Lead, kindly light
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - november 05 ]
Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverend realism, says that they are all fools.
- Chesterton (1874-1936)
Men kill lavishly out of the sublime joy of heroic triumph over evil. Voilà tout. [That’s all there is to it.]
- Becker (1924-73)
It’s no wonder that Evangelism, that old-time religion, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is back again. They say that our ignoring the covenant that requires us to praise the Lord, or something, led to the bloody 20th Century, which we somehow lived through. Now our situation is even worse. We have traded the Republic for a mess of potage. The Chinese dragon is chewing away at our vitals and a hundred thousand Moslems are waiting to rape our daughters before they slit our throats. Questions about the ethics and morality of warfare, terrorism, torture, sexuality, evolution, privacy and genocide inhabit our minds. It is our fate to live in an interesting, awe-inspiring, demonic, tragic and evil world full of people who are nuts. That includes us.
In the early 1950s the Terror started with Operation Alert, Duck and Cover, Civil Defense, fallout shelters, and the bands playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” In that atmosphere of the Bomb, President Eisenhower reminded Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson in Cabinet: “we are simply going to have to operate with people who are nuts.” [July, 1956]
The Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, scared the shit out of everyone and led to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. He had traded Cuba for a stalemate in a world of mutually assured destruction. Did you ever wonder why we have allowed Castro to remain?
We used to ask each other back then whether we were more concerned about the possibility of atomic war or the fact of our own deaths. It was so scary we were all in shock. We forgot the fact that we were going to die anyway because we were so happily busy worrying about the Cold War.
At the University of Michigan in the 1960s, in order to have a degree in English I had to defend a little treatise in front of a group of professors who examined me in a mock courtroom where they played the prosecutors. The judge was Warner G Rice, a scholar who had justified his study of Milton at Harvard in front of a jealous audience of 400 scholars. I had to serve as my own counsel.
I had spent years studying historical and theoretical linguistics, and Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic, Thai, Baulé-Agni, Somali, and the history of the English language and its literature, especially the Victorians, with Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” and Arnold’s “...ignorant armies clash by night.” The government classed me among the “scientific linguists,” and the Higher Criticism had made of me a practicing agnostic, had turned me into a morally-idiot savant, a know-it-all. I could see that the Emperor had no clothes, but because he was naked I could not see Him.
When a kindly professor had said to a relatively obtuse but winning classmate of mine “You know more about Thomism than anyone I’ve ever met,” I saw that Thomism was a trump card, much surer than bluffing. He was quite a contender in the feud for thought, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), and also his reincarnation as John Henry Newman (1801-90). They had pondered the contrasts among the actual, the invented, and the ideal, relating Platonism to the Bible in convincing ways suggested by St Augustine, and using their debating tricks called Scholasticism -- pedantic adherence to what the early Church Fathers had written about faith and reason. My knowledge of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia (1864) saved me from having to know enough to answer most of the questions put to me as a student of Victorian literature. I could simply quote Newman, and the quotation, having the respected or feared authority of the Church behind it, satisfied my professors and fellow students. I was in antidisestablishmentarian heaven. For example:
When men understand what each other mean, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.
- sermon, Oxford, Epiphany 1839
At my defense I played 10 hands of Texas Hold’em with the examiners, who were after all members of the professoriate, a medieval guild of officers obeying their superiors. Then having won enough hands for membership in their trade union, I was asked a final question, like the one doubtless asked of every marathon runner at the end of a race. Would you like a drink of water: If you were beginning your studies again, knowing what you know now, how differently would you pursue them?
“I would study cultural anthropology,” I said, to the delight of the younger teachers there. Cultural anthropologists study languages, law, politics, social structure, religion, magic, art and technology. The professors knew that university English departments were formed when departments of philosophy got rid of the historians and cultural anthropologists who did not fit into the niches of knowledge they preferred. English studies had formerly been only practical preparation for public life - grammar, composition, rhetoric, and elocution, but not history or literary criticism. The first departments of English were established when belles-lettres and Greek and Roman literature found their affinity to English language and literature. For instance, there was no English Department at Princeton until 1904.
