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A Last Fragment on Endo’s Silence, For Now

Well, this is one portion of a work caught “in the middle” between several projects I was attempting on Endo’s Silence between 2012 and 2014.  This is actually not the last-edited stage; I pulled up an edition that I labeled “overdeveloped three virtues” because a dimly possible thread I wanted to pull, at least in drafting, was threatening to take over the paper.  I’m putting it up here because–well, it’s a blog, so why not air my early-drafting laundry?

Here, then, the somewhat dramatically titled, unfinished work on Garrpe, in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence:

Christ’s Unknown Soldier: The Role of Garrpe in Endo’s Silence


Nobody would deny that Rodrigues is the protagonist of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Most criticism seems to consider only the choices Rodrigues makes as essential to the story’s final significance. Readers and students are then left to moot the question of whether Rodrigues is a tragically weak man destroyed by hubris or an unforgiving spirit, or whether he heroically proclaims a triumph of spirit over letter or pity over fidelity. Both genre conventions and Endo’s storytelling, however, tend to undermine the reader’s confidence in Rodrigues’s judgments. Characters such as Garrpe and Kichijiro also challenge any excessive reliance on the subjective experience of Rodrigues. Kichijiro’s role has been explored in the literature, but Garrpe remains sadly neglected. Garrpe demonstrates even more definitely than Kichijiro that Rodrigues has ignored or foreclosed crucial possibilities of thought and action on his way to the famous fumie scene. Given the subsequent development of Endo’s fiction and his public statements about his views, it is especially interesting that Garrpe appears in this text to witness against the dilemma that the Japanese authorities, Rodrigues, and even Endo have in various ways constructed for the reader. Clearly emphasizing Garrpe’s conversion from initial wavering to final martyrdom makes better sense of the book’s enduring allure for Christian readers than a narrow focus on the protagonist Rodrigues.

Critical Commitments

Examining secondary characters and subplots can re-enliven readerly and critical interest in a work whose reading has become stereotyped. Literature teachers are familiar with the tendency of students to discard the text in their rush to discover “what’s it about?” and learn “will it be on the test?” Scholars at all levels, however, must avoid the trap of simple “debunking,” of displays of cleverness that entertain and impoverish, rather than enrich, readers and their habits. Critics reading “against the grain” by using lesser features of a work to solicit questions about that work’s well-known major features have some obligation, then, to declare what larger pattern of facts supports this seeming inversion.

Two such considerations warrant the present effort. First, some of the best criticism of Endo’s work already points out genre considerations that might mislead many readers, especially readers doubly distanced from Silence’s situation as a Japanese book published in 1963. Such examinations of Endo’s genre gain strength from Endo’s own responses to criticism of his book, even taking into account the possibility that some of these comments are post hoc rationalizations. Second, and at least equally important, there is a theological warrant for attending to Garrpe’s powerful death scene and the response to the novel’s essential dilemma that it suggests. I take it as a basic commitment for Religion and Literature scholarship that T. S. Eliot was correct when he argued that “literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological point of view” (343). “Completed,” not merely occasionally supplemented, because if there is any sense at all in calling a work of art “religious,” in that same sense we must acknowledge that religion not only has its own intrinsic order (theology and morality) but encompasses and defines subsidiary fields, each in turn possessed of its own intrinsic order. Garrpe’s role in Silence, which may typical criticism seems to take as simply another moment in the story of Rodrigues, turns out to be crucial in reconciling our aesthetic and theological appreciation of this truly problematic work.

Guided by these commitments, I begin below by summarizing Garrpe’s role in the plot of Silence, then sketch in a few typical readings of Silence and the genre and narrative structure questions that challenge those readings. After sketching in the ways that Garrpe’s actions help to supply what is lacking in typical readings, I proceed to the theological considerations that recommend greater emphasis on Garrpe’s role in the novel. I conclude that such an analysis helps to re-integrate elements of the story which tend to be ignored on account of their dissonance with a straightforward thematic reading of the overall plot and its climax.

Summary of Garrpe’s Role

Simple page-counting suggests Garrpe’s structural place in the novel (201 pages in this edition). Garrpe and Rodrigues come on stage together in the Prologue. Garrpe and Rodrigues are separated almost exactly one-third of the way through the book (on page 62), and Garrpe is brought back on stage by the Japanese authorities at almost exactly the two-thirds mark (pages 128-35). During the middle third of the novel, Garrpe is almost forgotten. Shortly before Rodrigues is captured, he “quite suddenly” remembers Garrpe (65); later, Rodrigues recalls their early conversations about torture shortly before being taken to see Garrpe’s death (125). In the meantime, Rodrigues is first literally and then figuratively transported through a strange land, unable to read the signs and lacking Garrpe or any similar aid to his conscience. After Garrpe’s death, Rodrigues is at last introduced to the apostate Ferreira. The first third of the novel in which Garrpe and Rodrigues are together is thus mirrored by the final third, in which Garrpe is replaced by Ferreira. Setting aside for the moment the more complex weave that introduces the interpreter and Inoue as manipulating events to bring Rodrigues to this end, and the way Kichijiro destabilizes this tidy sequence, Garrpe’s role is worth examining in its own right.

Garrpe is continually associated with Rodrigues throughout the Prologue and the first four chapters (each of these chapters is notionally a letter from Rodrigues). The novel’s focus on Rodrigues, together with the point-of-view shift after chapter four, makes it easy to assimilate Garrpe’s role to that of Rodrigues. Such an assimilation is probably not a misreading; as we shall see, the novel’s conventions encourage readers to treat Garrpe, Kichijiro, the interpreter, and other fictional characters introduced into the historic setting as entirely relative to the unfolding story of Rodrigues. Garrpe and Kichijiro especially seem to play out Rodrigues’ psychomachia, serving as doppelgangers or alternative author surrogates to give highly subjective fiction a richer social and historical situation (Gessel “Voice” 199-201).

In the first pages of his narrative, Rodrigues is more likely to report Garrpe’s direct interaction with other characters than his own. Rodrigues may offer his point of view to the reader, but it appears to be Garrpe whose words drive the plot and reveal the characters. When Rodrigues, Marta, and Garrpe are delayed in Macao, Valignano “was finally moved by our pleading—especially by that of Garrpe” to send them on their way (15). In the team’s early interaction with Kichijiro, it is Garrpe who repeatedly calls Kichijiro to testify plainly about his identity. “Are you a Christian?” he asks the evasive Kichijiro during their first meeting, and follows up later in that conversation with “Well, anyhow, you are a Christian, aren’t you? … You are. Aren’t you?” (17) Kichijiro’s evasiveness in the face of this questioning is partly explained by Japanese risk-aversion, somewhat more by an alcoholic’s avoidance of responsibility, and perhaps even more by a perfectly understandable fear of the intense persecution of Japanese Christians that he describes to Garrpe and Rodrigues.

Garrpe’s repeated questions about Kichijiro’s Christianity reveals his interest in essential characteristics (like the ineffaceable sacramental character imparted at baptism) that mere choices or momentary denials cannot wholly efface. In the face of Kichijiro’s panicky denial of his Christianity, Garrpe reasons with Kichijiro on the basis of Japanese identity: “Anyhow, you want to get back to Japan” (17). When Kichijiro’s behavior does not match the ideas Garrpe and Rodrigues have formed of Christian and Japanese behavior, Garrpe again presses him with, “Are you really a Japanese? Honestly, are you?” (20) A while later, when Kichijiro’s fear of a storm at sea drives him to ejaculate “Santa Maria” repeatedly, Garrpe once again tries to ascertain his character: “‘I am asking a question,’ said Garrpe raising his voice. ‘Give me a clear answer. Are you, or are you not, a Christian?’” (25) In these interactions, both Garrpe and Rodrigues are shown to lack understanding of Japanese culture and of the deforming effects of persecution and privation on virtue, and to have somewhat facile understandings of the effects of grace. Nonetheless, a clear distinction between Garrpe and Rodrigues emerges. Rodrigues tends to be driven by his aesthetic response to situations and characters; he is the source of the reader’s vision of sunsets, storms, horizons, birds, and seasons, as well as the “pitiful coward” Kichijiro (24). Garrpe, on the other hand, comes into his own when Rodrigues reports on his pleas and questions, questions which attempt to plumb down to the essential character of things.

Garrpe’s role in driving the plot and pressing the characters to define themselves seems to have a theological dimension, as well. Garrpe’s confidence in a stereotyped description of Japanese people hints at this: Rodrigues says that Garrpe had “too credulously taken at face value the talk of so many missionaries” (20). In the passage immediately following, Rodrigues is at pains to reconcile himself to the idea of trusting Kichijiro, using the word “entrusted” repeatedly; the problem, which Garrpe has confronted head-on despite some potential for error in his “face value” judgments, is one of good faith versus bad faith. Rodrigues, with his aesthetic orientation toward future glory, seems to find fidelity slippery; Garrpe readily extends good faith and just as readily demands it from others.

This theological dimension of Garrpe’s role is part of a larger theme that unfolds throughout the work, beginning with the introduction of Garrpe and Marta with Rodrigues as a three-person team. “Francisco Garrpe” and “Juan de Santa Marta,” as they are first introduced (9), both seem distinct in character from Rodrigues. Rodrigues is forenamed “Sebastian,” after the saint who survived his martyrdom by arrows only to be clubbed to death when he criticized the persecuting Emperor Diocletian to his face; the name appears to foreshadow both his future ordeal and his hope of outliving that ordeal (which he does, albeit hardly as a martyr). Garrpe’s forename “Francisco” at the time of this story could only have referred to St. Francis of Assisi, whose seemingly naïve pursuit of Christ led him to challenge sultans and popes, and who readily abandoned secular pursuits but ended up founding three great religious orders. Garrpe’s forename (shared with the great Jesuit missionary to the East, St. Francis Xavier, whose canonization would have taken place while Garrpe, Marta, and Rodrigues were children) also hints at the difference between Rodrigues and Garrpe, as the Franciscans had been generally excluded from the Jesuit mission areas in Japan. Rodrigues, named for a martyr from the Praetorian Guard, suggests the Jesuit “Soldiers of Christ” in much the way that Garrpe suggests their sometime rivals, the Franciscans.

The name “Juan de Santa Marta” in turn, suggests both St. John, the Beloved Disciple, and St. Martha, the hard-working sister of Mary of Bethany and Lazarus. The Apostle John is the author of the Gospel in which he is repeatedly characterized as the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23 et passim); not only does he receive the Revelations recorded in the book of that name, but he writes three letters notable for their emphasis on Christian and divine love. In his First Epistle, St. John offers perhaps the most sweeping and dense exhortation to charity in the Scriptures: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). St. Martha, in turn, is one of the only individuals in the Gospels picked out for similar mention: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus” (John 11:5). Martha’s confession of faith in Christ and hope of the Resurrection is one of the most ringing in all of Biblical history: she was the first to go out to seek Jesus when her brother Lazarus died, and the words of promise Jesus entrusted her with are still cited in every Christian burial rite (John 11:20-27).

The shape of Marta’s name may also suggest the name of St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz). John, a contemporary of Xavier’s, had been marginalized and even imprisoned in the confusion of rival religious orders and secular powers in 16th Century Spain. John’s profound attachment to the love of Christ granted him the detachment from all other things described in such works as The Dark Night of the Soul, saying of the soul that has suffered patiently that “its love alone, which burns at this time, and makes its heart to long for the Beloved, is that which now moves and guides it, and makes it to soar upward to its God along the road of solitude, without its knowing how or in what manner” ( CITE ). The probable allusion to St. John of the Cross in Marta’s name, as well as his being named for St. John and St. Martha, associates Marta with the theological virtue of charity.

This association of Marta with charity completes the triad suggested by the characterizations of Garrpe and Rodrigues. Garrpe’s easy good faith and his confidence that characters and essences are real, not merely nominal, similarly associates him with faith; Rodrigues is linked to hope by his aesthetic orientation and relentless attempts to appropriate the future. As any standard account of the theological virtues will suggest, charity is inseparable from faith and hope, while faith and hope cannot subsist without charity; in St. Paul’s words, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:12-13). As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Charity is the root of faith and hope, in so far as it gives them the perfection of virtue. But faith and hope as such are the precursors of charity … and so charity is impossible without them” (Summa I-II.65.5 ad. 2). It is precisely this language of “precursors” and possibility that echoes in the scenes where Garrpe, Rodrigues, and Marta plead with Valignano for permission to complete their mission, and where Garrpe and Rodrigues take their leave of Marta.

Marta’s speech to Valignano on behalf of their mission invokes all three theological virtues, alluding directly to the compassion of Christ and suggesting that their obligation in charity is to promote faith and prevent despair. He says,

And yet our secret mission could with God’s help turn out successful … In that stricken land the Christians have lost their priests and are like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Some one must go to give them courage and to ensure that the tiny flame of faith does not die out. (14-15).

Marta here alludes to Matthew 9:36-38, in which Jesus “saw the crowds” and “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”; His immediate response is to instruct His followers to ask God for more workers, because “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Marta’s echo of this charitable impulse leads him to express faith in “God’s help” and hope that “our secret mission … could turn out successful”; at the same time, he indicates that their obligation in charity is to stave off despair and unbelief in their “harassed and helpless” flock, serving to “give them courage” and see to it that “faith does not die out.”

Garrpe’s speech to Marta when Garrpe and Rodrigues finally gain Valignano’s permission to continue on their way to Japan firms up this thematic framework. Garrpe specifically describes himself and Rodrigues as precursors to Marta, saying “We go first…. We’ll prepare the way so that you can come afterwards when you get better” (19). Garrpe and Rodrigues are ventured forward into a situation where charity has been wounded, where charity is infirm and seemingly cannot survive the Pacific crossing. Historically and in the novel, this is a situation of persecution and apostasy, to be sure; but the novel also suggests that this is a situation in which the politics of East and West have become almost impossible to distinguish from the proclamation of the Gospel. This suggestion gains considerable strength from Endo’s role as a leading postwar Japanese writer (Gessel “Endo” 71, Pinnington 102, Netland “Who” 77-78).

Garrpe’s promise that he and Rodrigues will serve as precursors is an effort to keep faith with their original intention; but Rodrigues, as soon as he reports it, begins to question the future. “But can anyone predict what will happen?” he asks, then imagines a “safe and happy life” for Marta, and a bad end for himself and Garrpe (19). Noting that “Marta remained silent,” Rodrigues attempts to fill the silence with speculation. He indicates his own orientation toward future glory, toward acknowledged results, when he responds to Marta’s illness by thinking, “There is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task.” Rodrigues has already begun to construe a future in which Marta’s illness is a final obstacle to his participation in their mission; by comparison, Garrpe keeps faith by speaking of possible futures only insofar as they characterize current intentions.

