Sunday, 30 November 2008

Herbert's God

I've been rereading the late A. D. Nuttall's Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John. At only 144 pages, it is a staggeringly compressed, clear and strong-brained book, situated in Nuttall's familiar territory between literary criticism and philosophy.

The longest section in the book is a fairly full reading of George Herbert's The Temple, seeing it as a partly submerged but very radical critique of Calvinist doctrine, to the which Herbert consciously assented as a Puritan divine. Nuttall is brilliant at showing how lyric poetry can constitute an unexpectedly, even unconsciously, trenchant philosophical and theological critique.

The argument is complex, but it is entertaining to read Nuttall's horror of Calvin's grotesqueries. Hard Calvinism is truly the most monstrous of all theological systems; Nuttall points out that the gall and ashes of its most extreme tenets are also its fundamental ones. First, human beings are totally depraved, incapable of doing good - any kind of good - without the action of God's grace. Even an apparently 'good' or 'virtuous' human action without God's grace active in it has the nature of sin in the eyes of God. Even your virtues are sinful. All truly good actions are, in fact, performed by God. When a Calvinist acts with virtue, it is not he or she who acts by their own will, but God who acts in them. When you praise God, that is in fact God in you praising Himself. We remember Herbert's line in 'Prayer I', defining prayer as 'God's breath in man returning to its source.' (As Nuttall wryly comments, 'The image is very beautiful but at the same time obscurely troubling. Most of us prefer fresh air to CO2.') To Calvin, we are incapable of willing good; esse est peccare, to exist is to sin.

On the other hand, we are capable of willing evil: we are responsible for our sins but not for our (apparent) virtues. All human beings thus deserve eternal damnation for our utter depravity. In damning all, God gives himself material on which his grace may more gloriously act; God redeems some human beings in Christ entirely to please Himself, for His own glory, rather than from any mercy. God saves some - never by their desert - and damns the rest eternally. Except that 'damns', in the present tense, is the wrong time-frame to employ, in Calvin's view: as God is eternal and unlimited by time, He had already decided whether you or I are headed for Hell or Heaven even before the creation of the universe. So when you stand before the Heavenly Judge on the Last Day and are consigned to the pit of fire and brimstone, then it will be true to say that you will have been damned from all eternity. Calvinist theology necessitates doing some very funny things with tenses.

The hideous God of Calvin - a bloated divine tycoon concerned with getting a return on His 'investment', arbitrary and filled with hatred for His fallen creation - is an unattractive figure, Blake's Urizen mingled with Moloch. Nuttall argues, cleverly, whether the obvious question had not occurred to Herbert: if this horrendous theology is correct, then - one shudders to say it - is God, in fact, evil? Some of the poems of The Temple do indeed seem to imply an unconscious assertion of the moral victory of the creature (Herbert) over the creator, as Nuttall reads them. After all, some virtues - humility, submission, worship, for example - become precisely meaningless and cease to exist qua virtues when not performed by an inferior being to a superior one. If Herbert's humility before God is actually God being humble in him, if his submission is really God in him submitting to Himself, then his humility and submission are self-cancelling. Virtue becomes a kind of weird divine self-respect, conducted through a human subject. Herbert knows this, and recoils from it.

Further, Nuttall shows that the assertion - absolutely fundamental to all Christian theology - that God is good, is severely problematised by the implications of Calvin's arguments. The crux of the matter is what we mean when we predicate something of the Deity. 'God is our Father' is a predication which is ultimately analogical, a metaphor based on human experience of biological paternity. God is not my father in the way that my father is my father. But, there are deeper metaphorical underpinnings: God is, like a human father, a source and a protector, for example: qualities that support the metaphor of 'God is our Father' from below, as it were. But when we say 'God is good', we are not employing a metaphor. There must be a continuum of identity between human goodness and divine goodness, otherwise they could not both be denoted with the same word. (This argument also holds good for 'wise' and 'wisdom'.) When we say 'God is good' and 'Jane is good', there is a difference of degree, but not of kind. But if we separate human virtue and that which pleases God so wholly as does Calvin, then we have to posit a special category of 'goodness', entirely separate and distinct from human goodness (which is, of course, really evil in God's eyes), defined in circular fashion as 'What God is.' If human goodness and divine goodness are thus completely uncoupled, it is impossible to predicate of the Deity any of the things we commonly see, in human terms, as belonging to and characteristic of goodness. If God is good in a unique, divine sense of 'good', then God is not thereby obliged to be, say, merciful, just or loving. Being outside human moral laws, He is quite at liberty to be hateful, unjust and merciless, whilst as the same time remaining wholly and utterly good.