I can claim to be a cultural anthropologist by virtue of my origin and fieldwork. I grew up in a relic culture, in Indiana amongst the Ku Klux Klan, and then I got an education in our grand culture. As a student I saw that hard rain was falling in the Waste Land, and that disillusionment and disgust were our most important products. I understood that “The world hath neither joy, nor love, nor light,” and that only Faith endures and saves, and that our secular, litigious way of life had supported moral decay, proxy wars, hysterical fright, atom-bomb drills in schools, inanity, television, degradation, sexism, schools as prisons, and the repression of religion and sex.
So, I fled. I lived for years in the Orient and Africa, seeking answers in the Buddha and Allah, and then failing to come to grips with life in Egypt, the highest expression of Islam, a hateful sore on the African continent, I fled to Canada, an efficient and nice version of home, and there found at least peace, order, and good government.
Like Ernest Becker (1924-73), the anthropologist and psychoanalyst, I moved to Canada where freedom of thought and expression are highly valued, even when the thoughts are politically incorrect and their expression unique, in spite of the Canadians having no First Amendment to ignore. For both Becker and me, it was Vietnam that confirmed the rule of the masters of war in America, a government of Fagins bought with dirty money, as if “in this life, one thing counts - in the bank, large amounts,” of course, and there’s the rub: power is the root of all evil in our world today. Heroic force is money at arms. We were rich and mighty -- heroic in our own eyes, and corrupted by power.
In his final book Escape from Evil, his apologia (1974), Becker argues that a different mythology is the only hope we have to improve our world-view based on the premise of the Enlightenment, which is “there is nothing in man or nature which would prevent us taking some control of our destiny and making the world a saner place for our children.”
Becker had found life in the USA, a country where they shoot presidents, just as bizarre, violent, and absurd as I did when I taught English under the auspices of the Presbyterian ladies of Dallas, Texas, to Marina Prusakova Oswald, the Russian wife of John Kennedy’s purported assassin.
A professor at Berkeley and San Francisco State, Becker protested the Vietnam War, getting himself fired for his actions. Kind Canadian academics gave him a refuge where he wrote his last book. He started his study of evil with the idea that all cultures are hero-systems of meaningful symbols, and that what we do in order to live fully is to play our parts in the stage-shows we find ourselves in. In the work of Freud’s student Otto Rank he found that the basic driving force in human endeavor is “the fear of life and death, and man’s urge to transcend this fear in a culturally constituted heroism.” Each of us wants to be the star athlete of a winning team. Failing that, we’ll settle for any role that gives us approval, acceptance, esteem, favor, praise, and honor, as long as we are seen by ourselves as central, indispensable, that is, necessary to our loved ones and followers. The janitor and the brain surgeon in their own special ways are heroes to themselves and others. As Paul Valéry wrote “I exist among real things, and I make them make me indispensable.”
But human society is a few-rules game filled with destructively vicious behavior. Our cultures clash with such dismaying frequency that there seems to be no alternative to our cruel ways leading to fascist, behavioral dystopias like those in Orwell’s 1984, the Third Reich, and Soviet Communism. Our selfish ways, our “culturally standardized hero systems and symbols,” that is, the lies we live by, lead to conflict, violence, personal suffering, and chaos, the result of our myths about our world.
Such is our heroic life today that the wealthy and therefore powerful hire a managerial elite, the technocrats, to plan, undertake, and coordinate our industrial, commercial, and military enterprises. Masters of Business Administration run the world. They go to special schools to learn how to make the rich richer, ignoring as much as possible the suffering and burdens they impose on common people. Financial power and military force dominate us all because we need to be a part of the big story in order for us to fulfill our personal dreams of heroism.