This tendency to separate hope from faith—this infirmity of charity—has significant consequences throughout the story. When Garrpe and Rodrigues set sail, Rodrigues has to admit that “I feel no inclination to write about Santa Marta,” who has not recovered from his illness (22). Rodrigues writes as though Marta were already dead, making his repetition of Garrpe’s assertion at the end of the letter rings hollow: “No doubt,” he says, “God is secretly preparing” Marta’s task. The pages since their parting from Marta, however, have been filled with little but expressions of doubt and alienation. The only reassurance that comes from within Rodrigues is his aesthetic appropriation of the image of Christ.

Imagining the future, Rodrigues consistently finds doubts and temptations to despair; his reassurances are counterfactual and hypothetical, afterthoughts marked by the “perhaps” of magical thinking rather than the promise of faith (19). When he fixates on his own imagination of the face of Jesus, Rodrigues sees “a face filled with vigor and strength. I feel great love for that face” (22). Rodrigues is not wrong when he says that the Scriptures are reticent about the Incarnate Son’s exact physical description, of course (“This point the Bible passes over in silence”). Few people living before the age of mechanically reproduced art considered eidetic reproduction of individual features a major concern of art; it is probably anachronistic even for Rodrigues to be considering the question of likeness versus iconic value in sacred art. Rodrigues has already conceded, though, that this “face” is of his own choosing. He chooses an image from his memory (Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection) and invests it with reality, not only in preference to the Bible’s “silence” on Jesus’ literal lineaments but also setting aside the substantial Biblical basis for iconic representations of Christ.

In taking this reticence as license to conjure his own image of Christ and fixate on that, however, Rodrigues runs sharply counter to the plain drift of multiple Scriptures that treat the Biblical and Eucharistic witness to Christ as the true memorial of the Incarnate Son and true precursor of a final, face-to-face encounter in perfect charity at the Resurrection (1 John 3:1-3; 2 Cor. 4:5-7; Rev. 22:1-5; 1 Cor. 13:12-13). It is perhaps especially important that one of the most prominent of these is the key text relating faith and hope to their summation in charity, cited above. His own, personal Jesus does not have the face of a Suffering Servant, like Isaiah’s prophecy of a face marred beyond recognition by torture (Isaiah 52:13-15); nor does Rodrigues see far enough to connect that sufferer to St. John’s face-to-face encounter with Christ exalted beyond description in Resurrection (Rev. 1:12-16). The iconic adjuncts to the true memorial of Christ in Word and Sacrament have their place, but Rodrigues silences the true memorial and erects his fantasy in its place. Rodrigues, thinking of the future, does not seem able to imagine it faithfully without relying on Garrpe’s words.

Garrpe’s drive to ascertain essences and characters does not, by itself, mend the infirmity he and Rodrigues suffer. As he and Rodrigues, lacking Marta, proceed into Japan (with the second interrogation of Kichijiro’s Christianity happening en route), Garrpe is if anything the more timid of the pair. Garrpe is the “last of all” to go ashore through the “icy cold water” (26). While he and Rodrigues wait on shore for Kichijiro, who has gone to fetch some Christian villagers, Garrpe is the one who suddenly exclaims that “He won’t come back!” and exclaims “tearfully” about the “weak-minded coward” who seems to have abandoned him. Even in this, however, the basic contrast between the two priests can be seen, for Rodrigues immediately follows this with his own speculations about “a more terrible fate,” casting Kichijiro as the traitor “Judas” in his fantasy. Garrpe does not have any basis for resisting this fantasy, but responds immediately by “quoting the Scriptures” that describe the “band of soldiers” Judas brought to Gethsemane. When the Christian villagers find them, it is Garrpe who immediately asks about the particulars of Christian practice: “But what happened during these six years? What about baptism and the sacraments?” (28) When the villagers explain the ingenious and dangerous system by which they had maintained what observances they could, it is Rodrigues who immediately imagines such practices continuing everywhere (29).

Garrpe’s fallibility and his realist orientation are both reinforced when Rodrigues suggests that they slip out of their shelter—a remote hut with a priest-hole in the floor—and sunbathe (36). As when Rodrigues suggested that Kichijiro had not merely run away, but had sought out soldiers to betray them, Garrpe has no specific reason to disagree. Their conditions are unquestionably bad, and they have not actually seen any clear and present danger, though they have strong reason to believe that real danger surrounds them at some unknown distance. In this extreme isolation from all others (Rodrigues “gazed greedily at the world of men” outside), and this utterly inescapable togetherness, the boundaries between Garrpe and Rodrigues break down. Their dangerously limited and mistaken understanding of their situation, their confidence in the goods of nature and the goodness of God, and their expectation of good outcomes overlap more completely than at any other time in the novel. The language of faith and hope merge, here, as well; it is Garrpe who speaks of “the future,” albeit with many qualifiers: “In the future we must sometimes at least allow ourselves the pleasure of a sunbath.” True to his tendency to trust appearances, Garrpe also exclaims that there is “Nothing to be afraid of!” Garrpe even indulges in a certain amount of fantasy with Rodrigues, although it is a fantasy concerning their shared past which comments wryly on their situation, rather than wishful thinking about the future.

Despite the dangerous errors in judgment both priests make, largely due to their extreme isolation and other distortions caused by persecution, it is during this initial period of ministry together that Garrpe and Rodrigues are most faithful to their calling and most reasonably hopeful of good results. Even so, it is consistently Garrpe who is most responsive to reality. Garrpe baptizes the infant brought to them from the village; Rodrigues, assisting, records his imaginations about the baby’s future, and his own subjective generalizations (38). When they are approached covertly by some Christians from another village, who had observed them while they were unwisely breaking cover for their walks and sunbathing, it is Garrpe who notices that “somebody is watching us” and who is most aware of their situation (37). When the strange villagers persist, it is Garrpe who is most realistic and most fearful, insisting that they stay under cover, even ordering Rodrigues to “Stop!” (39)

Rodrigues, by comparison, talks himself into opening the door to strangers by deciding which course of action best reflects his own self-image: “Grasping the wooden door with my hands I made as if to go out. Yes, I would go. Even if this were a trap, even if these men were the guards, it didn’t matter…. What a disgrace it would be to betray my vocation from cowardly fear.” Again, and especially at this phase of their ministry, there is relatively little question of which judgments are best; the priests are too isolated, and the data too thin, to reliably decide such matters. Garrpe’s fearfulness may well reflect a lack of confidence that their mission has any promise of success; but it certainly reflects reality rather than fantasy. The contrast between the two priests is underscored by the irony that Rodrigues has just been “awakened by the snoring of the optimistic Garrpe,” who he later describes as “good-natured in the face of the most terrible difficulties” (51).

Both realistic fear and fantasy-inspired courage suggest the infirmity of charity that characterizes the whole situation. Together, Garrpe and Rodrigues may balance each other’s infirmities; Rodrigues with his aesthetic orientation toward future glory may move Garrpe past his realistic fears, while Garrpe’s ready good faith and insistence on reality allow them to keep hold on the essential grounding that Rodrigues so readily abandons in his anxious fantasies. Thus it is important that Garrpe is the one who quickly grasps the essential dilemma the Japanese authorities have created for the priests and their people, realizing that the villagers will “all end up as hostages” as the systematic interrogation and persecution continue (51); and that Garrpe’s proposal involves keeping the priests together while safeguarding the people: “Rather than such a calamity it is better for the two of us to get away from this mountain altogether” (52). He suggests that they both go with Kichijiro to Goto Island.

What follows the next visit from the authorities, however, opens a breach between Garrpe and Rodrigues even before they are separated; in so doing, it foreshadows the path Rodrigues will travel when he no longer has Garrpe to lean on. The Christian villagers who have sheltered priests are trying to decide what to do, as they know that the systematic investigation will continue until they have all either trampled the fumie or been exposed as Christians (53-4). Sending Garrpe and Rodrigues away might protect them, but it would definitely remove the counsel and comfort the priests ought to be able to give, and the sacramental graces they have the authority to bestow. The faithful villagers are confronted with the seeming futility of their own faithfulness: “If we don’t trample, everyone in the village will be cross-examined.” Those less firm in their faith will be exposed to a trial they may not be able to bear; those who do not share their faith will be confirmed in their separation from Christ; all will suffer intensified fear, mutual suspicion, and mistreatment as the persecution continues.

The faithful villagers, confronted with such a powerful dilemma, specifically ask the priests, “What are we to do?” (54) They strive to be faithful, and have shown great resolve, but the best option on their horizon appears to lead to exactly what they seek to avoid; they need hope. They need reason to expect a good outcome, and an imaginative depiction of that outcome that will reassure them when appearances and speculation conjure fantasies of futility and despair. Rodrigues, with his orientation toward future glory and aesthetic judgments, is now being called on to do just what he should be most ready for. Garrpe has usually spoken up to now; and despite their fear and the infirmity of charity, both priests and villagers have been faithful. Here, however, where relying on Garrpe’s words will no longer do, Rodrigues falls critically short. Moved by “pity,” rather than more well-formed compassion or charity, Rodrigues abandons the ground of faith and speaks “without thinking.” His “pity” treats the faithful villagers as “unfortunate men” who cannot be expected to measure up to his fantasies about legendary martyrs; because their reality falls short of his fantasy, he feels he cannot even expect fidelity from them, let alone give them hope.

Rodrigues responds by saying, “Trample! Trample!” He tells his correspondent “I know you would never give” such advice, that it “should never have been on my lips.” Just as important, at that moment, “Garrpe looked at me reproachfully.” Garrpe’s silence seems to indicate that he, like Rodrigues, has reached the limit of his ability to articulate his faith in the horrible circumstances in which they find themselves; but Rodrigues does not stop at silence, but tries to bridge the gap to the future with speculation, rather than faith—and ends up offering counsel of despair. Garrpe’s silence and the bad counsel of Rodrigues open up the gap between the remaining priests which prefigures the unfolding of the rest of the plot. Marta’s infirmity leaves Garrpe and Rodrigues to serve as precursors, seeking to bring faith and hope where charity is so badly wounded. When Rodrigues abandons good faith to nourish his own fantasies, then what should be an aesthetic appropriation of the future promised by faith, true hope, becomes instead radically inauthentic and moribund.

This foreshadowing unfolds in the three major events which follow. First, Kichijiro asks a question familiar to all who have suffered injustice: “Why has Deus Sama given us this trial? We have done no wrong” (54). The question haunts Rodrigues (55), whose hope is too abstracted from observed reality and the specifics of Word and Sacrament to offset the weight of apparent wrong; he neither adverts to the blessings and promises given to those who suffer injustice (Matt. 5:11-12; 1 Peter 4:12-19) and martyrdom (Matt. 10:39-42; Rev. 2:10-11), nor considers that his own priestly acts are the very proclamation and memorial of Christ, as long as he faithfully carries out his vocation. It is in the wake of his own failure to remain silent when he could not speak in good faith, and in the middle of this noisy consideration of a question abstracted from all good-faith efforts to provide an answer, that Rodrigues first repeatedly notes what he calls “the silence of God,” complaining that “God has remained silent” as the villagers suffered (55).

Second, the leaders among the faithful villagers are in fact taken, interrogated, and eventually martyred (54-61). Kichijiro, whose questions express the doubts Rodrigues tries to suppress with his fantasies, readily apostatizes: “Following my advice, Kichijiro was the first to place his foot on the image” (55). The others also step on the fumie because the priest said to do so, but they are unable to blaspheme and spit on the Virgin’s image to prove that they have no mental reservation (55-6). Kichijiro completes his public apostasy, “overcome by the threats,” while the other leaders are similarly broken, but remain faithful and “at last confessed openly that they were Christians” (56-7). They are executed on crosses in the ocean, taking several days to die of exposure and dehydration, singing hymns all the while (57-60). Rodrigues, again, notes that their martyrdom does not measure up to his fantasies, the “splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams” (60); he complains that their martyrdom “was no such glorious thing.” His preference for visions of glory over the promises of faith turns the heroic fidelity of the martyrs, and the song that expresses their faith that “We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise,” into “a melody filled with dark sadness” (61). His darkening of the song’s authentic expression of hope presages another passage in which Rodrigues obsessively considers “the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God.”

Third, after the martyrdom of the villagers, Garrpe and Rodrigues are parted, and Rodrigues at their parting wonders “why on earth do we remain in this country at all?” and “What had happened to our glorious dream?” The bad faith expressed in the answer Rodrigues gives, to apostatize in order to shield others from temporal suffering at the hands of secular authorities precedes his lack of an answer to Kichijiro’s question, his dark interpretation of the martyrdom of the faithful Japanese, and his own despairing speculations upon his separation from Rodrigues. These three events, in turn, are echoed in the scenes surrounding the martyrdom of Garrpe (128-35), the turning point from Rodrigues’s journey through the middle third of the novel toward his apostasy at its climax.

[…here kindly recall that this is an unfinished draft….]


One Quibble with a Great Review

Alexi Sargeant has one of the best responses to Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence I have yet seen–really, go read the whole thing.

I do have one quibble, though.  (All right, one big one and one little one.)  Here it is:

In his discussion of Silence, Scorsese recapitulates the way he portrayed Judas as a collaborator in Jesus’s sacrifice in his own The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)—projecting his particular interpretation of Judas as pseudo-saint onto Endo: “In order for Christianity to live, to adapt itself to other cultures and historical moments, it needs not just the figure of Christ but the figure of Judas as well.” This image of Judas is far afield from the Christian tradition that formed Endo and his protagonists.

Sargeant wants to give Endo too much credit for orthodoxy, or those who taught him too much credit for sound formation.  It’s not Scorsese who infuses the suggestion that Judas is embraced as a collaborator in the work of Christ into Endo, though that is obviously the major connection between the two movies Scorsese has called “bookends” of his career, Last Temptation and Silence.