Nuttall is superlative in his explorations of the way that these kinds of bleak paradoxes are played out within Herbert's poetry; Overheard by God is a little book which I highly recommend. However, be warned: like many of Nuttall's writings (e.g. A New Mimesis, at once a homage to Auerbach and a learned critique of deconstruction, or Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?) it is long out of print and hard to find.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Dreadful pun

This had me roaring on the train, and comes from Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, which I am reading - shamefully - only now, at the age of 28.

* * *

Lord Merlin wandered round with his tea-cup. He picked up a book which Fabrice had given Linda the day before, of romantic nineteenth-century poetry.

'Is this what you're reading now?' he said. ' "Dieu que le son du cor est triste au fond des bois." I had a friend, when I lived in Paris, who had a boa constrictor as a pet, and this boa contrictor got itself inside a French horn. My friend rang me up in a fearful state, saying: "Dieu que le son du boa est triste au fond du cor." I've never forgotten it.'

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The vacant intracranial spaces

Tacking hard to the right (to my horror) I find myself concurring with Theodore Dalrymple on the absolutely tragic death of 'Baby P.' I don't always agree with Dalrymple - far from it - but sometimes I really, really do, and his intelligently sceptical, rationalist views carry much weight. When I read him, I'm reminded of Quentin Crisp, who wrote: "If you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be a romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist." Or as a cynic, one might add.

* * *

Staying with child-abuse, but turning from tragedy to dark farce, the case of kidnapped nine-year-old Shannon Matthews continues: American readers, this is worth exploring if you want a horrified, half-suppressed laugh.

The Times had a brilliantly snobbish write-up of the courtroom proceedings of the trial of Shannon's mother: I especially liked: 'The jurors were shown a simplified version of Shannon's family tree', in which the word 'simplified' conveys a kind of middle-class nose-wrinkling at a large working-class family with multiple step-dads and half-siblings.

That said, one gapes in awe at the stupidity of Karen Matthews, who appears to have masterminded (if that is the correct term) the kidnapping of her own daughter in order to get the reward offered by the The Sun. The kid was dosed on temazepam by her maternal uncle and kept in a drawer under a divan bed for several weeks. 'The plan was' (says The Times) 'to release Shannon in Dewsbury Market and for Donovan [her mother's uncle] to discover her. The plan thereafter was to claim the reward which, by the time of Shannon’s discovery, was £50,000.' Slight flaw here: did they not expect the police to find it suspicious that Shannon should just be found wandering around by a member of her own family? (Whadda the chances?!) And second, did they not expect Shannon, when interviewed by the police on her recovery, to have said that she was abducted by her maternal uncle, her 'discoverer', and kept in his house?! The uncle hadn't blindfolded her or hidden his identity from her. Was she just supposed to have kept her mouth shut so that her appalling mother could snaffle the loot? Or was she supposed to have been so zonked out on pills that she thought a drawer in a divan bed was a suite at the Leeds Metropole?!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Dog as Schoolmaster

Blake, from The Four Zoas: the Wail of Enion, the Earth Mother, with Blake channelling Jeremiah and Job.

I am made to sow the thistle for wheat; the nettle for a nourishing dainty
I have planted a false oath in the earth, it has brought forth a poison tree
I have chosen the serpent for a councellor & the dog for a schoolmaster to my children
I have blotted out from light & living the dove & the nightingale
And I have caused the earthworm to beg from door to door
I have taught the thief a secret path into the house of the just
I have taught pale artifice to spread his nets upon the morning
My heavens are brass my earth is iron my moon a clod of clay
My sun a pestilence burning at noon & a vapor of death in night

What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the withered field where the farmer plows for bread in vain

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summers sun
And in the vintage & to sing on the waggon loaded with corn
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer
To listen to the hungry ravens cry in wintry season
When the red blood is filled with wine & with the marrow of lambs
It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements
To hear a dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan
To see a god on every wind & a blessing on every blast
To hear the sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies house
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, & the sickness that cuts off his children

While our olive & vine sing & laugh round our door & our children bring fruits and flowers
Then the groans & the dolor are quite forgotten & the slave grinding at the mill
And the captive in chains & the poor in the prison, & the soldier in the field
When the shattered bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity
Thus could I sing & thus rejoice, but it is not so with me!

