Sunday, June 13, 2004

A twice-told tale-2


Marlowe (1564-93)

Marlowe’s greatest play was the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus. The Faust figure is Lutheran in origin, and was, according to tradition, based on a seminary dropout who dabbled in the dark arts.

Many characters in drama and literature are stock characters that represent variations on perennial role relations and personality traits (mother/father; husband/wife; sibling rivalry; young lovers; star-crossed lovers; the prodigal son; bravery/betrayal, &c.).

But the Faust figure is a rather novel character. For the Faust legend has its background in the Renaissance and Reformation. And this character is distinctive to a Christian worldview. For Faust is an apostate, and apostasy is only meaningful given a certain view of God and God’s relations to man. The Renaissance, with its neopagan nostalgia, and the Reformation, with its weight on our individual standing before God, lay out the polarities with a grim clarity.

Marlowe’s treatment is seminal. Faust differs from the Classical tragic figure, for his downfall is not owing either to ill-fate or some character flaw. Rather, he enters into a blood-pact with the Devil which he believes to be unbreakable. The tragedy gathers intensity and momentum as the clock literally ticks down to the moment of reckoning.

This notion of time is also distinctive to the Christian worldview—what with the day of the Lord and hour of judgment (cf. Mt 20:1-9; 25:1-13; Lk 12:13-21). And one mark of a post-Christian culture is a reversion to the old solstitial and equinoctial divisions of the year, as when Mircea Eliade opens his novel (The Forbidden Forest) on the Eve of St. John (=summer solstice).

There is, with Marlowe, a note of panic and pitched despair entirely missing from the work of his younger and greater contemporary. Ironically, Marlowe is the more religious for being the more irreligious; as a sodomite, he cannot afford Shakespeare’s spiritual complacency. For Marlowe, the fate of Faust was all too close to his own impending and everlasting doom.

Spenser (c1552-99)

It is hard for the modern reader to take The Faerie Queene seriously. The very title, the chivalric trappings, the allegory of Elizabeth, all seems hopelessly quaint and silly. And there are, no doubt, some dated aspects to Spenser. But if we clear away some of the period touches, we will uncover a thing of enduring worth and perennial importance.

The Faerie Queene is not merely an allegory to Elizabeth. For the business of Una and Archimago, the Dragon and the Redcrosse Knight, pick up on themes that go back to the Revelation of John. Una is the Bride of Christ (Rev 12:1; 19:7; 21:2; 22:17; cf. Cant 6:4,10). Archimago is the false prophet (Rev 13:11-18). The Redcrosse Knight is the rider on the white horse (Rev 19:11-16). And the Dragon is the devil (Rev 12:3ff.; 20:2).

So the Georgian motif goes back to the Apocalypse. Christ is the Dragon-slayer, the knight on the white horse. The Church is his bride. He defeats the Dragon and the false prophet in open tournament.

And this has, in turn, an OT basis. Solomon was a warrior-king and type of Christ (Ps 45:3-4; cf. Rev 19:15). And Solomon’s bride was a type of the Church (Ps 45:13-14; cf. Rev 19:7-8; 21:2; Cant 6:4,10; cf. Rev 12:1). The Georgian themes are also incipient in the little Apocalypse of Isaiah (Isa 26:17-27:1).

See in this light, Spenser’s allegory, if stripped of its topicality, has its inspiration in another allegory which is at once universal and particular. Every love story is an exemplum of God’s love affair for the Church. And Spenser’s Epithalamion is heir to Solomon’s epithalmion (Ps 45; cf. Canticles).


Bunyan (1628-88)

If the Commedia is the finest specimen of Christian fiction in general, and Catholic fiction in particular, then the Pilgrim’s Progress is the finest specimen of Evangelical fiction in general, and Reformed fiction in particular. What a difference a Reformation makes! Although I admire Dante’s peerless artistry, I can never love his vision, whereas the Pilgrim’s Progress would be in my backpack for the proverbial desert island.