It is true that this is far from the Catholic faith, Endo’s baptismal faith; but it is inaccurate to view this as far from Endo’s practical belief and expression.  Even in Silence, this is obvious enough; but if you need it spelled out, go look at Endo’s radical rewriting of the Gospel accounts, A Life of Jesus.  It is just barely possible to differentiate Endo’s view, which is ambivalent about whether this reductively human Jesus positively intended or merely factored in the actions of Judas, but Endo’s take clearly interprets “Jesus loved Judas” not as meaning “Jesus embraced Judas in human-divine friendship that could lead Judas into perfect charity with God and other people” but “Jesus expressed to Judas human sentiments of caring and concern.”


Because the second of these is merely sentimental, it is possible to imagine Jesus continuing to express these sentiments, even by dying, even when Judas rejects him; and if these expressed sentiments are the sum of the meaning of Christ’s atoning work, then of course Judas in betraying Christ makes the expression all the more dramatic–so why not portray Judas as a collaborator?

Of course, if you actually believe that God does real work that really happens in life and history, transforming “whosoever will” into not only objects of concern but reciprocating subjects of true friendship, creating perfect charity where enmity and amity had contended, you will not at all be able to agree that betraying Christ to death and committing suicide out of remorse can be evaluated merely in terms of their dramatic potential; you will not evaluate the life of Jesus merely as a performance expressing a sentiment.

Anyway, Sargeant is right on the point, but I thought it worthwhile to note that Scorsese doesn’t insinuate this theme into Endo; it is already part of Endo’s evolving agenda when he writes Silence.

Just Published: “Interpret Carefully” in Christ and Pop Culture

I suggest three fundamental approaches to finding the best possibilities in Silence. When I go to watch Scorsese’s movie, I’ll be hoping he chooses to emphasize elements such as these; I shall be elated if that happens and critical if it doesn’t. First, it is possible to read the very cryptic section that follows the end of the main plot as offering a definitive reinterpretation of the plot. When the story moves on past the self-justifications Rodrigues offers for his apostasy, and instead traces the bureaucratic records concerning the household where the new apostate has been set up, it is possible that we are meant to see that both Kichijiro and Rodrigues return to the faith. That is, though both of them break under pressure, they are subtly called back to the faith; their baptismal faith repeatedly subverts their apostasy, and triumphs over it when they are punished. To weigh this very heavily in our evaluation, though, we need some basis for disregarding pretty much every conclusion that Rodrigues draws from his experiences. Most importantly, we need a reason to believe that Rodrigues has returned, or returns periodically, to a faith that specifically repudiates his claim that Jesus personally called him to commit an act of apostasy.

(source: Interpret Carefully: Balancing Caution and Hope in Responding to Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence – Christ and Pop Culture)

From the cutting-room floor: Why bother retrieving the nourishing from the toxic?

This is the second post that features portions deleted from “Interpret Carefully: Balancing Caution and Hope in Responding to Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence,” just published in Christ and Pop Culture.

(Incidentally, here’s the first “cutting-room floor” post.)

This was an extra conclusion, not needed for the article’s internal logic, but connecting to an anecdote I included at the beginning (which, alas, didn’t make the cut, either).  You can see how these paragraphs, exciting though they were to compose, were good candidates for the “kill your darlings” treatment.


Here, then, the paragraphs attempting to vindicate the effort of sorting good from ill in Endo’s signature novel:

Why bother with such a reading?  Why bother to seek vindication for truth when it seems so futile, when the interpreter’s arguments begin to sound so plausible to us?  Here is where we consider Rogue One and the kakure kirishitan.  In Episode IV of Star Wars, the “new hope” spoken of in the title is the resumption of the Jedi line–of a discipline that guides its practitioners to right use of a talent invisibly implanted within them–after the destruction of all the Jedi by Darth Vader.  The genius of Rogue One, I argue, is in convincingly depicting the era when those who had heard of the Force, who were sensitive to it or were aligned with the benevolent goals of the Jedi, were scattered “like sheep without a shepherd.”  Rebel factions protested each other, fought and undermined each other; lone Force sensitives marched into dangerous situations full of devotion to what they remembered but untutored and without well-founded hope.  Goodness, hope, reverence do recur in such situations, and Rogue One bears compelling witness to the beauty and tragedy of those who achieve great things in such terrible times.

But finally, Rogue One describes a generation that lived and died without any well-founded hope that their desire to do good was anything but a futile refusal to acquiesce in evil.  Under those circumstances, we see people who want good things justify terrible acts; we see leaders of men fatalistically embrace death, families torn apart, whole lives lived in alienation from what is best in humanity.  It is beautiful, I suggest, when a voice tears through all that, determined to do at least one thing that is definitely good, and to reject futility; it is fitting that such a voice should become identified with the word “hope.”  But consider those Christian villagers, well portrayed in Silence, who were forced to find whatever ways they could to maintain a partially-taught Christian faith over not just a generation, but over centuries of official persecution and separation from the teaching office of the Church.  How could we not, like Jesus, be “moved to compassion” when we see them?  How can we not long for their descendants to know the fulness of the faith they lived and died desiring?  How can we not choose Garrpe’s way, and dive into the ocean, swimming as long as we can, to bolster their faith?


From the cutting-room floor: taking Endo’s theology seriously

I’ve been working on a popular article about Silence and, true to form, I wrote about twice as much as we could use.  I find I pretty much have to “write long, edit short” to get anything done (which is also why so few projects reach completion–that first step takes time, and half the material isn’t useful).  Anyway, if the final product ends up being useful (I have well-founded hopes that it will), I’ll be sure to announce it.

[Update:  Here it is!  “Interpret Carefully” at Christ and Pop Culture.]

Here, then, a couple “deleted scenes” paragraphs that I’m not sorry I wrote, and not sorry we cut, either:

I hope I don’t have to work very hard to convince readers…that it is patently ridiculous to take works like Silence or The Shack or The End of the Affair or Brideshead Revisited or Crime and Punishment or The Da Vinci Code as “mere fiction” that should not be evaluated on its theological content.  To take an obvious example, Dan Brown included a clear statement that The Da Vinci Code was based on fact in the front of his novel (it takes only reading both books to know those “facts” were ripped clumsily from the pages of Holy Blood, Holy Grail–so blatantly, in fact, that its authors, themselves no strangers to breathless hyping of easily-exposed hoaxes, unsuccessfully sued Brown for copyright infringement).  Graham Greene thought the struggles of malformed conscience and institutional fecklessness that he dramatized in stories like The End of the Affair were serious enough, in real life, to keep him out of communion with the Church he entered dramatically as an adult.  In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh specifically modelled elements of Sebastian Flyte’s life on the conversion story of Oscar Wilde.  It would be easy to multiply examples, but I trust the principle is clear.

More specifically, scholars and readers of Endo’s best-known novel have certainly not found that it is “mere fiction” without theological significance.  Scholars like Mark Williams, John Netland, Van Gessel, Darren Middleton, Mark Dennis, and many others have analyzed and evaluated Endo’s work not only for its compelling fictionalization of history but for the significance they see in Endo’s interaction with Christianity, traditional Japanese culture, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and a whole host of other issues.  Of course, some readers think that the theological significance of Silence lies in a repudiation of organized religion in favor of a wholly individualized practice of charity; others think it lies in a subtle depiction of fidelity under almost impossible conditions; still others see a substitution of a “motherly” Jesus for the traditional portrayal of the “Son of the Father.”  Some focus on the climactic scene of apparent apostasy, others on the epilogue, others on the “silence” invoked by Endo’s second choice of title.  Many regard it favorably as an important moment on Endo’s trek into radical pluralism, not least because it anticipates the views Endo would more ardently promote after he encountered the works of the man we might call his guru, John Hick; others deplore exactly this character of Endo’s work.  If we don’t choose to simply ignore the features of Silence that provoke all these comments, or to consider one characteristic (for example “pluralism” or a subjectivization of moral or religious judgment) as proper to “mere fiction” but unrelated to theology, then we will simply have to agree that our varying evaluations of the theological significance of the novel are essential to our grasp of its significance.

Rodrigues, Kichijiro, Judas–a 2012 conference paper (Part Two)

Here’s the final part of that SWCCL paper from 2012:


What we may miss when reading Silence, and what may lead students astray when we teach it, is how sharply dependent certain elements of its portrayal of Christian truth are on Rodrigues’ own imaginings.  Of course, we must debate the “Trample!” instruction which, whether as command or permission, echoes Rodrigues’ own verbal or mental cries for those who are about to be martyred to apostasize instead (for the village martyrs, see 83; for Garrpe, see 204).  However, in more subtle ways the role of Kichijiro is colored by the fact that from the first Rodrigues has treated him with contempt and suspicion, and glosses over alternative possibilities for responding to him.  For example, Kichijiro offers Rodrigues some salted fish, and chews grass instead himself, when they are fleeing (113).  Rodrigues himself says that he “snatched greedily” and “ate ravenously,” yet when he begins to be thirsty, he accuses Kichijiro of giving him the salted fish to weaken him (116-7).  Kichijiro only comments that Rodrigues ate too much; Kichijiro also manages to secure Rodrigues some water, which Rodrigues also consumes “greedily and shamelessly” (118).  We have only Rodrigues’ literally fevered imaginings to help us decide whether Kichijiro used this as a stratagem, or whether Kichijiro offered Rodrigues all the food he had, and secured him water, while avoiding confrontation with Rodrigues over the latter’s poor manners.  Many similar examples are available, but for now let us move on to the Biblical portrait of Judas.

We can roughly find seven relevant elements in the portayals of Judas Iscariot in the Gospels and Acts; one of them will be especially worthy of exploration in this context.


1) all four Evangelists carefully identify Judas Iscariot well before the Passion narrative.

In lists of the Twelve, Matthew has “Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him”; Mark has “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him”; and Luke has “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”

In John 6:71, John explains one of Jesus’ predictions of His Passion as follows:  “He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”  And in John 12, we read that “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples” was “about to betray him.”


2) Judas manifests behaviors and attitudes indicative of unbelief well before the betrayal.

(see discussion of John 6 & 12; short version is just John 12)


3) Judas receives money in advance and begins plotting.

“Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver.  And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.”  (Matthew 26:14-16)

see also Mark 14:10-11; Luke 22:3-7; John 13:2


4) Judas is described as possessed by the devil (Luke 22 & John 13).


5) Judas definitely takes the initiative in arranging signals and revealing Jesus’ whereabouts.

(in addition to some of the texts above about Judas’ unbelief,) see Mark 14:43-52, which gives the most extensive account of Judas’s use of the kiss as a sign, his acting as a scout for the guards, etc.

also John 18:2-5; Luke 22:47-48


6) Judas is confronted with his treachery in advance, but continues.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”

He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.  The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.” (Matthew 26:20-25)

also John 13:21-30.  Note that these texts make it quite impossible to take the “Jesus gave Judas permission to betray Him” theme seriously.


7) Judas is remorseful but impenitent.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death.  They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”

But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”  Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.

But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.”  After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners.  For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”  (Matthew 27:1-10)


8) Judas is considered a deposed apostate by the Church and his office given to another.

The first act of the assembled Church after Christ’s Ascension is led by Peter, who speaks of “Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” as they seek a replacement twelfth Apostle, someone “chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”  (Acts 1:12-26)


John’s remarks in chapters 6 and 12 of his Gospel are of special interest, as these two passages also typify the manner in which the reception or rejection of the Incarnate Word is portrayed throughout John’s writings.  Judas is characterized by what he does and does not receive of Jesus, and the nature of God’s self-revelation in Christ is characterized by the infamous treason that crowns the career of one whose acceptance of some of Jesus’ words masked a deeper rejection of the Person of the Son of God.

In John 6, there are actually two mentions of the betrayer embedded in a twofold interplay of belief and disbelief.  Speaking to the Jewish audience in a series of synagogue discussions following the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus has just caused significant consternation by insisting that all and only those who are “taught by God” follow Jesus, and in fact insisting that following Jesus and having “heard and learned from the Father” are strictly identical for those faced with the presence of the Incarnate Word, the Christ “who is from God,” who is the only one who “has seen the Father” in the relevant sense.  When Jesus says “whoever believes has eternal life,” then, the saying is not received as a universal call to earnestness or sincerity or openness or wonder, but appears repugnant to the hearers.  Jesus warns them, “Do not complain among yourselves,” and John tells us that “The Jews then disputed among themselves.”  This first controversy takes place among the mostly Jewish audience comprising both followers of Jesus and His most passionate opponents, as well as many still unsure where they stand.

What Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors find so offensive, here, is the concrete historical form of truth that Jesus sets out for those who are “taught of God” and follow Him.  Jesus said, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  Eating the multiplied loaves and fishes, or debating the significance of Jesus’ teachings, or following a portion of divine revelation, is of limited value; those who “ate the manna in the wilderness” undoubtedly followed the Father’s teachings up to a point, but “they died.”  Only when the unique “bread of life” has been provided can the one “drawn by the Father” and “taught by God” come to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” so that Jesus can promise repeatedly, “I will raise that person up on the last day.”  The question “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” expresses the perplexity of those who have not yet come to terms with the fullness of the Incarnate Word, as well as the challenge of those who set themselves in opposition.

This perplexity, though, divides even those accepted among Jesus’ followers.  Even those identified as “disciples” up to this point are heard “complaining” that “This teaching is difficult” and asking “who can accept it?”  As He does frequently throughout His career, Jesus does not alleviate their perplexity, but exacerbates it, in order to expose unbelief and clarify belief.  Jesus’ words “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” work in at least three ways at once:  they argue a fortiori from the greater material difficulty of the Incarnation to the lesser difficulty of the Real Presence; they underscore the moral hazard of abstractly affirming the Incarnation while denying its concrete historical form; and they directly foreshadow Jesus’ later Ascension.  (In the unfolding of John’s Gospel, of course, this passage also closely echoes Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in chapter 3.)  Building on that multiplicity of sense, Jesus’ declaration that “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” indicates that followers of Jesus must understand and order material realities according to their spiritual relations.  They must finally evaluate Jesus’ claims in the full light of revelation, rather than by the limited light of unaided natural reason.  This meaning is anchored when Jesus tells His followers that “among you there are some who do not believe” and John informs us that “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.”