Whenever people submit to a powerful, centralized, bureaucratic, militarized authority, as in Saddam’s Iraq and the USA today, corruption and suffering must follow. All personal values become subordinate to the values of the rulers. And the little guy doesn’t care much. He trusts his betters. They know more than he does, or they wouldn’t be doing that, whatever it is, sending the working-class boys to war, and suborning the legislature and the courts.
In ancient Rome the magistrate had a servant who carried the judge’s badge of authority before him, a bundle of whipping sticks with an axe among them, the fasces, from which we get the term fascism, a political philosophy in which one group, or nation, or race, is exalted above all others. In fascism, a centralized, managerial government headed by despots enforces severe economic and therefore social regimentation on people.
It has ever been this way. Virgil tells of the time when Aeneas went to the Underworld to visit his father Anchises, and the Sibyl of Cumae showed him around Hades, in the days before Heaven was invented. In answer to one of Aeneas’ questions, she said:
No, not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths, and a voice of iron, could I describe all the forms of crime, or rehearse all the tales of torment. (6:625)
Yet even in the Underworld ruled by Pluto (and nowadays, because of feminism, by his wife Persephone too) there is paradise of a grand sort, Elysium (the Elysian Fields) where abide those who are favored by the gods. Elysium has its own sky and stars different from those we see on Earth. People there laugh a lot.
The Sibyl has a catalogue of man’s iniquitous acts and his depravity in face of the necessity to live a heroic life, acts that he fully believes in, stories that may well include at their climax heroic kamikaze pilots, fearless suicide bombers, brave bankers, intrepid serial killers, gutsy business men, plucky rapists, dauntless barn-burners, courageous poisoners, lionhearted atomic warriors, valiant sneak thieves, daring corrupters of youth, brave inside traders, honest lawyers, and those who gallantly serve merely by standing and waiting. Evil heroism is everywhere. It is obvious that we need fewer heroes, and a better, more humane set of values, a myth to explain us to ourselves so that we do not bring so much suffering and evil into the world.
In her long essay ‘On the Iliad’, Rachel Bespaloff (1895-1949) holds that Christianity did a good job of putting together Greek mysticism and Jewish messianic religion, that is, Aristotle and the Gospel. And, she thinks, we can do better than Christianity! Now she would go further back in our culture to try to make another synthesis between Greek and Hebrew thought. She would look for the “affinities” between the Greeks like Homer, Hesiod, Theognis, and Aeschylus and the Hebrews like Habakkuk, Job, and Hosea, in order to seek justice and God, and to proclaim man’s heroism, but she does not suggest what these affinities might be.
So what are the affinities among Homer, Hesiod, Theognis, and Aeschylus, and Hosea, Habakkuk, and Job that Bespaloff would have us find? How can we make a renewed and better myth for our times in order to proclaim justice and love? While keeping what’s good, how can we get rid of the evil consequences of heroism - competition, viciousness, acquisitiveness, neglect, tyranny, and inhumane values?
The texts that Bespaloff recommends are ancient Greek and Hebrew documents from six to eight centuries before the Common Era. The Hebrew texts of Job, Habakkuk, and Hosea are part of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. The Greek texts by Homer, Theognis, Hesiod, and Aeschylus are traditional and part of the literary canon. What is there for us in these precious texts?
Job, a just man, upright, pious, and righteous, is full of lamentation, and bad things happen to good people as well as to sinners. Suffering is not necessarily the result of sin. You cannot argue with God. Job suffers cruel losses but does not waver in his reverence and submission to God. Finally his virtue is rewarded with riches and years.
Habakkuk’s is a story of woe, a raging against God. Violence, lawlessness, injustice, and oppression are God’s punishment upon sinners. Faith in God allows His people to survive with the triumph of justice and divine mercy.
