moment, both traveling through time yet never free from the sights and smells and sounds and (lack of) feelings the camps induce. When we read these recollections, we are pulled through the veil time uses to keep us safe and are there with them. As Langer himself writes on page 69: “For the witnesses, the Holocaust is at once a lived event and a “died” event: the paradox of how one survives a died event is one of the most urgent (if unobtrusive) topics of [witness] testimonies . . .”

German theologian Paul Tillich preached a sermon entitled “The Eternal Now”, in which he described the reality of eternity less as endless time and more that all moments are alive in each moment, the whole exists not as a succession of events but as a whole without the need for perception and interpretation through our time- and space-bound categories. What could be more clear, reading these testimonies, than that they present this, tout court? Rather than a comforting notion, which is how Tillich – who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, the Gestapo close on his heels – wished to use it, the dawning fear scraping the back of our minds is there is a diabolical mirror image to the comfort of eternal bliss. Consider the following transcription of the testimony of Chaim S., on page 62-63:

No, no, no. I try in my best words to bring the picture of out it. But you see, when I . . . I see the picture in front one me; you have to imagine something. The one that listens has to imagine something. So it has a different picture for me than for the one that imagines it. At least I think so, because sometimes I hear telling back a story that doesn’t sound at all the same what I was telling., you see: it doesn’t sound the same. It was horrified and horrible, and when you live once with this tension and horrification – if that is the right word – then you live differently. Your thoughts don’t go too far. In normal life, you think about tomorrow and after tomorrow and about a year, and next year a vacation then, and things like that. Here you think on the moment what it is. What happen now, on the moment. Now is it horrible. You don’t think “later.”

How else is it possible to understand the testimony of Edith P., from pages 54 and 55?

One morning, I think it was morning or early afternoon, we arrived. The train stopped for an hour; why we don’t know. And a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you stand up?” There was just a little window, with bars. And I said, “I can’t. I don’t have enough energy to climb up.” And she said, “I’m going to sit down and you’re going to stand on my shoulders.” And I did; and I looked out. And . . I . . . saw . . . Paradise! The sun was bright and vivid. There was cleanliness all over. It was a station somewhere in Germany. There were three or four people there. One woman had a child, nicely dressed up; the child was crying. People were people, not animals. And I thought: “Paradise must look like this!” I forgot already how normal people look like, how they act, how they speak, how they dress. I saw the sun in Auschwitz, I saw the sun come up, because we had to get up at four in the morning. But it was never beautiful to me. I never saw it shine. It was just the beginning of a horrible day. And in the evening, the end – of what? But here there was life, and I had such yearning, I still feel it in my bones. I had such yearning, to live, to run, to just run away and never come back – to run to the end where there is no way back. And I told the girls, I said, “Girls, you have no idea how beautiful the sun is, and I saw a baby crying and a woman was kissing that baby – is there such a thing as love?”

In the Gospel of St. Luke, we read the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this story, Jesus tells of two men, the beggar Lazarus who sat at the gates of the rich man’s house, who died and was comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The Rich Man soon died as well, only he was consigned to a place of torment. He could see Lazarus embraced by Abraham and asked for consolation. He didn’t receive any. The above is a horrid, wicked reversal of that story: Edith P. is consigned to a place of torment from which there is no escape, while the comfortable Germans go about their lives, including loving their children, having the privilege of seeing the sun actually shine, oblivious to the hellish existence that is mere feet from them. I can imagine few tortures more awful than this particular moment when Edith P. caught a glimpse of life outside the camp, had a momentary yearning that is always with her, then wondered aloud if love really existed .

The Nazis created an infernal eternity with their industry of death. Those who entered the camps understood they were the raw material to be forged in to the final product: millions upon millions of corpses. That some few somehow avoided that fate creates a dual reality for them. They are always there, never to escape the death that awaits them on the other side of this grim assembly line. That they have escaped never relieves them of this knowledge. They cannot escape because these places and times are no-place and no-time. We who hear and read the testimonies of survivors are not so much invited to join them as we are pulled against our will to stand with them, feel the cold and constant hunger, the stink of shit and death that can never be washed from our skin, the absence of any emotion save the most base need to survive, a need that is never satisfied, even decades after they have been “liberated” and live on, having jobs and families and lives. That is the deepest horror and the deepest truth of hell: that those trapped within its gates are there, have always been there, and always will be there.