This portrait is rather different from the one in Silence; Jesus is quite clear on who will betray Him, and considers that person an unbeliever.  It is at precisely this point, when the betrayer has just been mentioned in association with the unbelievers still numbered among the disciples, that we hear that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him,” which leads Jesus to turn and directly ask the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  This question, of course, would be as close to the “permission” to apostasize as Judas would be likely to get.  What follows is one of Peter’s two famous confessions:  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  However imperfectly, Peter and the faithful together recognized that the Incarnate Word had offered not just teaching but body and blood, and that this was their sole source of salvation.  Jesus’ reply, however, demands of them a further understanding than this temporal followership, though not less than that:  “Did I not choose you, the twelve?  Yet one of you is a devil.”  John specifically indicates that Jesus was speaking of Judas, “for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”  Judas’s betrayal, then, was an indication of a deeper fault; an unbelief which persisted even under the guise of religious vocation, which must eventually betray itself by betraying Christ.  John’s arrangement of the account underscores the particularity of Judas’s unbelief:  Judas refused to accept the unity and unicity of Christ’s salvific message with His saving Person so concretely stated in Jesus’ teaching about His Body and Blood.

With this background in mind, the scene at Lazarus’ home in Bethany becomes much clearer.  In John 12, the account of Mary, sister of Martha, using expensive ointment to treat Jesus’ feet—an apparent waste to which Judas objected—is not left to stand alone.  In fact, the very next occurrence after this is Judas going to the Jewish leaders to conspire against Jesus.  This story is framed with pointed references to Lazarus as “Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” and ends with the Jewish leaders expanding their plot to include Lazarus, because his resurrection led to a situation in which “many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”  In this environment, and against the backdrop of John 6, it is clear that whether Judas was actively interested in stealing money or wasn’t, his unbelief was the issue.  Judas treats Mary’s response to Jesus’ death and resurrection as indifferent, measuring it solely by secular measures.  He fails to consider that the ongoing responsibility of caring for the poor, as taught by Jesus, cannot eclipse the response to the Person of Jesus called for by the Incarnation itself, which is inseparable from the words by which the Incarnate Word teaches those who hear Him.

Mary’s act of devotion, by which she chooses to “cash out” her secular worth in terms explicitly responsive to the Person of Jesus, cannot be evaluated in merely secular terms without becoming the occasion of fresh unbelief.  John underscores this by introducing Judas, immediately before he speaks, as “the one who was about to betray [Jesus].”  And, indeed, it is as those who evaluate the resurrection of Lazarus in terms of its effects on their following begin to plot against Lazarus that Judas joins their plot against Jesus.

It is in precisely these respects that Rodrigues resembles Judas a great deal more than Kichijiro.  Kichijiro is a stumbling follower of Jesus, but like Peter or John Mark, he repents—and even, if we are to believe the appendix, becomes in his faltering way evangelically useful—after his many failures.  He seeks absolution and shows signs of real contrition, though his manifest weakness does make a struggle against sin, rather than freedom from sin, the reasonable pastoral goal.  Rodrigues, by comparison, comes not to understand Judas—and barely to understand Kichijiro—but to become Judas.  Rodrigues becomes a betrayer who, however remorseful, does not repent; indeed, he justifies himself over against the Church whose laws, like those of Peter in the days immediately following the Ascension, inform him clearly of his state.  Whatever of clarity or confusion we may find when we read Silence, we are at least well served if we see Rodrigues’ imaginations of Judas for the dangerous delusions they become to him.




Endo, Shusaku.  Silence.  Trans. William Johnston.  New York:  Taplinger, 1980.

Quotations from NRSV Bible.


Rodrigues, Kichijiro, Judas–a 2012 conference paper (Part One)

As the Scorsese movie comes out, it’s interesting to see many fresh commentators return to ground I last started to work when a good friend opened a discussion that led us to planning a panel at the Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature together in 2012.  This is the paper I gave at that conference (I’m going to make more than one post of it).  I have notes for a larger article based on this, and plans for how this can fit into a book with my existing article, another I have planned on the character Garrpe, and some other points I think worth examining.

One result of the discussions I had with my friend and others after this conference was that I’m now quite a bit more open to the possibility that Silence depicts Rodrigues moving from bad faith to better faith; I still maintain that this requires our finding evidence that the narrative pushes Rodrigues away from the delusions and self-justifications that he wants to cling to all the way to the end of his last reported conversation with Inoue.  This is the territory I’d like to explore more once I’ve worked out these notes, assuming the discussion remains interesting that long.

Enjoy, critique, respond.  Please don’t hand-wave away the serious problems Endo makes his characters pose for living faith!  Whether you think Silence is ultimately a net benefit to faith or a net danger, you must decide having taken the full measure of those challenges.

Here, then, Part One of the article:

Summary Judgment:  Kichijiro’s Identification as Judas Tested Against Other Biblical Betrayers

Peter G. Epps, Oklahoma State University

From shockingly early in their acquaintance, Endo’s priestly protagonist Rodrigues reads Kichijiro as a potential and actual Judas.  Unlike the Judas described by the Evangelists, however, Kichijiro displays real penitence; he is therefore very far from the embodiment of despair that the suicidal Judas was to become.  It is, in fact, Rodrigues who appears to take counsel of despair, like his former mentor Ferreira; and it is Rodrigues whose accusations and inability to forgive most resemble the Judas role he attributes to Kichijiro.

In order to evaluate which of Rodrigues and Kichijiro most resembles Judas Iscariot, though, we need a clearer picture of Judas and the ways in which each character comes to be comparable to him.  Let us begin by assembling the portrait of Judas in the text of Silence, a portrait that resembles Rodrigues at least as much as Kichijiro

Several key scenes paint this portrait.  There is a hint, though not very explicit, in Rodrigues’ comments about Kichijiro when he and Garrpe are preparing to leave for Japan (33).  Rodrigues claims to be moved to laughter by the notion that “I have entrusted my future to a fellow like Kichijiro,” reflecting that “Our Lord himself entrusted his destiny to unworthy people.”  That Rodrigues can recognize Kichijiro as “unworthy” simply by noting Kichijiro’s alcoholism and lack of physical courage foreshadows the development of both characters, but it also suggests what will become a major theme of Silence:  the betrayer’s intrinsic weakness.

A much more significant mention of Judas comes right when Rodrigues and Garrpe reach Japan.  Kichijiro, whom they have engaged as their guide, immediately runs off to scout out the area, as they are not even sure they have landed in the right country (41).  Garrpe leaps to the conclusion that Kichijiro has just fled, but Rodrigues says, “I was thinking of a more terrible fate.  He had not fled. Like Judas he had gone to betray us.  Soon he would appear again, and with him would be the guards” (42).  Both of the priests are far gone in imagining themselves betrayed when Kichijiro returns with some Christians from a nearby village.  The portrait of Judas in Silence, then is not only of a weak betrayer, but of one who actively arranges the capture of a passive and trusting victim.

Of course, some of the difficulty in drawing any conclusions from Silence derives from its extremely subjective I-novel conventions.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Rodrigues’ description of his capture and the events leading up to it.  Rodrigues keeps trying to outpace Kichijiro, who begs him to slow down, telling him that “the magistrate says that the man who finds a father will get three hundred pieces of silver” (112).  Rodrigues then says his “first words to Kichijiro,” accompanied by a “bitter laugh”; he says, “So my price is three hundred pieces of silver” while inwardly noting the that “Judas had sold Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver; I was worth ten times as much.”  While the passage tells us more about Rodrigues’ spiritual exhaustion and fearfulness than about Judas, it does suggest that pecuniary advantage—or perhaps just a weakness for money, or for addictive consumables like alcohol—was the motive behind Judas’ betrayal.

These three elements—the intrinsic weakness of the betrayer, his active betrayal of a passive victim, and his specifically economic motives—are all overshadowed by the portrait that emerges from the two most central reflections on Judas in the plot of Silence.  In a reverie on Christ’s last words to Judas, Rodrigues admits that he has never been satisfied with the explanations offered for Christ’s instructions to “do quickly” what Judas was “going to do” (115).  Rodrigues struggles to imagine the tone of that instruction, and what that would tell him about Judas.  “If it was anger, then at this instant Christ excluded from salvation this man alone of all the men in the world,” he reflects, before rapidly drawing a series of unorthodox conclusions from his imaginary scenario:  “It could not be so.  Christ wanted to save even Judas.  If not, he would never have made him one of his disciples.”  From this conclusion that Judas was not the subject of Christ’s anger, and that Judas’ being among the disciples implied Christ’s belief that Judas could be salvaged, Rodrigues proceeds to wonder, “Why did Christ not stop him when he began to slip from the path of righteousness?”  Having gone thus far, Rodrigues proceeds to recapitulate a Gnostic interpretation of Judas’s relationship to Jesus:  “I have the feeling that Judas was no more than the unfortunate puppet for the glory of that drama which was the life and death of Christ.”  This necessitarian view of Judas’ acts is not only incoherent with regard to Rodrigues’ prior speculation that “Christ wanted to save even Judas,” but introduces an element of fatalism which impugns Divine Providence, treating God as either impotent or callous.  In any case, the portrait of Judas now receives several touches:  in addition to being intrinsically weak, though active in betraying a passive victim, and motivated by money, Judas is now to be seen as someone Jesus thought he could save, but who was not rescued because his actions were fatalistically necessary.

The incoherence in Rodrigues’ speculations at this point is addressed by the gradual breaking of Rodrigues described in the rest of the novel (his capture takes place just past halfway through the book).  When confronted in the denouement by Kichijiro, who again begs to confess and receive absolution for his sins, Rodrigues revisists his last reverie on Jesus’ words to Judas (285).  This time, Rodrigues casts himself as Judas, while speaking to that imaginary inward voice of Jesus which has replaced the imaginary inward face of Jesus that Rodrigues idolizes.  Rodrigues, trying to decide how to respond to Kichijiro’s betrayal and apostasy now that Rodrigues has become an apostate and betrayed his coreligionists as well as the faith entrusted to him, says to his personal Jesus, “You told Judas to go away.”  The voice in his head then answers that he intended no such thing, but that “just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do.  For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”  Not only does this tend to suggest that Rodrigues has realized that he is a closer fit to Judas than to Jesus in the scenario, but it confirms the portrayal of Judas as fated to betray Jesus—so much so that Jesus is now represented as complicit in this betrayal.  (Those familiar with the Gospel of Judas described by Irenaeus and periodically rediscovered by Gnostic sympathizers will recognize elements of this depiction.)  It also curiously conflates the anguish Rodrigues feels after committing apostasy and sacrilege, giving scandal to the faithful, and becoming complicit in their persecution, with an anguish Judas felt before actually betraying Jesus; the suggestion is that Judas was torn between his desires and his fate, and in choosing his fated betrayal did so with Jesus’ permission.

The picture which we form of Judas from Silence, and it must be said principally from Rodrigues’ own reflections and imaginings, is thus one of an intrinsically weak person, who nonetheless actively betrays a passive victim, doing it for money; this betrayer is someone Jesus saw as salvageable, but whose betrayal was fatalistically necessary, so that he was torn between fate and desire, with Jesus resolving this by permitting the betrayal.  And as it is a major theme of Silence to portray Rodrigues’ own transformation into an apostate and betrayer of others, it is perhaps no great accomplishment to assert that Rodrigues fits this portrayal very well.  Before moving on, though, it is well to note that Kichijiro does not always fit this portrait so well as Rodrigues thinks.

[Continue to Part Two]

Even Close Reading is Vanity, Perhaps

Update:  I should point out that this piece, like my article on Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” is an example of an early version of my Religion & Literature specialization.  At this point, I consistently described my major research interest as “Biblical backgrounds to English literature,” and it’s still an important element in my approach to scholarship.

And here’s a brief close reading of a poem put together for the Metaphysical Poetry and Prose seminar I took with Dr. Robert Ray, who literally wrote the book on Donne and Herbert.  Not much preface required, except to warn you that the conclusion is a bit dull, to be honest:

All is “Vanitie,” Saith the Poet

Like most of The Temple, George Herbert’s “Vanitie” (1) contains a knife-edge balance of Biblical context, personal reflection and public statement, reinforced by careful word choice and using both thematic and aural shifts of tone. Whether by deliberate allusion or incidental similarity of thought, Herbert’s deeply Christian language sends the attuned reader scurrying through the pages of his Bible (or, in this age of marvels, a search engine) for the passage that just eludes the memory. In line 5, for instance, Herbert uses a commercial image to represent the thoughts of the “fleet Astronomer” about the “spheres” he “surveys” so that he “knoweth long before” others what they will do. This image of a planned commercial venture resonates with James 4:13-16, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go . . . and make a profit’ . . . you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow . . . you boast in your arrogance.” The similarity of image reinforces the argument against pride that will appear in the following stanzas, and occurs in the only clearly ironic phrase of the stanza.

Another important cluster of Biblical allusions occurs in the last stanza, where God is depicted as putting the law “in us” (cf. Romans 2:14-15 “Law written in their hearts”); “mellowing the ground / With showres and frosts” (cf. Matthew 5:44-45 “he . . . sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”; Psalm 147 on “frost”; and passim, especially the Matthew 13 parable of the soils, on the human heart as “ground”). The weight of all these (and more) come to bear on the single word “death” (see Proverbs 14:12 “its end is . . . death”) followed by a pregnant caesura (one can almost hear a sob in the space after the comma) and the phrase “but missest life at hand.” The idea that the secret of life is immediately available, “at hand,” invokes a Biblical passage that ties together much of the poem: Deuteronomy 30:11-15 (which is quoted in Romans 10:9-10). In the passage, God speaks to the people through Moses, saying,

this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity.

The passage lies closely parallel to the entire poem, particularly the last stanza, in its concepts and even in its images—the word is not “out of reach” (i.e., it is “at hand”) but “in your heart” (i.e., “embosome[d] in us”), it is not “in heaven” or “beyond the sea” (i.e., no “Astronomer” or “Diver” is required). It is a choice of “life . . . and death” in which “man [has] sought out and found” “death, but missest life at hand.”

The public statement in “Vanitie” is among the sharpest in The Temple, especially when it is understood that Herbert’s imagery represents a critique not only of those seekers of secrets the “fleet Astronomer,” “nimble Diver” and “subtil Chymick,” but also of the thoughtless pride of the rest of humanity. This broader critique is carried out in three stages, with a crux in the second stanza. The first stage is so simple as to be easily missed. In line 6, the “Astronomer” is said to know the “aspects, and . . . glances” of the spheres “long before.” “Before,” however, is a preposition demanding an object—and loudly demanding it, for it is left hanging at the end of a short line with a comma to emphasize the resounding silence that follows the word. The stanza is logically and grammatically incomplete, and leaves the reader with the question, “before what?”—a question never fully answered in the first stanza.[ The closest possibility to a first-stanza solution would be “dances,” treating the action content of this noun as if it were verbal (i.e., “knoweth long before [they dance]”). This, however, seems a bit of a stretch; and the reiteration of “before” in line 20, with a completion logically related to the content of lines 5-7, seems a much stronger thematic link.]