Friday, 7 November 2008

ἥκω Διὸς παῖς...

In The Times today, Caitlin Moran remarked on the resemblance between British actor Jaye Davidson ('The Crying Game') and Barack Obama. I totally fail to see it myself, but it reminded me how badly I wanted Davidson to play Dionysus in a film version of Euripides's Bakkhai, which at one point I had, like, all worked out. The messenger-speech was to be cut - I hate that tedious convention of the genre - in favour of actually showing the night-time dismemberment of Pentheus by the Maenads on Mount Kithairon. Pentheus' tearing asunder was going to be soundtracked by Bjork's 'All is Full of Love'. (Imagine the magical first seconds of the song as the camera pans though the moonlit pine-woods, before the horror unfolds.)

Davidson's intriguing sexual ambiguity is just right for a play in which androgyny and the necessary reconciliation of opposites in one being is so foregrounded. Dionysus is everything which elides, dissolves, loosens: the universal solvent, Plutarch's hugra phusis, 'watery nature'. Alien and yet mysteriously native, male and yet feminine, god of things that seem real and yet are not (life-enhancing theatre, life-destroying psychosis), at once devastator and renewer, cosmic principle and oriental cult-totem, Dionysus is one of the most fascinating gods in the Greek pantheon. How can that huge, impersonal force in nature which pounds and grinds and churns all flesh to sopping mulch appear onstage, delicate and perfumed, followed by a band of god-intoxicated women, like another Krishna among the Gopis, but smiling an infinitely sinister smile?.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Hallowe'en and the Evangelicals

Horrendous thing on the South-East ITV news on the 31st: an evangelical Christian-organised alternative Hallowe'en. Naturally this involved a ring of bored tots sitting round in a Church hall eating biscuits whilst Christian youth-workers led them in saccharine songs about Jesus. 'Jesus was a little lamb, his fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.' Or something. The light shined in the darkness, you see, and the darkness (viz, moi) comprehended it not.

Dyspeptic as I am about most aspects of Paganism, and respectful as I am about many aspects of Christianity (I like a nice Evensong as much as the next man), this sort of thing arouses my extreme distaste. First the youth-workers. The one interviewed was about 23, with blond straightened hair and angular, trendy glasses. Ping! went my gaydar - I wonder how that's working out for him. With a kind of horrible, glassy, fixed smile, he explained that it was the intention of his church to provide a place where children could get away from the annual celebration of evil and darkness that is All Hallows, and instead they could stress 'the positive' and 'the light.' By this time I was jumping up and down at the telly, shouting 'Have you never read Jung, man?! What about Bruno Bettelheim?!'

Kids need darkness. They need to be scared, whilst still being held securely by careful parents. Boundaries need to be explored, tested. They need to acknowledge the reality of death and decay, that ultimately nothing is permanent; and this is best done through play and make-believe. Now I suppose all this is in contradiction to the eschatological hopes of Christianity, which don't appeal to me. (Is there any more desolating line in the Bible than Revelation 21.1? - '...for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.' I bloody liked the bloody sea.) But I loathe this kind of Panglossian evangelicalism, which reminds me of nothing so much as one of those bright, striplit 24-hour shopping centres with their endless thin gruel of musak seeping out of the speakers. Or perhaps evangelical Christian churches are more like the spiritual equivalent of Motorway Services: overlit, overpriced, brutal, crude, at once constantly thronged and utterly empty. Do they not know that the Bridegroom comes at midnight?

The psychological and spiritual ramifications of this narcissistic splitting and repression are frightening. What gets tamped down into the collective Shadow along with the 'evil' and the 'darkness'? Night, and with it sleep, and silence. Emptiness and waiting. Genuine mourning, and its capacity to heal. The ability to deal with ambiguity and nuance, with the ambivalence of thresholds and doors, with cyclicity - the ebb and flow of things. Insight, and honesty. The mysterious unsafety of the world. Our common human flesh.
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