Unlike Dante’s narrative journey, Bunyan’s is fundamentally allegorical. Hence, Bunyan escapes anachronism, for the reader does not have to adjust his viewpoint to modernity. If a modern reader finds Bunyan incredible or even repellent, this is not because he is a modern reader, but because he cannot stand the theology. For a Calvinist, past or present, the allegory is quite credible on its own level.

But even if the reader buys into Bunyan’s scale of values, his methods are somewhat in tension with his aims. For Christian is in such a hurry to escape the world that the reader glimpses the world in a sideways blur.

Although Bunyan warns the reader and tells the reader to flee the city of destruction, he shows him precious little. Bunyan is better on pride of life than the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh. No Alpine vistas. No Venetian sunsets. No marble palaces. No siren-songed ladies. Why the omission?

One reason may simply be that Bunyan was not a man of the world. He could not write Byronically had he wanted to, for he had never done the Grand Tour of the Continent or the Orient. Thus the kingdoms of the world and the glory thereof were not within reach of his imagination.

But there is, I suspect, a deeper aversion. Bunyan is so fearful of subjecting his readers to the fate of Lot’s wife that he dare not show them the cities on the plain, lest he and they should suffer the same Medusian fate.

So this creates a certain narrative tension. If no man having put his hand to the plow and sneaking a backward glance is fit for the kingdom, then Bunyan can only show the reader where he is headed, but not how he got there. And, of course, Bunyan cannot maintain that viewpoint consistently, for we would never see the pilgrimage, but only the destination. Now, Bunyan can try to get around this by allegorizing the world, the flesh and the devil, but, of course, the average reader is not tempted by the symbols, but by what they symbolize. What the reader does not derive from Bunyan is any palpable sense of loss, of what was left behind, of why it should be such a wrenching experience to tear oneself away from the city of destruction.

And this is a real challenge for Christian fiction, be it by a novelist or poet, playwright, screenwriter or short storyteller. How do we write about temptation without tempting the reader? How do we avoid voyeurism and complicity without contriving a doll house world in which no reader either lives or so desires? Is there a happy mean between the obscenity of the Inferno and the effeminacy the Heir of Redclyffe?

This is largely a matter of degree. It is one thing to offer a thumbnail sketch of the perennial temptations and fellow feelings with which everyone is familiar, quite another to initiate or saturate the reader in various refinements of evil. Our job is not to acquaint the reader with evil or deepen his acquaintance, but to say enough that he can recognize and relate to the situation. Where sin is concerned, what the author has to contribute is not so much his magnified powers of sight, but his powers of moral insight—by showing the reader how sin is seen from a God’s-eye viewpoint, under judgment and mercy. And that is the balance we find in the Bible, with its blunt, but brief hammer strokes.

Bunyan’s personified vices and virtues follow in a long legacy that reaches back through Spencer (Faerie Queene), Langland (Piers Plowman), and Dante (Commedia), to Prudentius (Psychomachia). It is generally difficult for a reader to cozy up to a personified virtue. Dante pulls it off by using real men and women whereas Bunyan succeeds by relying on his lively imagination and natural command of the common touch. Bunyan, like Dante, is at once poetic and plainspoken. He can say more with one arresting phrase than Tolkien can in fifty pages of lead-booted prose.

Bunyan is above all a spiritual guide, and he doesn’t trust the reader to draw the moral of the story. So he breaks the spell from time to time. This is not only an artistic flaw, but unnecessary from a pedagogical standpoint. Instead of breaking the allegory, he should extend the allegory by drawing on more metaphors. The Bible is chock-full of spiritual similes that Bunyan could spin into further vignettes. They would make his doctrinal points consistent with the roadside allegory.

In some says, Bunyan, with his extreme heavenly-mindedness, represents a limiting-case of the Anabaptist philosophy of history. Bunyan’s otherworldliness is owing, in part, to the popular confusion of the intermediate state with the final state. Given this conflation, there is no distinction between the world and worldliness. To be truly spiritual and heavenly-minded is to be otherworldly. A worldly-denying piety is identical with a world-denying piety.

Now, this is a half-truth, and shares all the virtues and vices of a half-truth. Life here-below is often poor, brutish, nasty and short. We leave the world as naked as we came, and death seals our eternal fate for better or worse.