This gap is widened in the second stanza, where we find not only the “nimble Diver” and “God” but also an unnamed lady who “wears” the “dearly-earned pearl” which is “her own destruction and [the Diver’s] danger.” The appearance of this extra person begins to hint at a fulfillment of the “before” question of the stanza; there are more people in the poem than the seekers of secrets. The others are represented by the lady just as the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” are represented by the “Diver” in the second stanza’s complex conceit. The interpretive crux of the poem is thus reached in line 14, when it becomes clear that the lady is at least as much the object of criticism as the secret-seekers: for the secret wrested out by the “Diver” is not only “danger” to him but “destruction” to her, a “destruction” she “wears” “with excessive pride.”

It is unsurprising, then, to find the completion of the “before” of the first stanza in the end of the third stanza’s climactic trope. “The subtil Chymick” is to the microcosmic universe what “the fleet Astronomer” is to the macroscomic; both are represented by “the nimble “Diver” of the second stanza. The missing object in the first stanza, represented by the lady in the second, now appears in the form of the “ordinarie suitours at the doore.” The “before what?” becomes “before / They appeare . . . / To ordinarie suitours,” and the parallelism is perfected: the outwardness of “dances” meets the inwardness of “bed-chamber” in the form of the “suitours” who are neither at the dance nor in the bedchamber; who do not see the “secret glances” nor the “naked . . . principles” with which the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” dally.

The first three stanzas, in fact, are a self-contained whole: by the end of line 21 all the conceits have run their course and the characters of the secret-seekers as well as the mass of mankind who pride themselves on following them stand indicted of pride and presumption. It is in the fourth stanza, however, that Herbert moves from public to personal reflection, leaving the violent words (“bore,” “piercing,” “cuts,” “devest,” “strip”) for warmer words of entreaty (“deare,” “glorious,” “embosomes,” “mellowing,” “poore”). The stanza becomes aurally softer and metrically smoother (note the abundance of resonants and round vowels) than the clipped, hurried pace of the first three. The two questions maintain the tone, requiring no downward inflections at all until the end of the stanza; while the lengthy enjambed phrase “thou searchest round to finde out death” (with three repetitions of “ou” and to “d-t” combinations to further slow the pace) ensure a lengthy pause after the climactic word, “death.”

This careful, gentle control of the emotional setting through metrical and aural effects allows Herbert to poignantly express the frustration of watching those to whom every good has been given who still fall short, as well as the contrition of recognizing oneself in that portrait. The poem’s final utterly anti-climactic verb “missest,” as if failure to respond to all God has done were a mischance, creates a striking irony in light of the three stanzas of sharply-worded indictment with which the poem began. The ability to create and control such striking juxtapositions that marks Herbert as one of the prime exemplars of the metaphysical tradition in poetry.

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 1

I want to try to help folks escape some boxes of bad reasoning we keep getting locked into. The classic form of the trap I’m going to describe sounds much like a verbal typo I made when talking to the RCIA last Sunday: referring to the perfect charity in which all three Persons of the Trinity dwell, I said, “And that’s why we say God is three, not just one.”

Now, in my case, I specifically did not mean to deny God’s unity and simplicity, and I instantly mocked and corrected myself. Obviously what I meant was that “we say God is three and one; we do not merely say that He is one.”

But many, even some of the best and most important teachers I hear around me, seem prone to use this “not…but…” structure systematically and under the impression they are helping people to go “deeper” by wedging them from a lesser to a greater.

A typical version of this is an exhortation I grew up hearing often with regard to letting the love of Christ draw us into friendship with God: “It’s not enough to have a head knowledge, you have to have a heart knowledge.” Obviously it is possible to rescue the sense of this statement (“Comprehending language about God is not the same as being God’s friend”), but in practical terms its force is almost always turned in the wrong direction (“Reasoning about God is not as important as having strong feelings about Him”).

And a helpful indicator of the pernicious cultural force of such “not…but…” structures is their frequent coexistence with their exact negations in the same belief systems, or as the equal and opposite axioms of rival systems. When such tendentious structures dominate a dispute, both sides become impervious to reason (and often unable to notice that they may be united in their failure to accept the same truth). For example, it would be very easy to find revival preachers from my youth who would plead, “It’s not enough to have a head belief, you have to have a heart belief!” shortly after expressing contempt for “sentimental religion that has no truth” or sorrow for those who are “sincere, but sincerely wrong.” Such a preacher may well be right on the merits, when given the most charitable possible construal by a very careful reader (for example, when saying that one must believe with firm faith that Jesus Christ was the God-Man sent to save us all from sin, then criticizing those who want to believe Jesus and Mary were special but deny the Virgin Birth as history); but he cites as truisms an incoherent arrangement of sayings in which the privileged term can swap as needed.

This is a fairly trivial example, but the history of Christian doctrine is littered with the shipwrecks of those who started with someone’s “not…but…” and noticed only when grave harm had been done to lives and reputations and teachings and the unity of the Body of Christ that the “not…but…” was an imprudent rhetorical gesture, not a reliable saying.

We’ll talk eventually about illegitimately converting intensive & extensive claims (a helpful critique I encountered in Stephen Prickett’s Words and The Word and have not seen many others explain), but for now just take two examples of “not…but…” that have caused serious problems in the Body of Christ: “not works but faith” and “not a religion but a relationship” (I’m open to your thinking of more, but be sure you don’t just pick the negation of your preferred “not…but…” as an erroneous “not…but…”!)

But, for now, to get us heading in the right direction, here’s a paper I gave at the Southwest Conference on Christianity & Literature in 2014 that deals with several things–not least the concept we need to revive to cure quite a few of our discursive ills:

“Can Poetry Matter?”—Definitely, and With Many Voices
Peter G. Epps
Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature
November 14, 2014


Now in earnest he means to honour the gods who have blessed him,
Now in truth and in deed all must re-echo their praise.
Nothing must see the light but what to those high ones is pleasing,
Idle and bungled work never for Aether was fit.
So, to be worthy and stand unashamed in the heavenly presence,
Nations rise up and soon, gloriously ordered, compete
One with the other in building beautiful temples and cities,
Noble and firm they tower high above river and sea—
Only, where are they? Where thrive those famed ones, the festival’s garlands?
Athens is withered, and Thebes; now do no weapons ring out
In Olympia, nor now those chariots, all golden, in games there,
And no longer are wreaths hung on Corinthian ships?
Why are they silent too, the theatres, ancient and hallowed?
Why not now does the dance celebrate, consecrate joy?
Why no more does a god imprint on the brow of a mortal
Struck, as by lightning, the mark, brand him, as once he would do?
Else he would come himself, assuming a shape that was human,
And, consoling the guests, crowned and concluded the feast.
But, my friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,
Over our heads they live, up in a different world.
Endlessly there they act and, such is their kind wish to spare us,
Little they seem to care whether we life or do not.
For not always a frail, a delicate vessel can hold them,
Only at times can our kind bear the full impact of gods.
Ever after our life is dream about them. But frenzy,
Wandering, helps, like sleep; Night and distress make us strong
Till in that cradle of steel heroes enough have been fostered,
Hearts in strength can match heavenly strength as before.
Thundering then they come. But meanwhile too often I think it’s
Better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,
Always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime
I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years?
But they are, you say, like those holy ones, priests of the wine-god
Who in holy Night roamed from one place to the next.
Holderlin “Bread and Wine” 6-7

This conference poses the question “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” I suggest that this question is roughly the same as that asked in the title of Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” If literature and literary study make any substantive contribution to the common good, it must be because both poetry and criticism are bound up with the active life in much the way teaching is, as a traditionary and culture-making work. The cultural moment that leads us to ask such questions as “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” and “Can Poetry Matter?” is also the moment for which poems such as Holderlin’s “Bread and Wine” were written. As those who concern ourselves with poetry “in lean years”—also translated “the destitute time”—we will certainly want to take counsel in the matter. Beginning with the unlikely pairing of Martin Heidegger and Francis Schaeffer, and picking up some guidelines from St. Thomas Aquinas, I hope to identify some of the material conditions for a poetry that keeps faith and matters.

Heidegger famously wrestles with the nature of “the destitute time” in his essay “What Are Poets For?” and related works from late in his career. Heidegger expands on Holderlin’s image of the “lean years” during which the vatic stance of Romantic poets becomes anachronistic and poetry itself comes to be seen as a luxury product irrelevant to all but a narrow class of consumers. On Heidegger’s reading, “the destitute time” comes to characterize not just a seasonal dearth for poets, but an entire season of world history. Heidegger summarizes his view of the role art works play in the unfolding of history as follows in an earlier essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art”:

Art as poetry is founding, …instigation of the strife of truth: founding as beginning.…This foundation happened in the West for the first time in Greece….The realm of beings thus opened up was then transformed into a being in the sense of God’s creation. This happened in the Middle Ages. This kind of being was again transformed at the beginning and in the course of the modern age. Beings became objects that could be controlled and seen through by calculation. At each time a new and essential world arose. (74)

It would be easy to dispute Heidegger’s reading of the history of ideas, here, but his interpretation of the relation between the work of art and the world as a scene of human work is plain enough. When human working comes to be conspicuous enough to draw attention to itself as human working, it does so according to some available understanding of how the world comes to be as it is and of what materials and methods permit humans to work in a distinctively human manner. As a result, any work of art is most fully realized when it most wholly participates in the creation of the world in which humans can work creatively.

If Heidegger’s interpretation of the relationship between work and world is substantially accurate, then truly great art is most possible—and most recognizeable—when a great “beginning” is at hand. In “What Are Poets For?” Heidegger elaborates this understanding from Holderlin’s question about “the destitute time.” He begins by interpreting “Holderlin’s historical experience” in which “the appearance and sacrificial death of Christ mark the beginning of the end of the day of the gods” (89). If Christ’s Passion marks the demise of all other gods, then what Holderlin sees as Christ’s withdrawal from bodily presence within the world leaves humanity bereft of fresh material evidence of divine presence and action. Heidegger asserts that “the default of God which Holderlin experienced…means that no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it.” This time “becomes ever more destitute” until “it can no longer discern the default of God as a default” (89). “At this night’s midnight,” he says, “the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution” (90-91). It follows that to “be truly a poet in such an age,” one must first have survived experiences and thoughts that “have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him” (92). Such poets cannot readily rely on widely shared assumptions about the manner in which the world comes to be the scene of human work; rather, they “must especially gather in poetry the nature of poetry” in order to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” It is to precisely such poets, Heidegger suggests, that “we others must learn to listen.”

This frequently repeated observation is the occasion of Francis Schaeffer’s critique of Heidegger’s views on art. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer argues that

When [Heidegger] says, “listen to the poet,” he does not mean that we are to listen to the content of what the poet says. Content is immaterial—one might have six poets all contradicting each other. It does not matter because the content is in the area of rationality, the lower story. What matters is that such a thing as poetry exists—and poetry is placed in the upper story. (Trilogy 246)

To clear away the brush, we must not fail to note that Schaeffer’s remark ignores exactly what we just heard from Heidegger—that “We others must learn to listen to what these poets say.” That is, particular poets who write in particular ways about particular things, and not anybody who happens to pen verse, can be judged to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” Heidegger does at least hint a framework for discrimination, so it is not in this sense accurate to say “Content is immaterial.”

More critically, Schaeffer depends on a reductive understanding of “rationality” (Trilogy 124). Like most of the modern thinkers he surveys, Schaeffer presupposes that only univocal true propositions are rational. Although the “whole personality is involved” in the intercourse of revelation, univocal speech is its sine qua non: Schaeffer’s “rational” Christian takes “A is A and A is not non-A” as “the basis” and subsequently engages all other elements of “personality” as a “response” to “what God has said.” If he does otherwise, the Christian “loses his way.” Schaeffer acknowledges that “to add things to rational verbalization” can “enrich it” in the sense that “poetry undoubtedly adds something to prose form.” In just the way some non-rational “personality” is part of a “response,” so some non-rational “something” can “enrich” the “prose form” of “what God has said.”

Schaeffer’s confrontation with Heidegger thus leaves the Christian seeking to make poetry matter with no very satisfying result. Schaeffer’s comment that “Content is immaterial” for Heidegger suggests that the content should be material, should make a concrete difference to the reader; and indeed Heidegger’s criteria for discrimination do not seem very concrete. Despite this, we have seen that Heidegger does not in fact commend “bare poetic form”; and Schaeffer’s reduction of “personality” and “poetry” to a non-rational “something” that can “enrich” univocal speech but also threatens it with irrationality seems to be an example of the thinking that marks “the destitute time.”

We turn, then, to Thomas Aquinas. Although after his time Scotus will persuade most metaphysicians that “being” is a univocal term, Thomas has a fully developed understanding of analogy. As the protégé of Albertus Magnus, Thomas seeks a unified field of knowledge; as a Dominican, Thomas is the paragon of that order’s effort to finally rid the Church of dualist heresy. When Heidegger asserts that the Middle Ages converted the world “into a being in the sense of God’s creation,” he is referring to the Aristotelian synthesis that completed Augustine’s Platonic hermeneutical efforts, a synthesis effected by Thomas. And when Schaeffer attempts to trace the bifurcation of modern thought into “upper” and “lower” registers back to its pre-modern roots, he starts from the basic nature/grace distinction found in Thomas.

Dana Gioia, whose 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” helped pose the question for this paper, suggests a key reason why we might listen to Thomas in his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today.” He points out that while “theology…is important” as expressed in “formal analytical thought,” such dialectical instruction does not address “the fullness of [people’s] humanity” (40). He continues by saying that

A great strength of Catholicism had been its glorious physicality, its ability to convey its truths as incarnate. The faith was not merely explained in its doctrine but reflected in sacred art, music, architecture, and the poetry of liturgy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas knew there were occasions to put theology aside and write poetry.

Gioia goes on to point out the problems that the Church has faced in calibrating its response to “the destitute time,” noting especially that it has sometimes succumbed to “the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies” that tend to exacerbate rather than heal the division between a secularizing culture and a world-changing Christianity (41). This division has been internalized when “eager, well-intentioned reformers” acted without “respectful understanding of art itself” because they “saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational.” As we have seen, this reduction of works of art to “functional entities” is what both Heidegger and Schaeffer object to—and what they both seem to do themselves.