Hosea describes divine judgment upon the people of Israel, their punishment for unfaithfulness, idolatry, and oppression of the poor. He compares the covenant between God and Israel to a marriage, and Israel as a wicked, adulterous wife. They must no longer worship what they have themselves made, but rather the Higher Power.
Hesiod tells about the origin and descent of the Greek gods and how they relate to people. His Works and Days has a list of don’ts to avoid the gods’ anger, and shows how justice beats out violence. Gaia, the mother goddess of the earth, brought forth a golden age of humanity that declined as Pandora, created as a wicked revenge on Prometheus, let loose evil on mankind. After Pandora all that remains is hope.
Theognis is a pessimist, passionate about hatred and love. His advice is to be moderate in all things, and faithful, even though the horses and boys he loves do not love him in return. He says at one point “If I had money, Simonides, I would not feel such pain as I do now when in the company of the noble.” He burns with political hatred.
Aeschylus, author of the tragic plays, answers Theognis. Money does not last, but the memory of happiness does. Two wrongs do not make a right. Zeus stands for justice, but piety and human subordination to divine laws are necessary to achieve justice.
Hesiod is pessimistic, Theognis hateful, and Aeschylus tragic. Job is miserable, Hosea bitter, and Habakkuk hysterical. How are we to find anything hopeful and meliorative in these old texts? I do not know, and neither does Bespaloff. She says that a putting together of these “pure elements” was not possible or desirable, but “there is and will continue to be a certain way of telling the truth, proclaiming the just, of seeking God and honoring man, that was first taught us and is taught us afresh every day by the Bible and by Homer.”
In the same vein, Simone Weil demonstrates at length how Christianity was pre-figured in Greek culture in her book Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks. However, she has no truck with the Hebrews, finding them as evil as the Romans, and that goes for Rabbinical Jewry and the Roman Catholic Church too. Furthermore, in her essay “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” reissued along with Bespaloff’s essay in War and the Iliad (New York Review Books, 2005), Weil praises the Iliad as the first and greatest poem of the European peoples, and she hopes that they will yet rediscover the epic [mythic] genius when they learn to accept fate, study war no more, love their enemies and respect the unfortunate, that is, when they act as Christians are supposed to act.
Greek history began with an atrocious crime: the destruction of Troy. ...the Greeks were haunted by the memory of it, by remorse... the bitterness of human misery. - Weil
Before there were any classic Greek plays, there was the epic story of the Iliad, a long poem about how groups of tribal people got together to conquer, that is, to expropriate the city-state and gateway to Asia, Troy [Ilium], by destroying its defenders and demanding the fealty of the survivors. King Agamemnon of Argos, conqueror of Troy, wanted to control the Aegean Sea and possess the riches of the East long before the Greeks colonized Italy, or began the Olympic games, or fought the Persians and each other for their freedom.
At the conclusion of the Iliad, King Priam of Troy, the center of the epic poem, has lost everything - his sons, his family, and his kingdom. He begs Achilles, the killer of his son Hector, for his dignity, but not for his freedom. All his property and all his people are lost to him; thus he has no freedom to dominate anything or anyone. However, he still has his pride and identity, and Achilles, his conqueror, having lost his best friend Patroclus, whom he loved more than anyone, and at whose funeral pyre Achilles has just beheaded twelve teenage Trojan boys as an offering to the gods, shares Priam’s suffering and grief, seeing in his demeanor Priam’s proud and vanquished heroism.
Achilles and Priam have a good, cathartic sob together. They share their grief, weeping and wailing. Then they celebrate their common heroic humanity by sharing dinner. And if that isn’t a Eucharist [Greek gratitude and joy] and Communion, what is?
The Trojan War is a tragedy for both the Trojans and their conquerors: the point of the poem. The suffering caused by the war was equal on both sides, and the lesson learned is that Fate leads us to death, but along the way we can and must preserve our honor and heroic status even in defeat - if not our possessions, our families, our weapons, our armor, our slaves, or our wealth. Our heroism is the only thing that matters. We may be wise or clever, we may be agile and strong, we may be wealthy, but these are minor. What matters is that we resist the evil that takes away our heroism and that which is honorable.