But the effort to treat men as angels fosters a hypocritical piety. By being cheated of half our birthright we are thereby led to despise the natural goods of God and feign to be something we are not and ought not and cannot be.

Another source of Bunyan’s otherworldliness is doubtless the fact that he lived in times of social unrest and upheaval, and was famously the target of religious persecution. Writing from a prison cell in revolutionary times naturally lent an apocalyptic temper and tempo to his outlook—especially in the first installment.

There is a related element which is missing from The Pilgrim's Progress—especially in the first part. A Christian pilgrim has a duty to maintain the trail for those that come after—to weed it, to repair a fallen guidepost, to clear away moss on the landmarks, to keep it from becoming overgrown. We are on a journey, but we must stop, from time to time, to keep the trail open for the benefit of those that follow in our footsteps.

That, of course, is the reason why Bunyan wrote the story in the first place—as a travel guide for future pilgrims. But even though the author is a travel guide, the character of Christian is not. And in his haste to make it into Immanuel's Land without a pause or backward glance, there is the unwitting and irresponsible suggestion that we should only concern ourselves with our own soul's salvation, and not with the welfare of those that must someday trod the same path. But a good guide will sometimes tarry, or even backtrack, to lead some stragglers up the trail. Every delay is not a default.

After his release from prison, we observe a shift in emphasis from the bridge-burning fervor and breathless alacrity of the first installment to the more chivalric mood and cadence of the sequel, with Great-heart assuming a knightly role as he protects and escorts Christiana and her youthful brood. And this, of course, reflects a shift in Bunyan’s personal fortunes—released from solitary confinement to take up the more leisurely, comforting and communal domesticities of marital life and pastoral ministry. They may still be nomads, with the Promised Land afar off, but they have found a little oasis in the wilderness—or maybe a tree-lined stream skirting the trail.

Has Bunyan gone soft out of the saddle? The fact is that both installments of the PP are appropriate to Christian experience—depending on the varied circumstances of our pilgrimage. In general, most believers will marry and raise up seed to the Lord. And family life needs a certain element of stability. But some believers have been called upon to suffer severe persecution for the faith.

The character of Christian presents a striking contrast to the traits of the epic hero. To go from Gilgamesh, Perseus, Theseus, Odysseus, Diomedes, Achilles and the like to Christian marks a seismic shift in moral theology. They triumph by dint of their resourceful self-reliance, but Christian triumphs by grace and faith. True to his name, Great-heart is another one of the supreme characters of world literature, and impossible apart from the revelation of the Gospel.

Milton (1608-74)

There are few, of any great writers from the past, whose stock has fallen so far or so fast as Milton. At one time he was widely regarded as the greatest writer in the language. To some extent, his decline coincided with the rise of the Romantic era and the revival of Dante, the poet laureate of Romantic sensibilities.

One difficulty in reading Milton is the barrier of formality between the author and the reader. Unlike Dante or Bunyan, Milton was not the sort of open-souled writer to let down his guard and interject himself feelingly into his characters. Although he exposes his sympathies in the portrayal of Satan, and reveals his antipathies in the depiction of apostate Eve, that is unintended.

Whether or not this is an artistic flaw is debatable. One could argue that you can’t miss what you never aim for. And it may be that our modern appetite for emotional transparency should not be elevated to a necessary standard of artistic excellence. Yet, after making all due allowance, if a reader cannot identify with the situation and characters, that is generally a failure—unless the author is trying to alienate the reader for artistic effect. So Milton’s emotional detachment is a weakness. Ultimate, the author is his own quarry. There is a primitive power in The Epic of Gilgamesh that is missing in Milton’s self-conscious and image-conscious epic.

An aspect of his formality is his rhetorical register. One of the problems is that his style is oratorical in the classical sense of the word: language crafted to impress rather than express—to sway and persuade. Milton was knee-deep in the revolutionary politics of the day, and the speeches he puts into the mouths of his characters are transcribed from the declamatory rhetoric of pulpit and Parliament. But even a knight on a high horse must dismount now and then to attend to certain humble and pressing necessities. Reading Milton is too much like taking a shower in a tuxedo.