 

Holocaust Testimonies II(a): Nothing Can Prepare You

The anus mundi was the habitat of the Devil. If ever [human beings] successfully created such a habitat on earth, it was at Auschwitz.

Only at the anus mundi could the Jew as deicide, betrayer, and incarnate Devil be turned into the feces of the world. – Richard J. Rubenstein, “Religion and the Origins of the Death Camps: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation,” in After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, p.32

I usually try to provide a photograph that creates an atmosphere for what I’m writing. For this post, however, I have chosen only to link to two distinct photos. First, there’s this photograph of “the last Jew in Vinnytsia,” in his last second of life. Few images capture the bleak reality of the horrors individuals lived when faced by Nazi terror. Not only is this the last Jewish person in this small Ukranian town; he is kneeling at a pit filled with the corpses of his friends, his family, his co-workers. Knowing he is the last, he gazes at the camera with something like a plea: Please remember me. Considering the Holocaust on any level, we should always begin with the individuals who faced the machinery of death powerless, alone, understanding the fate that was theirs no matter what they did.

The other image is a pile or corpses at Majdanek. If the truly human predicament of the millions can be seen in the final moments of the life of one man, the results of years of dehumanization, increased restrictions on civil rights, and finally a desire to eradicate European Jews wherever they might be can only be understood when we sit and look at the images of corpses, barely recognizable as human, and consider what any of this means.

As Lawrence Langer notes in the first chapter of Holocaust Testimonies, the search for meaning, like every other attempt to grasp the events of the murder of European Judaism, is useless. There is no moral lesson. There are no heroes or villains; rare moments of true humanity can turn just as quickly to murder, making even those gestures of solidarity we consider part of the armory of weapons human beings have in their fight against evil not only meaningless but actually antithetical to survival.

Written accounts of victim experience prod the imagination in ways that speech cannot, striving for analogies to initiate the reader into the particularities of their grim world. This literature faces a special challenge, since it must give most readers access to a totally unfamiliar subject. When searchlights at Auschwitz are said to lick the sky like “flaming rainbows,” we are invited to use this simile as a ticket of entry to the bizarre deathcamp landscape. The singular inappropriateness of an image of natural beauty, symbolizing good fortune and joy, to describe one’s arrival at Auschwitz underlines the difficult of finding a vocabulary of comparison for such an incomparable atrocity.(pp.18-19)

Nothing at all really prepares anyone for what they will see and hear encountering evidence of the Holocaust. That is why Langer insists that, just as reading fantastic fiction requires a willful suspension of disbelief, so, too, does reading and hearing the testimonies of those who witnessed these events as victims. Part of the suspension includes a most-necessary silencing of our usual, all-too-quick need to understand the actions of survivors under traditional moral and humanistic categories. Even the landscape of death and unreality had, for many victims, a sense of familiarity that those of us who have not lived it cannot – truly – fathom, except perhaps through an extreme effort of imagination.

One [survivor] reports that when he was first brought into a crematorium area with a work detail, he did not flinch at the pules of bodies because every day in the Lodz ghetto, from which he had been deported to the deathcamp, he had seen dozens of corpses strewn about the streets. What might seem like fantasy to us became a sign of “ordinary” reality for him, so he could make the adjustment enabling him to accept this “abnormality” as part of his normal daily routine.(p.22)

If this diabolical background can become commonplace, and can be understood by we witnesses to these testimonies as really becoming so, it still takes an effort to set aside our preference for morality tales.

Expecting to encounter heroes and heroines, we meet only decent men and women, constrained by circumstances, reluctantly, to abandon roles that we as audience expect (and need) to find ingrained in their natures. Ideally, for example, even in the camps you honored the sanctity of your fellow prisoner’s bread ration, often literally the staff of life. But in practice, as these testimonies constantly remind us, starvation and moral sentiment were uneasy bedfellows. A gesture of generosity from the world of the “normal” might momentarily kindle the despondent spirit, but the starved stomach sought other nourishment. One of the most difficult truths for the outside to grasp is the moral and physical havoc wrought on conscientious human beings by hunger’s ceaseless tyranny.(p.25)

This persistent upending of our usual sense of expectation requires a depth of feeling and honest willingness to hear what is being said as a once-lived reality, rather than something either edifying or not for future generations to grasp.