Resisting evil often requires the use of force; the use of force causes tragedy and intense feelings of terror and pity. Whenever our willful intentions cause us grief, when circumstances seem to have conspired against us, when ignorance has led to error and loss, when our obligations have weighed us down, we need catharsis, relief, and the cleansing of our consciences, we can turn to Homer. The model for the poets who wrote the tragic plays among the oldest texts of our civilization, Homer showed that pity, fear, guilt, and doubt are assuaged through tragedy.
Why are Christmas and Easter so happy? Because looming over all the celebration is our knowledge of humiliation and death. The tragedy of Christmas and Easter is the familiar story of the Savior who comes to us, a child with the blood of kings, born to humble parents, who must suffer the Passion and then die a horrible death.
In myths, the story elements of conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement are already known perfectly well, just as in the Nativity and the Crucifixion. The life of Jesus is short: He is born, and then suddenly, 30 years later, He is teaching and dying. The only allowed changes in the story are elaborations on the characters’ feelings and awareness, their responses to the events of the story, as in Mel Gibson’s cinematic depiction of Christ’s passion. The Jesus story belongs with Aeschylus and Shakespeare, with the other sacred and therefore frozen works that make up the Western literary canon. The story does not allow of variation. It is frozen and sacred. Any variation in the story, for example Jesus opening a bed-and-breakfast ashram for Western tourists in India, is looked upon with humor or outrage.
Greek epic became Greek tragedy, and then Greek tragedy and all that it tells us about the human condition became the Passion of Christ and His Gospel. That is to say that the Greek experience of domination and acceptance became the tragic vision that Christianity took as its core, the ethos of the West today, which differs in no real way from the moral nature of the guiding beliefs of the Ancient Greeks. Following their heroic ideals they conquered peoples, and then took them in, using them and making them part of their own way of life.
The Greek tragic plays were the religious ceremonies of the times. They were morality tales, educative discourses intended to remind people of fate, and meant to teach them how to live, warning them of the consequences of false witness, murder, and theft. They have been called “rhapsodic authority,” poetic verses that laid down the moral law, visions of life as tragic, in verse that was the hip-hop, the rap music of those days.
Texas chainsaw, left his brains all
Danglin’ from his neck, while his head barely hangs on
Blood, guts, guns, cuts,
Knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts.
Bitch I’ma kill you! You don’t wanna fuck with me.
Girls neither - you ain’t nuttin but a slut to me...
You betta kill me! I’ma be another rapper dead
For poppin off at the mouth with shit I shouldn’t’ve said.
- Marshall Mathers
Take, for example, the play Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus, the Fifth Century BC dramatist. Prometheus, who is a Titan, the Forethinker, is one of the giants ruling the earth. He saves humanity with the gift of fire, which he has stolen in defiance of Zeus, who chains poor Prometheus to a rock. Prometheus has a secret [the arts and science] that threatens Zeus’ power. Zeus is a tyrant. Defying the gods, especially Zeus, or Jupiter, or God, as we call Him, causes severe and inevitable punishment. Prometheus is cast into the Underworld for further torture because of his defiance. Yet Prometheus possesses a forceful will and a great secret: he forgives the power-mad, oppressive God. Forgiveness is the secret - forgiveness and the ability to dream other dreams and better.
In our case, God so loved the world all right, but He left the Jews and the Romans in power, and ever since then the Romans have been persecuting the Jews, and so the Christians among the Romans and Jews have suffered collateral damage. The Roman Catholic Church is a fascist state within states, and the Jews have the God they deserve.