By choosing the Fall as the theme of his poem, his theme, in turn, chose the basic plot and cast of characters. So at one stroke, he has made, or we might say, preempted, a number of creative decisions. To that extent, PL practically writes itself.

But that presents its own challenges. Because it commits him to a certain setting and set of characters, it thereby sets up a standard of success and failure. The action will take place in heaven, hell, and the newly-minted earth. The major characters will be the Father and the Son, Satan, Michael and other archangels, as well as Adam and Eve.

Now, his conception of hell, while unconvincing, is at least an intellectually intriguing exercise in the creative imagination. This is his most original contribution. Hell is basically space without place—a trackless void of infinitude.

However, his conception of heaven and heaven’s inhabitants, as well as Eden, ransacks the annals of Greek mythology. This is not only unconvincing, but laughable as well. To be sure, the depiction of heaven presents an artistic challenge, but Milton has the precedent of Dante, and although Dante’s conception is rather too rarefied, Milton, instead of building on Dante, marks a retrograde move. Now it would not be easy to improve on Dante, but, in that case, don’t invite odious comparisons. Don’t choose such a theme unless you can rise to the challenge.

And then there’s Eden, which Milton sets in comparison and contrast to the old stopping grounds of Pan and Bacchus, peopled with fauns and wood nymphs, hung with golden apples and orient pearl.

In his defense, it may be said that Milton does not equate Eden with the garden of the Hesperides, but, rather, regards Eden as a Platonic archetype of Grecian and oriental legend. But his treatment raises a twofold problem. To begin with, the Bible places the Garden in real time and space by situating Eden in Mesopotamia (Gen 2:10-14). And since a major objective of a poem like PL is to flesh out the spare narrative of Scripture, it would have been fitting for Milton to seriously imagine the nature of unfallen existence in a pristine river valley.

Another thing which comes through is that Milton was no nature lover. That awaits Cowper. Now if Milton merely favored an urban over a pastoral aesthetic, then that is a matter of individual taste, and he is entitled to indulge his personal sensibilities. But in that event he should not have chosen a theme which, in turn, selects for a rustic setting, because he lacks a natural sympathy for his chosen subject. What Milton parades before his reader’s eyes is not a real garden, nor even an ideal version of a real garden, but an unimaginable garden. A creative writer must imagine a world that is at least believable on its own terms, with its own laws and inner logic. There is a difference between reality and realism. Even a realistic novel stylizes the real world; and even a surreal novel can be realistic according to the possibilities inherent in the narrative framework. But what Milton does is to mix-and-match rival worldviews. Dante is guilty of this as well, but less wittingly and more skillfully.

Then there’s the problem of the major characters. Even the best of them are more admirable than lovable. The reader really doesn’t care about them. The Son of God is far removed from the figure of the Gospels—at once much less divine and less humane—a wingéd Boy Scout. This is owing to Milton’s low Christology. And a lowered Christology triggers a commensurate reduction in the characterization of the Father.

On the other hand, it is notorious that he makes Satan the most vivid and impressive character in the poem. Perhaps this is somewhat misleading, for it plays on the power first impressions. Milton’s design is to chart the moral decline of Satan from his high first estate.

The problem is not merely that it’s easier for a fallen author to write about a fallen character than an unfallen character. No, the problem is more personal and particular than that. It goes to the fact that Milton has a lot in common with Satan: Milton was a rebel—a proud man; a man of versatile brilliance; a political and theological iconoclast; a libertarian on the stump, but a tyrant at home. As a consequence, Satan becomes the antihero of the poem. And this is not an overly Freudian interpretation, for his contemporaries saw through the mask as well. ("And Milton, if the Devil had not been his hero, instead of Adam," Dryden, Dramatic Poesy and Other Essays [London, 1939].)