Audiences have little difficult dealing with heroic gestures where the agent is in control of the choice – episodes of sharing and support and even of self-sacrifice, all of which occurred in rare favorable circumstances in the usually hostile camp environment. Such gestures feed the legends on which the myths of civilizations have been built. But few witnesses mention them in their testimony, where, unflattering as it may sound, spiritual possibility turns out to be a luxury for those not on the brink of starvation. To understand and to sympathize with unheroic gestures . . ., withholding endorsement or blame but finding instead an admissible frame for them in the moral discourse of our culture – this is one of the burdensome but crucial challenges that still lie before us . . . .(pp.26-27)

Even the most important bonds, the ones we hold up as inviolable, become a burden in a situation in which all the ways we think human beings do and should act no longer apply.

Anna G., for instance, recalling a scene on the ramp at Auschwitz upon her arrival there, relates it to her own life much later, during the postwar period of “normalcy”, suggesting how hopeless is the quest for total immunity from the original ordeal. She tells of a ten-year-old girl who refused to go to the “left” (toward death) after the selection. (earlier she had explained that the members of her transport from Plaszow, having experienced many “selections” there, had learned to dear their meaning.) Kicking and scratching, the young girl was seized by three SS men who held her down while she screamed to her nearby mother that she shouldn’t let them kill her. According to Anna G. one of the SS men approached the mother, who was only in her late twenties, and asked her if she wanted to go with her daughter. “No,” the mother replied . . . .

Hell, they say, is the absence of God. The world of the ghetto and death camp, the slave labor factory and the local community overrun by the Einsatzgruppen, God was indeed absent. As Dostoevsky noted, everything was permissible. The corpses that were the final product were sped along their way not only by the removal of any restraints on human behavior among those in control; when real human choice, our normal moral universe, even the bonds of parent and child, no longer apply, we know we have entered a Universe where sense is no-sense, where terror is the commonplace backdrop, and both the rational and temporal sequence of events, of cause and effect, no longer exist.

Nothing really prepares a person for entering Hell. It is here, however, I must go, listening to the voices of those who made it through the Pit to the other side.

Inferno

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark

For the straightfoward pathway had been lost. – Dante Allighierei, Inferno, Canto I

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One of Dore's illustrations for Inferno, with Virgil and Dante overseeing souls trapped in the pit.

One of Dore’s illustrations for Inferno, with Virgil and Dante overseeing souls trapped in the pit.

I need to confess something. It may be one of the more shameful things I’ve ever written.

I’ve never read Dante’s Divine Comedy.

And when I read the above, the very first lines of this massive, beautiful poetic adventure, I realized I have neglected a resource that has been available for 800 years. To follow as Virgil leads Dante in search for his lost Beatrice, their journey begins in Hell, spiraling down the circles.

All beginning from a dark forest, in the mid-years of his life.

What more do I need to say? I need to get a-reading, hadn’t I.

The Reach By Stephen King

She took Stella’s other arm and they moved forward again. Other figures came out of the snowy night (for it was night now). Stella recognized many of them, but not all. Tommy Frane had joined Annabelle; Big George Havelock, who had died a dog’s death in the woods, walked behind Bill; there was the fellow who had kept the lighthouse on the Head for most of twenty years and who used to come over to the island during the cribbage tournament Freddy Dinsmore held every February – Stella could almost but not quite remember his name. And there was Freddy himself! Walking off to one side of Freddy, by himself and looking bewildered, was Russell Bowie. . . .

They stood in a circle in the storm, the dead of Goat Island, and the wind screamed around them, driving its packet of snow, and some kind of song burst from her. It went up into the wind and the wind carried it away. They all sang then, as children will sing in their high, sweet voices as a summer evening draws down to summer night. They sand, and Stella felt herself going to them and with them, finally across the Reach. There was a bit of pain, but not much; losing her maidenhead had been worse. They stood in a circle in the night. The snow blew around them and they sang. – Stephen King, “The Reach”, in The Dark Descent, ed. by David G. Hartwell, p. 29

—–

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us – Hebrews 12:1

It was Garage Sale Day in our subdivision yesterday. Along with a Bloom County anthology, my wife brought home David Hartwell’s massive anthology of short horror fiction The Dark Descent. The very first story is “The Reach”, which originally appeared in Stephen King’s own collection Skeleton Crew. That was where I first read it, some thirty years ago now. I was surprised this story was included in an anthology that has “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Rocking Horse winner“, and so many other stories that range from creepy to terrifying. When I first read “The Reach” all those long years ago, I understood it wasn’t scary at all. There was something beautiful about this tale of death, of love both of people and place, and most of all of a life lived without either pretense or shame, greeting the end with courage even as fear seemed so ready to swamp you.