Thomas Aquinas, then, points us toward a vision of poetry that matters in two ways: by his teaching about the intelligibility of creation, and by his own poetry. Aquinas asserts that “man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason,” and that therefore divine revelation must be given so that humans may “direct their thoughts and actions to the end” (ST I.1.1). Because the Creator must necessarily exceed what unaided human reason would devise, and what we could communicate widely and accurately by merely dialectical means, Thomas says that “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely” there must be “a sacred science learned through revelation.” This “sacred science” is indeed intelligible and communicable, but its proper principles are spiritual and “obtained by revelation,” so that “we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation is made” (I.1.8). Nonetheless, “human reason” in the form of both dialectical procedure and appeals to secular wisdom are necessary to the “sacred science,” as Thomas says, “not, indeed, to prove faith…but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine.” Notice the relationship between the realities of creation and revelation, here, and the means of reasoning about them: the real is intelligible, and revelation is credible, but dialectical method serves in elaboration and definition, rather than as the foundation or sine qua non of faithful reason.

This, then, is the setting for the observation of Aquinas that “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” so that “natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: ‘Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ.’” In such a setting we can begin to see how poetry might have a serious cognitive role. I think of the ending George Herbert’s famous poem “The Collar”:

Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe:
And I reply’d, My Lord.

Like so many of Herbert’s works, the poem represents an adjustment of speculative thought to a reality in which willingness to accept the condition of a creature is generally a precondition to understanding as well as to happiness. Thomas is everywhere concerned with the necessity of adjusting our whole being to a reality we did not create and which we are alienated from by original sin as well as our own actual sins.

In such a world, the Platonic objection that “Holy Scripture should not use metaphors” because “similitudes and figures [are] proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences” is met with the solidly Thomistic assertion that “it is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things” (ST I.1.9). Thomas argues that “it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects,” and that it is especially important to do so when we consider those who do not have the time or aptitude for extended theological reflection: it is fitting “that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.” This use of concretely intelligible figural language does not threaten reasonable faith with irrationality because its sensuality is chaste; its end and scope are both more definite and more total than the poetry envisioned by the Platonic critic, as Thomas says: “Poetry makes use of metaphors to produce a representation, for it is natural to man to be pleased with representations. But sacred doctrine makes use of metaphors as both necessary and useful.” For poetry to matter, it must function within the horizon of intelligible reality; it must be more totally intelligible and responsive to the creaturely condition than dialectic, not less; and it may decorate, but must not distract from, the essentially human work of participating in creation.

In order to act in this way, a poetry that matters will require skillful use of plurivocal, rather than univocal, signification. Rather than oscillating between a flawed dialectic that insists that only univocal propositions are really intelligible and a self-defeating dalliance with unlimited equivocation, poets especially must re-learn the philosophical meaning of analogy and the proper sense of allegory. This follows from two basic insights specific to monotheistic revealed religions, and most fully developed in Catholic Christianity: first, that God is incomprehensible yet reveals Himself intelligibly; second, in the words of Thomas, that “The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.” The first insight tells us that we must understand analogical terms as an alternative to univocal and equivocal terms. Univocal terms always take their meaning from a comprehended prior experience of an object; even discounting the residue that escapes comprehension in such terms, the very idea of divine revelation means that some terms must use comprehended prior experience of one object to make intelligible to us what we cannot comprehend and have not yet experienced. Properly speaking, such terms are analogical: they trade on what we do know to sketch what we cannot yet know. As surely as all teaching involves dialectic, all learning begins with analogy.

The second insight tells us that history itself will already be laden with multiple significations when we come to formulate it in words, so that adjusting the whole person to reality will require language and art that can re-enact in the reader the simultaneous unfolding of multiple truths in one event or process. Thomas provides us a key reference point for the developed understanding of allegory, beginning with his Augustinian observation about “words” and “things themselves.” We may say, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, that that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”; and in so doing, we recognize that the double sense of “charged” as both “vitally filled” and “formally accused” is not an ornament or distraction, but a more completely true statement about world history than could be achieved in univocal terms. When the speaker of “God’s Grandeur” asks “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” we see “then” taking on both the sense of historical reference (“then [and] now”) and the sense of implication (“if…then”). On the one hand, ignoring the Creator’s authority is a perennial act of human culture; on the other, after “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” it seems especially contrary to reasonable expectation that people would not see the harm that follows from a refusal to adjust to their creaturely status. Far from involving a flight from the scandalously sensual into the safely abstract, then, proper allegorical reasoning develops the insight that the historical unfolding of creation is laden with significance even before human reason and divine revelation explicitly account for that significance. If dialectic serves to find the most definite and unmistakable expression currently available of certain truths about that unfolding, then poetry may well serve to protect dialectic from devolving into reductionism.

Poets armed with this understanding of human language’s role in an intelligible creation should find no lack of interesting and controversial subject matter, but should be able to set it in perspective. As Gioia says, “Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil…. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God” (35). Yet this pervasive “invisible presence” is by its very invisibility prone to become the “default of God” in the experience of a poet such as Holderlin or a philosopher such as Heidegger; we cannot finally distinguish on the basis of words between the verbal mysticism Schaeffer deplores and the complex participation in creation that poets seek. Reduction to univocal discourse only makes the problem worse, as dialectic replaces poetry. For poetry to matter in this way, then, divine revelation must occur “visibly and unequivocally” in the material world. Poets are powerless to conjure this, but they should attend to any proclamation of such an occurrence.

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

It is this reality which leads St. Thomas, as Gioia says, to put down the pen of scholarship and take up the pen of poetry, giving us the Corpus Christi liturgy which is still used for some of the most solemn celebrations in the Catholic faith: Pange Lingua; Adoro te Devote; Sacris Solemniis; Verbum Supernum; Lauda Sion. (sing a bit of Tantum Ergo if possible) In a culture experiencing “the destitute time,” poetry can matter when poets called into close contact with the definite and plurivocal nature of the sacraments wrestle with the implications of that understanding for every part of life. Our culture’s rapid political and epistemic pendulum swings merely perpetuate the “divided field” of human reason that Schaeffer correctly diagnoses, but cannot cure with univocal propositions. It ought to be possible, however, to engage in a poetics of adjustment to the status of creature that richly explores analogical language and the allegorical understanding of history and lived experience; this should be most possible for those richly engaged in the sacramental life of the Church. One model I might propose is Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, in which the dying man grapples with the existential sense of impending oblivion, aided by angels, ministers, and friends cooperating in prayer. For poets “in lean years,” and I suggest for poetry in general, the alternative to this obedient and unfolding vision is to live as Gerontius fears to die:

As though my very being had given way,
As though I was no more a substance now,
And could fall back on nought to be my stay,
And turn no whither, but must needs decay
And drop from out the universal frame
Into that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss

Works Cited
[paper written for oral delivery. Resource links follow.] [Schaeffer] [Holderlin] [Summa] [Gioia 2013] [Newman] [Herbert] [Hopkins] [Gioia 1991]

Samson and Dido, and some reflections on the distance travelled

Well, if you ever doubt that I was very sincere about being a Protestant when I was one—which was, after all, the first 37 years of my life—there are a few short cuts to putting those doubts to rest.  One of the most straightforward is to look for anything I wrote in my middle twenties that mentions Milton (as we’ve already seen once or twice).  This paper is no exception—written in Fall 2001, as I began my doctoral coursework in my third year of graduate school (I had worked out about half of my M.A. thesis by midsummer 2001, and would finish and defend it in 2002), it has some pretty characteristic errors about English religious history and still uses the general organizing principle I had inherited from generations of Protestant and Baptist forebears:  one in which “toward Rome” is the direction of corruption, while outside truth and error are free to contend until we are enlightened. 

This dramatization of church history is an understandable polemical response to the way England’s religious history unfolded, with the erratic political and religious manipulations of Henry VIII spawning both a schismatic but traditional Anglicanism and the more radical Reformed impulse that flourished especially in the brief reign of Edward VI, before Mary Tudor’s brief (and defensive, and vindictive) restoration of the Church—impulses which last throughout Elizabeth I and the whole of the Stuart monarchy, including Interregnum and Restoration.  Viewed wholly from within the assumption that truth lay somewhere within the English tradition of Protestantism, then, the Established Church and the Dissenters seemed to be contending for the right to claim the mantle of the true Reformation (the true rescue of New Testament Christianity from “Romish” corruptions).  All the while, of course, subtle political forces, mostly foreign and always sinister, plot to take advantage of this conflict and make England Catholic again (and here insert the absurd Catholic terrorist-hero wannabe Guy Fawkes, and also the Titus Oates perjuries that make up “the Popish Plot,” and later the Know-Nothings, the Kluckers, Lorraine Boettner, Jack Chick, and other hacks).

Anyway, if the more lurid speculations at the fringes of the tradition I was reared in (and we were never intentionally “fringy” in my family or congregation) had begun to lose their grip, the basic narrative was still firmly in my head in 2001.  What was also in my head were all those Church Fathers I had read back in 1998-99, though, and conversations I had been having with Catholics and Presbyterians about the history of our understanding of various doctrines.  I was definitely in reaction, at this point, having felt that I was unable to answer clearly some persuasive arguments on the subject of Baptism (though for years to come it would be my visceral mistrust of infant baptism that kept me at arm’s length from the Presbyterian congregation I spent most of my Sundays with); I was trying to shore up what I felt were deficiencies in my arguments for what I remained convinced was the right understanding of the history of my faith, and thus of that faith itself (for “what have you that you have not received?”).

Also, this was the Fall after I had taken my Latin class and translated the portions of Aeneid here discussed for myself.  Returning to Milton while using my fresh Latin was too good an opportunity to pass up, and this seminar gave me the perfect opening.  The paper itself is only middling, but I like the basic reading:  Samson and Dalila are, in the structure of their poem, role-reversed to Aeneas and Dido; comparing the mapping of characters to situation with the mapping of traits to characters (some are transferred to the “wrong” character) helps to underscore some of Milton’s specific innovations and emphases.

Here, then, a seminar paper from Fall 2001, revisiting what I still consider to be a far undervalued poem, Samson Agonistes:

Peter G. Epps
Conference Paper
Foundations of Medieval Literature
Dr. Jill Havens

Samson and Dido

Arma virumque cano. (Aeneid 1)

A little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on.  (SA 1-2)

From the very first, Virgil’s great epic speaks of “arms and the man,” or, as Fitzgerald translates it, “warfare and a man at war.”  Aeneid is, after all, public poetry–written with a civic purpose and a particular political aim which both undergird and limit its more broadly humane agenda.  In this respect, perhaps above all others, Milton’s works can well bear comparison to Virgil’s.  As an accomplished Latinist, Milton’s imagination is utterly permeated with Virgilian imagery, and his rhetorical stance both echoes the vatic stance in Virgil and foreshadows the more pronounced vatic stance of the Romantics.  The Virgilian contexts of Paradise Lost have been thoroughly, though still far from exhaustively, explored.  In Samson Agonistes, however, Milton presents another sort of man, disarmed but very much at war, and in doing so invokes once more his great poetic ancestor.

I find, to my surprise, that few critics have examined the presence of Aeneid in the text of Samson Agonistes, particularly in Samson’s encounter with Dalila.  The meeting is immensely redolent of Dido’s encounter with Aeneas in the underworld, and Milton’s revision of this classic confrontation provides fruitful suggestions about Milton’s poetic progress beyond Paradise Lost.  I propose to examine the Samson/Dalila dialogue in light of the Aeneas/Dido meeting in Book VI of Aeneid, and in so doing to suggest that Milton’s increasing alienation from Restoration culture accelerates the growth of proto-Romantic tendencies already present in his writing.

The parallels are fairly numerous, but let me suggest a few which lend weight to the comparison.  Both Dido and Samson, having been betrayed in marriage, eventually die by their own hands.  In both cases, the marriages transgress cultural boundaries; in both cases, the marriages fail because national loyalties supersede marital fidelity.  Perhaps most significantly, Samson and Dalila provide as clear an instance of the historic enmity of Israelite and Philistine as Aeneas and Dido of the blood feud between Rome and Carthage.  The material of the Samson and Dalila story, of course, is not original to Milton; yet he alters it significantly in ways which parallel both his own biography and the Aeneid more closely than the Biblical account.

More specific parallels to Virgil’s work in the Samson/Dalila scene include Dalila’s speech about Fame:

Fame if not double-fac’t is double-mouth’d,
And with contrary blast proclaims most deeds,
On both his wings, one black, th’ other white,
Bears greatest names in his wild aerie flight.  (971-4)

Milton here puts in Dalila’s mouth a clear echo of Virgil’s Rumor, the “smut-goddess” (dea foeda), who flies over the city, listening and spreading rumors and scandals (4.173-88).  The parallel is made clearer when we recall that Milton would have read Aeneid exclusively in the Latin; thus his “Fame” is an aural, as well as a literal, translation of Virgil’s Fama.  Dalila, of course, is seeking to defend herself against Samson’s accusations; she argues that what is infamy to the Israelites will be glory to the Philistines.  Appealling, however, to the duplicitous nature of Fame, she may only reinforce our impression of her own duplicity.

Another significant element binding Samson Agonistes to Aeneid is the pervasive nautical imagery which forms the backdrop for the dialogue of Samson and Dalila.  Upon her initial approach, Dalila is figured by the Chorus as a “thing of sea or land” which

Comes this way sailing
Like a stately Ship
Of Tarsus, bound for th’ Isles
Of Javan or Gadier
With all her bravery on, and tackle trim,
Sails fill’d, and streamers waving,
Courted by all the winds that hold them play.  (710-9)

Similarly, Dalila invokes marine metaphors in her final tirade against Samson, saying,

I see thou art implacable, more deaf
To prayers, then winds and seas, yet winds to seas
Are reconcil’d at length, and Sea to Shore:
Thy anger, unappeasable, still rages,
Eternal tempest never to be calm’d.  (961-5)

Finally, Samson, in his riddling debate with the Chorus upon Dalila’s departure, asks, “What Pilot so expert but needs must wreck / Embarqu’d with such a Stears-mate at the Helm?” (1044-5)  These nautical usages resonate readily with the original meeting of Dido and Aeneas in Books III and IV of Aeneid, in which every major turn is conditioned by the sea.  Aeneas is driven by a storm to the Punic shores, and is convinced by fear of rough winter seas to stay in Carthage; he provisions his ships secretly to depart; and Dido attempts to send the Carthaginian fleet to stop Aeneas before she resolves on her own death.  The narrative of Aeneid is, as in Homer’s Odyssey, moved along primarily by the stages of a sea-journey.  Samson Agonistes, having only one major location, maintains its scene progression by the changing nature of the dialogue as each new interlocutor comes to challenge, tempt, or encourage Samson.  That Samson and Dalila are connected, first and last, by their participation in the marine imagery which frames Dido and Aeneas helps tie the two accounts together as surely as an explicit allusion.