Milton’s genius was shown to better advantage in Samson Agonistes. The diction has a rugged, Job-like, grandeur, and the emphasis shifts from the outward pomp and spectacle of PL to penitent introspection. Milton classified it as a tragedy, but it is more in the vein of a personal tragedy wherein the downward motion is instrumental in a comic curve. For Samson’s disgrace occasions grace, and his heroic death delivers his people from the Philistine threat. Samson Agonistes is, in its own way, an exemplum of God’s paradoxical promise that his strength is perfected in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). (Milton's great poem furnished the libretto for one of Handel's finest oratorios, written when the composer was a blind old man—like the lead character.)

This raises the old question of whether the tragic genre is compatible with a Christian outlook. The short answer is that life is tragic for the damned, but comic for the redeemed; tragic for Absalom, but comic for David. Yet this is not to deny that the loss of Absalom is not only a loss for Absalom, but a loss for his father as well. The tradeoff is painfully real.

Put another way, the Christian outlook replaces tragedy with martyrology. The Apocalypse is the first Christian martyrology, and that tradition is carried on in such works as Foxe's Book of Martyrs. A martyr is not a victim of his fate or tragic flaw, but a hero who wins by losing. That paradox lies at the heart of the Christian vision. Christ is the proto-martyr.

Racine (1639-99)

Racine’s dim view of natural passion is often attributed to his Jansenist education. Perhaps so. But I think court life would have been a more than sufficient tutor. Where his Jansenism more likely comes into play is not with the vices, but the virtues, of his various characters. There is a nobility to his portrayal of such Biblical figures as Esther and Jehoiada that is utterly alien to Athenian drama.

But what is more striking is the nobility of his classical heroes and heroines. It is precisely because they are situated in a classical setting that the contrast between classical drama and Racinean drama is so striking. In Mithridates, the lovers (Monime, Xiphares), and even the jealous, conflicted king (Mithridates), act with a degree of charity and self-denial that is the issue of a distinctly Christian conscience. The death scene and reconciliation are hard to imagine in a pre-Christian play.

In style, Racine is the opposite of Milton and Shakespeare. Racine aims for austere refinement. This difference is owing, in part, to the distinct linguistic resources of a given tongue. Except for Proust, who came under the sway of Ruskin’s staggered style, French flavors clarity. But English, with its mixed marriage of the Romance and Germanic, can be coaxed into either opposing or apposing directions. Milton and Shakespeare are both fond of pulling out all the stops, but for different reasons: for Shakespeare, because he loves the sheer sound; for Milton, because he wants to wow the audience. With Milton you can always spy the scaffolding and straining for effect, although some of his effects are splendid all the same.

I suspect another reason why Racine favors such a chaste and chiseled mode of expression is that Racine was more morally and anesthetically discriminating than Shakespeare. The Bard is a social omnivore, but Racine has a finicky palette. Racine is attracted to the extremes of experience—the noble and ignoble. Racine’s canvass as just as big as Shakespeare’s, but composed of moral polarities and tinted in chiaroscuro tones of grace and judgment. Although Racine is not on a par with Shakespeare as a word-painter, he is his equal as a dramatist, and without peer as a Christian playwright.

Shakespeare (1564-1616)

It is commonplace for Shakespearean commentators to say that the Bard is like an actor who disappears into his part. So successfully does he sublimate his own persona into his character that it’s hard to tell what Shakespeare really believed. Shakespeare can be everyone because he is no one in particular. Or is it the other way around? Is his universal sympathy owing to the fact that he was a man without a creed?

But in his final play, Shakespeare seems to tip his hand. And this may also say something about his worldview. For it is his most philosophical and religious play. But because most playgoers don’t know the historical background, they miss this emphasis.

According to Frances Yates, the Renaissance historian, the Tempest is a Rosicrucian allegory. (The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age [Routledge, 1979].) In effect, John Dee, the self-styled Magus and ill-starred advisor to Elizabeth, sat for the portrait of Prospero. And this was a flattering portrait. But Dee also sat for the unflattering portrait of Faust in Marlowe’s great tragedy.

This exposes a dividing line in the Elizabethan outlook. On the one hand there was a favorable view of Renaissance magic as long as it was confined to white magic. White magic was a Hermetical hodgepodge of alchemy and cabalism. Spenser and Shakespeare side with this faction. On the other hand there was the unfavorable view. Marlowe and Jonson side with the opposing party.