In our return to religion in our post-secular world, what do we find? What is our new Being like? Social concern and generosity make democracy worth the considerable trouble it takes. The way to our heroic triumph is clear and fully laid out before us, and there is every reason to believe we retain distinct personalities and human rights. We have consolation for all the injustices that occur, with love and understanding in our godly communities. Retribution is done away with, our other cheeks turned until slapping is seen as silly. Selflessness, the Buddhist ideal, is considered heroic and expected. Our communities are made up of eager emigrants waiting for their visas to Nirvana. The few cultural differences that remain are tolerated and accommodated, with all politicians devoted to principles of equality and fairness. Government by consent guarantees the worth of individuals and their equality in the sight of God and man. The ethic of love gives us emancipation from servitude, free collective life in brotherly solidarity, and democracy based on autonomy, individual morality, and conscience.
The mad idea of monotheism fades as we understand that our world is not organized from the top down, but from the bottom up. Such understanding comes as we recognize the benevolent spirits, ghosts, elves, satyrs, fays, fairies, and even the imps and gremlins living in our world, and St. Teresa’s “life of God within us.” The Greek gods, analogues of the Hindu gods, are still with us in the collective unconscious. Wherever the original Indo-European people have lived, they take their gods along as they spread over the earth, the names of the gods changing as myths and languages naturally change. The Greek gods and the Christian saints and angels continue to do identical work for us, hearing our prayers. Science (the love and study of nature), and philosophical logic fuse into faith in our heroic existence. And everyone honors God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Adonai, Allah, Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, along with Zeus, the Olympian gods, and the gods of Hades, and all the Christian saints and angels and the lares and penates, the household gods, and the flying spaghetti monster if appropriate.
What we need is a metaphysic of New Being, a recipe for change for the better, new myths about our individual, organic heroism. We have to work with our children and ourselves to make the immanent new life come into existence, teaching them and ourselves how to live in harmony with nature, remaining in touch with our inner strength and creativity, so that we can make a better life in our materialistic culture. We need to take more of the world into ourselves and develop new forms of courage and endurance, and face up to the contradictions of the real world. Paradox and ambiguity are essential parts of the human experience. We have to live with contradictions, and learn to live with others’ favorite phantoms, inconsistencies, and lies.
This idea of the Gospel of New Being owes much to the theologians Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and Reinhold Niebuhr (1891-1971), both of whom recoiled with disgust at the therapeutic hypnotism of Evangelicals and other know-nothing religionists whose idea of practical religion is a mindless, slavish morality. Back in the 1950s, Billy Graham was invited to speak at the Union Theological Seminary in New York where Tillich and Niebuhr were teaching. Grudgingly, Tillich and Niehbur went along with their students to hear the popular Evangelical preacher. Disagreeing with Graham’s mindless message, Tillich is said to have wept. Years later, Niehbur refused to meet with Graham, an act presumably beneath the dignity of a thoughtful person.
The Homeric myth... is like a foreplan of the new myth which in the future may stand at the religious center of mankind’s system of values...the ethical theogony [faith] in which the new myth will receive its being... Fate again will be humanized, and presumably it will be not only human, as was Homer’s Force, but also humane... supplanted by Christ’s love. – Hermann Broch, in War and the Iliad
Achilles, Hector, Patroclus, Paris, and Ulysses [Odysseus], for example, all listen to the gods and triumph in their roles, even though Fate eventually cuts them off as it must.
They are heroic, but have nothing beyond their heroism except the knowledge that time is only always now, the edge where energy is converted to mass that returns to earth, a consequence of gravity. Suffering is a short-lived illusion, as are the passage of time, life, and death.
Simone Weil offers the surest way: “...the sense of human misery is a precondition of justice and love.” It was this human misery, especially anti-Semitism, the great Jewish heretics Spinoza, Marx, and Freud were trying to cure. One way to end such affliction is to end the one afflicted, so if the greatest Western calamity was the fall of Troy, the next greatest were the bombing of Dresden and the Holocaust. And then there was Hiroshima.