Indeed, the absence of the explicit classical allusions so common in Milton’s other writings is a major feature of interest in Samson Agonistes.  As Flanagan notes,

Milton is remarkably restrained for what he leaves out or what he rejects from previous poetic devices or banks of allusion. [. . .] Milton’s topical or timely allusions–to decadent aristocrats or priests, for instance–would have had to be kept under veil, considering that Milton in 1671 was labeled a regicide and might have been imprisoned or even executed for such “treason.”  His imagery is not Christian; his dramatic poem is parallel to a number of Greek tragedies, but not slavishly imitative of any other play; and he is too proud to imitate any contemporary tragedy, not even Hamlet or King Lear.  His “Dramatic Poem” is an affront and a rebuttal to the entire world of the Restoration stage.  (793)

This “affront,” of course, is entirely in keeping with Milton’s personal and political relationship to the Restoration.  As Cromwell’s Latin Secretary and an active anti-prelatical writer, well-known for his public defense of the execution of Charles I, Milton can hardly be expected to have welcomed the Restoration in any sphere.  The movement of the neoclassical writers, as instanced in Dryden, away from Parliamentarian leanings into ardent Royalism; the growing suppression of Puritan and Nonconformist thought under an established church heavily leaning to Roman Catholicism (witness Dryden’s own journey from Puritan roots through Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism); and the increasingly popular, secular, and even obscene entertainments of the Restoration stage could not but have enraged Milton.  In this environment, we find the ever-combative Milton quite prepared to dispense with his own densely allusive classicism in order to depart sharply from the neoclassical trend.

Milton’s rebellion against neoclassicism prefigures the Romantic rebellion of a century later.  Unlike the Romantics, however, Milton was so thoroughly steeped in the classical and Christian traditions that shaped his poetics that he effectively grafts himself onto the classical tradition despite the absence of obvious allusion.  As Flanagan says, “It is to Milton’s credit that [. . .] the audience or reader does not notice [the Greek tragic form] at all, just as one does not notice similar classical rhetorical divisions in Aeropagitica” (794).  By absorbing the Greek dramatic form (as Virgil before him) and Latin classical material, particularly Virgil, Milton writes himself into the main tradition itself, choosing to join the classical tradition directly rather than alluding to it as his Restoration contemporaries did.  Far from rejecting the classical, Milton rejects the neoclassical movement precisely by a seamless integration of classical form with Hebrew matter, subverting his political, religious, and cultural rivals by engaging them on his own highly original (though robustly traditional) terms.

As with his Romantic descendants, Milton’s choice of subject matter has deep personal resonances.  In choosing to represent the blinded Samson, of course, Milton reminds us of his own blindness; we will feel, even if we are not willing to defend it critically, that many of Samson’s lines ring a little too true, carry a little too much emotional charge, to be entirely separated from Milton’s own life.  Samson is not only blind, though; like Milton in 1671, he is politically isolated, the frustrated defender of a people who are not only conquered but content to be so.  Like Milton, whose divorce tracts indicate the vehemence of his feelings about his first wife, Mary Powell, Samson feels betrayed by the women in his life.  The woman of Timna has gone to another husband after Samson learned of her betrayal, and Dalila has betrayed him to his current captivity.  In another, more subtle way, though, Samson accuses Dalila of attempting to betray him again–to seduce him with thoughts of domestic ease and comfortable age, thoughts which to the born warrior Samson are worse than prison.  Milton, of course, was himself living the life Samson refuses–though with a third wife of his choice, and in the company of his daughters, under the protection of Andrew Marvell, whose intercession prevented his execution as a regicide.  Milton being ever the martial spirit, I find it hard to believe that he did not, in dark moments, wonder if he should be locked in a losing battle rather than taking his ease among his decadent Restoration contemporaries.  I am tempted to suggest that, in representing Samson’s father Manoa as seeking to ransom Samson, but coming too late with word of his success, Milton draws upon his own protection by Marvell; if so, then Samson Agonistes becomes a tribute to a lost chance at martyrdom.

At any rate, Milton’s changes to his Biblical source material do tend to make it resonate more clearly with Aeneid and his own experience.  The key change in the Samson and Dalila encounter is that Dalila is portrayed as Samson’s wife.  While the original story does not preclude a marriage, the account in Judges 16 and 17 seems to set up a dramatic progression from the woman of Timna, who Samson marries, to the harlot in Gaza, and from the harlot to Dalila.  By marrying Samson to Dalila, Milton underscores the betrayal and alludes to his own writings on divorce; the allusion becomes starkly visible when Samson tells Dalila, “Thou and I are long since twain” (929).  Having already been separated from another wife, Samson announces that, to his thinking at least, his marriage to Dalila is also ended.

In addition to the parallels in Milton’s own writing, though, the Dido and Aeneas conversation in Aeneid strikingly parallel Samson’s marriage to Dalila.  Virgil’s narrator clearly establishes the ambiguity of the solemnized but never publicized marriage of Dido and Aeneas.  As Fitzgerald translates it,

Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno
Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed,
High Heaven became witness to the marriage,
And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top.
That day was the first cause of death, and first
Of sorrow.  Dido had no further qualms
As to impressions given and set abroad;
She thought no longer of a secret love
But called it marriage.  Thus, under that name,
She hid her fault. (4.229-238)

The presence of the gods appears to give warrant to the marriage, but Dido herself is portrayed as self-deluded, believing that a secret marriage could truly cover the fault of a secret love.  The narrator clearly regards the situation as ambiguous–the gods are “witness to the marriage,” but no one else is; and Dido, who has engaged in a secret love, “called it marriage” to conceal “her fault.”  We are left to wonder what Aeneas thought until his argument with Dido upon his departure, when he says, “I never held the torches of a bridegroom, / Never entered upon the pact of marriage” (467-8).  For Aeneas, a secret marriage is no marriage at all.  In much the same way, for Samson a marriage betrayed is no marriage at all; as he says to the Chorus, “Love-quarrels oft in pleasing concord end, / Not wedlock-trechery endangering life” (1008-9).

This equivocal understanding of marriage is reflected in Milton’s problematization of the roles of Dido and Aeneas as recast in Samson and Dalila.  The main pattern clearly identifies Samson, the self-slaying betrayed spouse, with Dido; this leaves Dalila in the role of Aeneas, the visitor to the underworld who vainly begs forgiveness.  At the same time, Milton cannot allow himself to cast Dalila as heroic; she receives the weaknesses of Aeneas, while Samson is allowed to gain a number of his strengths, including the fortitude to take his enemies with him in his suicide.  Dalila, in turn, receives some of Dido’s strengths, particularly her vehemence and bitter reflection upon the warrior’s preference for combat and public duty over private security and harmony.  By rearranging the traditional roles in this way, Milton carves out a space for his own particular version of the hero, combining a proto-Romantic sense of conflicted, solitary introspection with the civic motivations of the Virgilian hero.

The account of Dido’s meeting with Aeneas in the underworld and Samson’s meeting with Dalila in prison follow roughly the same pattern.  In Book VI of Aeneid, Aeneas approaches Dido and addresses him.  He weeps, expresses his regret at her suicide, claims the harm was greater than he expected, and attempts to justify himself by an appeal to religion.  His appeal to religion, of course, also invokes the arguments from civic duty which he had previously made in Book IV; the will of the gods, for Aeneas, was the founding of a city.  Dido, however, is implacable:

Aeneas with such pleas tried to placate
The burning soul, savagely glaring back,
And tears came to his eyes.  But she had turned
With gaze fixed on the ground as he spoke on,
Her face no more affected than if she were
Immobile granite or Marpesian stone.
At length she flung away from him and fled,
His enemy still, into the shadowy grove. (628-635)

Interestingly, Dido returns in the underworld to Sychaeus; like Samson, she has been married before.  In returning to her dead husband, Dido emphatically announces the breach of the marriage.  She seems, like Samson, to find that “wedlock-trechery endangering life” ends the relationship; like Samson, she only resolves the equivocal nature of her marriage with her own death.

Samson’s encounter with Dalila is much longer than Dido’s with Aeneas, but this difference can largely be accounted for by the greater scope of Virgil’s work.  If the material from Book IV which the meeting in Book VI draws upon is included, the two have roughly similar bulk and complexity.  The pattern of the two meetings, however, is much the same:  Dalila approaches Samson, weeps, expresses her regret for the outcome of her actions, claims the harm was greater than she expected, and attempts to justify her actions based on civic and religious duties.  Samson, like Dido, is implacable:

No, no, of my condition take no care;
It fits not; thou and I are long since twain;
Nor think me so unwary or accurst
To bring my feet again into the snare
Where once I have been caught; [. . .]
If in the flower of youth and strength, when all men
Lov’d, honour’d, fear’d me, thou alone could hate me
Thy Husband, slight me, sell me, and forgo me;
How wouldst thou use me now, blind, and thereby
Deceiveable, in most things as a child
Helpless, thence easily contemn’d, and scorn’d,
And last neglected?  (928-44)

More aggressive than Virgil’s Dido in the underworld, but reminiscent of her rage in Book IV, to which her “savagely glaring” countenance bears witness, Samson harshly excoriates Dalila for her unfaithfulness, refusing all her offers of comfort as more maneuvers to use him as a tool for her own lusts, be they physical, political, or financial (and they are, by turns, all of these).

The key distinction, of course, between Samson Agonistes and Aeneid is that Samson is in the “underworld” of prison; unlike Dido in Book VI, his suicide is still future.  Unlike Dido, Samson’s suicide will partake of the heroic ethos, using his death (which he counts inevitable) to further the defense of his people against their oppressors.  Unlike Aeneas, Dalila’s great act of civic duty is already in the past, and in the poem’s religious context is a false duty.  Still, Milton gives considerable play to Dalila’s perspective, allowing her to argue at length that her betrayal of Samson will give her glory among her people as surely as Samson’s feats give him glory among his.  Only the Chorus, and the decisive results of Samson’s final act, reveal clearly that Dalila is “a manifest Serpent by her sting / Discover’d in the end, till now conceal’d” (1098-9).  With one cleverly punning line (not only is her sting found out at last, but it resides in her “end” in a sexual sense, and also in her “end” in the sense of intention), the Chorus sums up the character of Dalila.  Acting the role of an Aeneas, a betrayer of hearth in favor of civic duty, she may call into question the legitimacy of his great betrayal; but she certainly reveals herself to be less than heroic.

In the end, the Miltonic hero is revealed to be a problematic one; as Flanagan asks, “Could Milton have been celebrating the glory of an isolated terrorist?” (795)  In one sense, I would answer, “Yes.”  Certainly, Milton does view Samson’s repudiation of Dalila, his rejection of a life of dotage with an unfaithful woman in favor of his public duty as defender of an ungrateful people, as heroic.  In so doing, he actually casts Samson back in the role of Aeneas, the warrior who must reject domestic happiness in favor of civic achievement.

By reversing the heroic roles in the encounter with Dalila, however, Milton brings this simple equation into question.  If Samson is Dido, betrayed to death by an enemy motivated by civic duty, then he is also–on his own account, and with reference to Dido’s–betrayed by his own weakness.  Samson crosses the boundaries of his civic duty, as does Dido, by a “secret love” which has dire consequences for his role as protector.  If Dalila, like Aeneas, betrays her spouse in answer to the call of the gods and lust for glory, then surely Samson’s own resemblance to the heroic Aeneas raises questions about both characters.

Milton’s hero, like the much-celebrated “Byronic hero” of the nineteenth century which he strongly anticipates, is not a hero because of intrinsic strength.  Inwardly, he is weak and conflicted, drawn by contradictory impulses toward voluptuousness and self-destruction.  Unlike the Byronic hero, however, Milton’s Samson does not die vainly; and he is not converted to a life of peaceful dotage.  That his death, like Dido’s, is the tragic consequence of weakness exploited by betrayal is certain; that his death fulfills, in the only way left to him, the calling for which his strength was given, indicates the possibility of hope even in tragedy.  Here Milton’s Christian vision fulfills the promise of the Hebrew original, while superseding both its classical antecedents and Romantic successors:  the power that matters to Milton is extrinsic, divinely granted, and while its abuse has dire consequences, it remains always ready to transform life and culture.  Milton’s solitary hero may be, by his own weakness and lack of vision–figuratively and literally–a tragic waste of a much greater potential; but he is made adequate to the task at hand, and in his death accomplishes what Milton in 1671 could only dream of–and write about.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, Robert, trans.  The Aeneid.  Virgil.  New York:  Random House, 1990.

Flanagan, Roy.  Introduction.  Samson AgonistesThe Riverside Milton.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1998.  784-798.

Milton, John.  Samson AgonistesThe Riverside Milton.  799-844.

Virgil.  The Aeneid bks 4, 6.  Latin Poetry.  Wilber Lester Carr and Harry E. Wedeck, eds.  Boston:  D. C. Heath and Company, 1940.

Herbert and Confession, in one sense

This is one of my favorite pieces from early in grad school, as it has so much just plain fun study of the details of a great poet’s craft—and one of a pair of special favorites (the other being John Donne).  I also got to enjoy working with T. S. Eliot’s line of criticism on the metaphysical poets, something that has become an important landmark for me.

There are a couple details that might be of interest, here.  First, the discussion of “The Quip” is especially interesting, and I think my reading holds up pretty well (though it may not be as surprising as I thought at the time).  Second, my reading of what “confession” is holds for one sense of confession, but turns on a mistaken notion that “confession” should be parsed as “to speak with” rather than having its own proper meaning—and a too-narrow interpretation of the meaning of “speak with” rather than any of the other senses in which “to confess” is used in English.  This is a common false etymology, but improved knowledge both of the history of English and of the Latin makes it obvious it is a mistake.

Finally, the conclusion of this paper is—and I am surprised to remember this—perhaps the cleanest statement of the critical insight I was to work for the next several years (during which I would often style myself a “post-structuralist fundamentalist”).  Here is a paper, completed in May of 2000 for a seminar on the metaphysical poets, and the argument sketched here is the one I would be capping off with my dissertation, completed in 2009:

Through his use of confessional language, the language of the soul “speaking with” God, Herbert negotiates a path from the false certitude of self-authority, through the deconstruction of self-authority into sin and incoherence, to a tentative groping for the words to order revelation–a path which finally lays hold on the words of God Himself as the only sound basis for authoritative utterance.