What I didn’t get, however, was just what King was doing at the end. It would be five years before I could name it. Five years and a year of theological education, however, made me realize that, whether he knew it or not, King was offering an example of “that great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us. When I learned that, this story that I had always enjoyed became so much more. It became something that I love, and love to share, reading it out loud to a chosen few, like my family last night at dinner.

The story is a simple-enough one: Stella Flanders has lived her whole life on Goat Island, Maine, never once crossing “the reach”, which we learn is the body of water between to bodies of land. In the autumn of 1979 she celebrates her 95th birthday, surrounded by friends. Suddenly her husband, dead 13 years now, is sitting there and asks her when she is going to cross the reach. She is too terrified to speak. Other appearances occur; these events are interspersed with her trying to form the words she knows her geat-grandchildren will not understand as to why she never once visited the mainland. When the end comes, she puts on winter clothing, straps on boots, and heads out for a walk across the winter-frozen Reach for her first and last trip to the mainland. She is found after a winter storm passes, frozen, sitting on some rocks above the tide line.

It’s seems a simple enough story. The ghostly appearances of Stella’s long deceased husband don’t really seem all that frightening. It is Stella’s fright, however, that makes us afraid. As she heads down to the small bay on the island, she sees her husband out on the ice, waving and encouraging her to come across. About half-way, a winter storm hits, blinding her. The cancer that is killing her, combined with the weather, is weakening her, physically and emotionally. Then, her husband is there, lifting her to her feet as she is about to fall. Then, her best friend, long dead, emerges from the swirling  snow. They are joined by so many others. The reason Russell Bowie is looking a bit abashed is his death was from pure stupidity: he was riding his snow mobile on the ice before it was thick enough to hold the weight, broke through and was never seen again.

The symbolism here is clear enough, the sentiments about life lived deep rather than wide are important, and that final scene so perfectly drawn that one does not need to be a Christian or use my particular interpretation as a guide to finding so much wonder and joy in this story. It is clear enough to me, however, that King found some residue of his Methodist upbringing to create a portrait of a good death of a good woman, greeted by those she had known and loved who help her cross the Reach without fear. I have held this story close to my heart for many years, even though – or perhaps because! – I find it not just beautiful in the telling, but comforting and reassuring as it offers a glimpse of our most basic hope: that our death will not result in nothingness, that those we’ve known and loved will show love for us, not allowing us to die alone.

Instead of all the corny bourgeois “Christian” films that seem to be coming out recently, I think an adaptation of this story, particularly by King’s best interpreter, Frank Darabont, would offer viewers a chance to see and hear something theologically, Scripturally, and just emotionally uplifting and powerful without it being connected to our middle-class belief that Christianity exists to support our pet institutions. One can hope, I suppose.

C. S. Lewis, “The Great Divorce”, Chapters 12 & 13

“Do you mean then that Hell – all that infinite empty town – is down in some little crack like this?”

“Yes.  All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.  Look at yon butterfly.  If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.” – C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, p. 138

After posting something from my other site on Facebook, a friend yesterday noted similarities between what I’d written and the above-mentioned chapters of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.  I’m not a fan, but my wife has a copy of the book buried in her bookshelves, so I dragged it out last night and read the particular chapters.  All I can say is I was affirmed in my belief that (a) Lewis isn’t much of a writer; and (b) his “Christianity” is not one with which I identify.

In many ways, The Great Divorce is structured much as Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  A person is led on a journey through the afterlife, although Lewis’s character rides a bus rather than walks.  Unlike Dante, with Virgil at his side, there are few asides and sly digs at politicians and others.  Lewis just doesn’t have Dante’s eye for detail, either gruesome or glorious.

Dante’s poem bears a family resemblance (if I can import a Wittgensteinian term) to the courtly love poetry that had developed in the previous couple centuries in France.  Indeed, Dante is searching the afterlife for his beloved Beatrice, something the bards of France would have accepted as noble.  It is at this point, however, that any resemblance between the two works ends.