Approaching this from another angle, the chivalric tradition represents the confluence of two tributaries: the Arthurian tradition and the Georgian tradition. The Georgian tradition centers on the interconnected themes of a knight, a dragon and a lady who is the common object of their rivalry. The Arthurian tradition centers on the quest for the Holy Grail. And it has a magical motif in the morally ambiguous figure of Merlin, who lies behind contrasting figures of Faust and Prospero.

The Rosicrucian legend goes back to The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, anonymously penned by the Lutheran pastor, Jacob Andreae. This was, in turn, an alchemical allegory about the battle of the white mountain, fixing the fate of the winter king and queen of Bohemia. (Cf. J. Montgomery, Cross & Crucible [The Hague, 1973].)

At this point, a reader might be pardoned for supposing that he had suddenly tumbled down the rabbit hole and come out in wonderland. And it is, indeed, very puzzling to see the way in which the battle lines where drawn. On the one hand you have pious churchmen like Spenser and Andreae throwing their support behind this witches brew of alchemy and Hermetic mumbo-jumbo. (Note the evolution of the Redcrosse Knight into Christian Rosencreutz.) On the other hand, you have a raging sodomite like Marlowe staking out a more orthodox position in opposition to the occult.

I know of no nice way threshing the wheat without doing damage to the reputation of the orthodox party. What we have is what happens when syncretism is allowed to run its wayward course without the restraint of historical controls and doctrinal checkpoints.

Shakespeare stuck his neck out by taking sides in this dispute, for where you came down had political consequences. But in this, his swan song to the stage, the Bard may have figured that he have nothing left to lose. The point is not that Shakespeare was a Rosicrucian, but that he plighted his troth with the eclectic outlook at once exemplified by that and other esoteric traditions.

The Rosicrucian motif lingers on in modern fiction. In Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, Zanoni resigns his life and immortality for the love of a woman (Viola), just as Prospero resigns his magic powers for the sake of love (the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand); And in Umberto Eco’s newest novel (Foucault’s Pendulum), an underground Rosicrucian cult lies at the bottom of Byzantine intrigue and global conspiracy theories.

Another question which the Bard raises for the modern writer is whether we’ve turned the corner on that sort of eloquence. Contemporary taste favors life-like speech, and since no one speaks with Shakespearean eloquence, this rhetorical register seems to be hopelessly unconvincing.

But even though there is some truth to this, the choice is not all that clear-cut. Although Shakespearean eloquence is unrepresentative of how people speak, it is not unrepresentative of how they feel or how they would wish to speak if only they had that silver-tongued facility. Indeed, the appeal of eloquent writers such as Ruskin, Bunyan, Shakespeare, Santayana—or even Bradbury—lies in their power to express the otherwise inarticulate moods and emotions of the ordinary reader. Our passions are often larger than our words. And we seek out writers who can give tongue to our intense, but ineffable yearnings and impressions. So Shakespeare is both more and less realistic, depending on the level of comparison. Even Milton’s stilted diction long had a large and popular following because so many readers would just love to cut loose in such a swashbuckling style, but since they are unable to do so, this is the next best thing.

A sign (word, sound, image) is a medium, but more than a medium, of the significate. More than transparent, but less than opaque. Ideally, it is akin to stained-glass instead of plain glass. It conveys and colors the natural light. But when the sign becomes the object rather than the medium, it ceases to be window, and becomes a wall or mural.

The Tempest reunites the youthful passion of Romeo and Juliet with the perfected technique of the Bard’s mature writing. The creative process involves a creative tension between talent, taste and technique. A successful artist must learn to balance the conscious and unconscious, craftsmanship and inspiration. The inspiration of a young artist is strong and spontaneous. But it lacks form and finish. The work of an older artist is more technically accomplished, but in its self-conscious polish it often loses the immediacy and intensity of youth.

Art is a process of subtraction and amplification. An artist trims away the extraneous elements of experience and then brings the core experience into high relief. It takes a trained ear, built on a natural ear, to play off the intuitive dimension against the acquired artistry, and vice versa.

(Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5) (Part 6) (Part 7)

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