For all so many praise Lewis, he is a clumsy writer, his attempts at describing both the horrendous and the beautiful falling flat.  That is part and parcel, however, with his view of “Christianity”.  His faith, like his writing, is a pleasant, conventionally moralistic, middle-class British bourgeois vision of good and evil, with rewards and punishments doled out for the oddest reasons.  In the chapters in question, Lewis’s character sees a woman whose beauty and light he tries, and fails, to describe, meeting up with a pair of characters, dark and shriveled, again failing to capture what was probably an attempt at pitiful and pathetic.  It turns out the woman, in life a person filled with so much joy and love she managed to change the lives of those she met, even casually, could not change the heart of the one person who mattered most: her husband.  A dour, self-pitying, passive-aggressive soul, his resentment toward his wife has, it seemed, so warped him that he refuses to let go even in death, where such letting go is possible, of the chain that ties him to a comically tragic Thespian through whose voice he speaks his disdain and on-going resentment.

I kept thinking, “Really? If this woman was as wonderful as Lewis seems to think, she couldn’t penetrate the stone-cold heart of her husband, who wishes he could have seen her dead at his feet?”  To be damned for being a sullen adolescent throughout one’s life makes of hell not so much a place to fear as a place of scorn.  Equally, to believe this woman, whose light to Lewis’s character is near blinding in its love and joy couldn’t have touched her husband, the one person in her life who truly mattered, enough to melt that heart, well, perhaps Lewis’s tolerance for light is a bit low.

Yet, here we have all that is wrong in Lewis’s vision of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, and Christianity.  Rooted in a conventional morality, he is solely concerned with who is “good” and “bad”, in some ill-defined internal way.  While certainly attempting to portray the good as beautiful, the reader gets no sense that Lewis really understand beauty as an integral part of the good (as Dante surely did in his pursuit of the beautiful Beatrice).  Furthermore, to view damnation as resulting from amounts to little more than British social psychology among members of a particular class is as drawn and pinched as the general British view of morality.

There is no sense, at least in these chapters, that evil is not the sulking of the self-absorbed.  Evil is what Lewis, and his contemporary J. R. R. Tolkien, experienced on the front lines in France during World War I.  Evil is the mass grave that was World War II, through which Lewis also lived.  Evil is leaders – German, Japanese, Russian, and even British – allowing those under their protection to die horrific deaths without a thought of the misery they were causing.  While much is written about the mass starvation Stalin allowed, the German genocide of Jews, Roma, and others, and Japanese experiments on their own people through Unit 731, few know that in 1943 India, then the homebase for what was termed the China-India-Burma Theater, underwent a famine that killed tens if not hundreds of thousands.  Even as bodies literally piled up in the streets and Indian leaders begged for relief, Churchill refused, directing any and all food imports to India solely to the troops.  Any military personnel caught sharing their food with civilians would be court martialed and shot.  We tend to think of Churchill as the great hero of The Battle of Britain, yet he is no better, no less a war criminal, than the traditional monsters whose names we remember from history books.

What evil is not is whiny middle-class men.  What good is not is a person whose love seemed to touch every other life except her husband’s.  Hell may or may not be smaller than a grain of sand; on its size I have neither opinion nor emotional investment.  On the other hand, I do know there is more to good and evil, salvation and damnation, than existed in the mind’s eye of C. S. Lewis.

As to his writing, Lewis is, much as his person in life, large and clumsy, preferring to use large hammers and bludgeons to make obvious allegories, instead of being far more subtle, again like his friend and contemporary Tolkien.  While dismissing allegory, it cannot be denied that some, at least, slipped the net Tolkien drew around his massive story.  Images from the front lives of the dead floating in flooded shell holes and trenches; he and his wife romancing beneath spring trees recounted as the romance between Aragorn and Arwen; and the far larger mythology, stretching back to The Silmarillion echoing Milton and the Bible.  Unlike Tolkien, however, the allegory in Lewis is the point of the story.  One can read and enjoy Tolkien without giving a thought to possible analogs in Western Christian mythology.

I know it will shock many people who find in Lewis both comfort and a voice of faith similar to their own.  I could not find comfort in such heavy-handed prose, without an inkling that beauty and ugliness are more than just light and dark; that good and evil are more than just psychological states of being among the middle class of Britain; and I could not find a faith that resonated with my and others understanding of the Gospel as a radical break with the broken world, a radical break that nevertheless reaches across the chasm to heal the wounds we have wrought.  Lewis’s heaven and hell are, to me, paltry things, neither to be desired nor feared but either avoided at all costs for their stuffiness or dismissed with a laugh for their pettiness and lack of horror.