I would eventually be quite satisfied that I had made that argument—and quite unable to live with the results.  But the effort of scrutiny, and the effort to subject all claims to the authority of the Word of God, was not wasted.  It just needed to be liberated from some errors, and understood in its own proper frame of reference.

Here, then, one of my favorite pieces of criticism from my early graduate school days:

“Dark as Day”:  Speaking with God in Herbert’s Temple

T. S. Eliot says of George Herbert that “it was only in the Faith, in hunger and thirst after godliness, in his self-questioning and his religious meditation, that he was inspired as a poet” (21).  Herbert’s poetry, though neglected like much of the poetry in the metaphysical tradition, has long thrived in the Christian community.  Reading the lyrics from The Temple as isolated pieces of didactic or inspirational verse, however, diminishes the power of Herbert’s language.  Examining The Temple through a more subtle lens discloses a complex craftsmanship designed to enable reader and speaker alike to find an authoritative, true voice through the Christian practice of confession.

To confess is, in its etymological sense, to “speak with” (not to) another; in religious contexts, to confess is to “speak with” God.  When the Christian believer admits to his sin and acknowledges its heinous character, the believer is saying what he knows God has said about sin.  Confession is not, however, limited to sin; any utterance of the believer speaking what he knows God has said is a confession.  Thus Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (10:9).  Herbert’s poetry reflects the centrality of verbal confession in the Gospel and reveals a sophisticated understanding of confession as utterance, using the play of authority and indeterminacy to underscore the relative roles of God and man.

If confession is “speaking with” God, then it bears a special relationship to all other utterances of mortal humanity.  Instead of claiming authority, the confessing believer specifically disclaims authority, accepting instead the authority of God over his speech.  Because all truth and all right volitions must accord with the word and will of God, the act of confession reveals all other speech-acts as invalid claims of authority.  By tracing each to some choice contrary to the expressed will of God (a sin), confession reveals the contentless incoherence of such unauthorized utterances, deconstructing them into their component volitions against God.  Having unravelled the false authority of the self, confessional speech explores the potential for authoritative speech by groping for the language needed to give form to the experience of revelation; this authority is found in the affirmation of authentic words of God, “speaking with” God the truths revealed.

A ready example of the first stage of confessional speech occurs in the aptly-named “Confession” (118).  The speaker, wracked by griefs brought by “God’s afflictions,” finds that “they are too subtle for the subtlest hearts”and evade all attempts at self-protection.  Indeed, the central paradox of the poem is that to attempt such protection is to guarantee penetration:  “no locks . . . but they have keys.”  Openness is the only means of protection, but only because it is not a protection at all:  griefs “cannot enter; / Or, if they enter, cannot rest.”  Even to define openness as protection fails; all self-protection from divine “torture” is, as if by definition, guaranteed to fail.  The point is carried home vividly in a clever line which almost undercuts the poet’s whole enterprise:  “fiction / Doth give a hold and handle to affliction.”  The poet’s craft is the creation of fictions, but it here appears as a handgrip to affliction.  In order to escape the trap of “God’s afflictions,” the speaker must literalize his own metaphor; rather than seek protection against trials, he must be open to the God who sends them–and who also forgives.  The final stanza gives an explicit statement of the theology of confession:

Wherefore my faults and sins,
Lord, I acknowledge; take the plagues away:
For since confession pardon wins,
I challenge here the brightest day,
The clearest diamond:  let them do their best,
They shall be thick and cloudy to my breast.

A second example occurs in “Divinity” (126), as the speaker observes the way men “cut and carve” the “transcendent sky” of theology with a demand for “definitions.”  These “questions and divisions” obscure the truth:  the “wine” of Christ’s blood is “thickened . . . with definitions,” his “seamless coat” is “jagged” (torn), and “faith lies by,” waiting to be called upon.  The speaker accuses these modern Pharisees of converting simple commands into “dark instructions” and “Gordian knots.”  As in “Confession,” the speaker’s response is simple and literal:  without debate over such issues as transubstantiation, he chooses “to take and taste what [God] doth there design,” for this “is all that saves, and not obscure.”  The confessional affirmation of the words of God in Christ, “Love God, and love your neighbour.  Watch and pray. / Do as ye would be done unto” is the only source of clarity; the affirmation underscores the irony and futility of scholastic confusion over things which the speaker sees to be “as dark as day!”

Herbert’s puns and sudden transformations of meaning exploit indeterminacy of signification to produce an effect more significant than the simple reference of the words themselves.  The experience of suddenly recognizing a pun, especially such dignified, serious and multi-layered puns as Herbert sprinkles throughout his work, cannot be reduced to mere plurality of meaning.  The pun demonstrates a real likeness through a seemingly arbitrary similarity of spelling or pronunciation.  By using a pun, the poet creates a metatextual space in which the reader must grapple with realities only partially voiced by the speaker.  That a pun is possible hints at the richness of the reality the text purports to represent; that it takes a pun to reveal this richness points to the limitations of human language.  These hints beg inference to the reality behind the pun, even as they demonstrate the need for an authoritative word to give full form to revelation.

In “Sacred Measures:  Herbert’s Divine Wordplay,” Kathleen J. Weatherford discusses the well-known sun/son pun:

Both “the sun” and “a son” provide “light” and “fruit”; both chase away “dimnesse”; both bring “new discov’ries of posteritie.”  Of course, the real point of the poem is that our name for Christ, “The Sonne of Man, “ (l. 14) is the most significant meaning of “Sonne,” which fully embraces the other two. (22)

Weatherford also traces Herbert’s musical and metrical imagery at some length, centering her inquiry around the word “measure.”  She pauses to discuss the complex of puns in “Grief,” noting that

In line 16 . . . “measure” can mean meter, poetic lines, and poetry, as well as music and, more specifically, the time or rhythm of a piece of music and an action taken as a means to an end,  an expedient . . . In line 18 it means both meter, poetic lines, poetry (and the corresponding musical terms) and moderation. (25-6)

The heavily-laden pun on “measure” in the final lines of “Grief” is especially appropriate, because the existence of the pun suggests the swell of experience beyond the reach of mortal language–in a passage where “measure” itself is explicitly revealed as grossly inadequate to the task of expressing the speaker’s grief; he must end with an unmetrical “Alas, my God!” (154)

In her book Utmost Art:  Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert, Mary Ellen Rickey notes a number of other puns to be found in The Temple.  Notable among these are the images of “starres” and “griefs” as the “foil” of “vertues” and “sinning” in Herbert’s “The Foil.”  Rickey points out that, in addition to an opponent or weapon, “foil” can have the sense “of a thin sheet of metal commonly set under jewels to enhance their brilliance” (64-5).  She further points out the consistent use of the pun in words such as “toil” (“to fight as well as to labor”) and “foul” (“both loathsome and a breaker of the rules”) throughout the poem (65).

Rickey also examines “The Family,” calling it “one of the most unfortunately neglected of Herbert’s poems” (67).  Once more the use of language is clearly confessional, tending to point out the inadequacy of the mortal speaker’s attempts to order his experience, as Rickey says:

[Herbert] exemplifies this order [of soul] by means of two figures:  human faculties exercised in consort make music, whereas indecorously indulged they produce noise; and, as the title indicates, the faculties of the well-ordered man are a happy household, a fitting seat for the Lord to occupy.

Unruly thoughts make a noise, but each sounds as insistently as if it were taking a musical part; the noise is loud to the eares, since it follows no rule.  Yet rule is also suggestive of a kind of family imagery; puling, too, is significant . . . as the sound which the children . . . might make.  (67) [I think here of Jacques’ representation of an “infant–mewling and puking” in As You Like It.]

In both layers of the imagery, as well as the puns used to convey them, the poet uses confessional language to identify the disorder within as the product of a lack of authoritative speech, of “rule” in both the musical and the familial senses (corresponding to the double meaning of “authority” as authorial control and executive power).

The pun points to the more complex realities which lie just beyond the bounds of mortal language, but it is Herbert’s sudden transformations that set the stage for authoritative speech.  In poems such as “The Quip,” a single word or phrase is used throughout the poem, but its full meaning does not become apparent until the ending.  This eschatological structure echoes the structure of Christian experience, with a series of assertions validated by a final, authoritative act of God.

“The Quip” (102-3) turns on the verb “answer,” repeated in a refrain-like line in the second through the fifth stanzas and twice more (once as a noun) in the sixth stanza.  In each of the four middle stanzas, a different representative of “the merrie world” tempts or taunts the speaker in a different way.  The speaker answers none of these hecklers, instead repeating, “But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.”  In the final stanza, the meaning of this elliptical response is made clear:

Yet when the hour of thy design
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large, say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.

The “answer” which validates the speaker’s response to each tempter can be read either as an indirect or a direct quotation:  it may read “say [that] I am thine,” indicating the Lord’s possession of the speaker; or “say, ‘I am thine,’” indicating the speaker’s possession of the Lord.  Edgar Daniels collapses this ambiguity in favor of the direct-quotation reading (12).  No critic, however, has examined the possibility that this ambiguity between direct and indirect quotation is deliberate.  The multiple possible meanings of the oft-repeated word “answer” make this deliberate ambiguity the most probable reading.  By phrasing the answer itself ambiguously, Herbert compels the reader to investigate just how the “answer” fits each question.  In stanza 2, “Beauty” asks, “Whose hands are those?”  The answer in this case is a simple answer to a question (OED 12) which requires the indirect quotation (“God, say that I am thine”).  Stanza 3 poses a musical question that demands an “answer,” this time in the form of an choral response (OED 17) which requires the direct quotation (“God, say, ‘I am thine’”), since God must be doing the figurative singing of the “answer” to jingling coin-music; this also answers the draw of money, as God is a much richer possession.  In stanza 4, “brave Glory” insultingly snubs the speaker; the logical “answer” is to respond in kind (OED 25); this stanza can accept either the direct or indirect quotation, as “Glory” is left out either way (“say, ‘I am thine [not Glory’s]’” or “say that I [not Glory] am thine”).  Stanza 5 prepares the reader for the conciseness of the final “answer” by confronting the speaker with “Wit and Conversation,” who, like Job’s less-than-helpful friends, wishes to “make an oration.”  The “answer” is the answer of an advocate, one who makes a speech in another’s interests (OED 2).  Here both senses of “I am thine” are invoked precisely with a view to the compression involved in the speaker’s ideal defense.  The compression and rapid transformation of the penultimate line constitutes a breakthrough:  the indeterminacies of language are rapidly condensed into clarity by an authoritative declaration from God.

In “Clasping of Hands” (147-8), Herbert uses the duality “thou art mine, and I am thine” again to achieve a transformation of perspective.  Beginning with the realization of mutual possession reached at the end of “The Quip,” a clever series of reversals confront the reader with an even bigger truth about the relationship between God and the confessing believer.  The first transformation occurs when the speaker realizes that he cannot be authentically himself unless he first belongs to God; the second when he sees that by being God’s, he is also his own.  This is precisely the goal of confessional language:  to reduce to incoherence utterances based on self-authority and to acknowledge that one’s only authority over one’s speech-acts comes from “speaking with” the one authoritative speaker, God.  “Clasping of Hands” pursues the logic to its end, saying, “If I without thee would be mine, / I neither should be mine nor thine,” and closes the second stanza with a direct appeal for divine intervention:  “O be mine still!  still make me thine! / Or rather make no Thine and Mine!”  The last line powerfully figures the unity which results from total correspondence of volition, from perfectly “speaking with” God, and recognizes that such perfection requires a divine fiat.

“Home” (99-101) enacts the final stage of confessional speech, the full recognition of authoritative speech as a positive “speaking with” God.  In “Home,” the speaker’s focus is eschatological; the confession, repeated in the refrain, is the speaker’s plea to God:  “O show thyself to me, / Or take me up to thee!”  The speaker’s yearning to be united with his Lord is passionately presented as a complaint against further delay.  The speaker’s imperfection, though, is revealed by the frantic tenor of the poetry and by the telling break in metrical regularity at the end:

Come dearest Lord, pass not this holy season,
My flesh and bones and joints do pray:
And ev’n my verse, when by the rhyme and reason
The word is, Stay, says ever, Come.

The speaker’s “rhyme and reason” alike are broken by the dichotomy between his present life and the life he seeks.  In the end, though, his affirmation wins out even over the limits of his poetry as it has over the limits of his life; he “speaks with” God in affirming his desire for the soon coming of the Lord (compare Revelation 22:17ff).

In one of the most complete confessional poems in The Temple, “The Cross” (154-5), the speaker finds himself confronted with the loss of “power to serve,” of “abilities,” “designs,” and “threat’nings” after a life of privilege and high expectations.  The speaker’s self, family, wealth and plans are all invested in seeking God’s “honour” and “renown”; yet he finds that he is “a weak disabled thing, / Save in the sight thereof, where strength doth sting.”  With this line, simply stated and left, the speaker offers the thread that unravels all his self-authority, realizing the paradox that mortal strength becomes weakness in the presence of God.  Thus, “things sort not to [the speaker’s] will” despite apparent good intentions; God continually “turnest th’ edge of all things on me.”

The final stanza of “The Cross” resolves the tension into triumph in a dense succession of images.  The word “cross” carries a number of meanings, including ill-tempered; pertaining to Christ’s crucifixion; contrary, as in “at cross purposes”; or having to do with the believer’s identification with Christ’s death.  The final three lines use an extremely convoluted syntax to emphasize the power of “speaking with” God in identification with Christ’s death.  The main clause is the last phrase, “Thy will be done,” the words spoken by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  These words, however, are recorded by the speaker as “my words”:  the speaker claims authority over this utterance.  This claim, far from being self-authority, is based in his identification with Christ, effected by the words “cross actions”; the speaker realizes, when he uses that loaded pun, that the “contraries” have been taken away by Christ’s death–that only the speaker’s clinging to self-authority creates the struggle.  Without his sin, there would be no “contradictions”; as self-authority is sinful, these “contradictions / Are properly a cross felt by thy Son.”  Identifying with Christ’s death enables the speaker to share Christ’s authority over the utterance, “Thy will be done.”  The phrase “with but four words” modifies “be done,” so that the utterance becomes the fact; like God’s creative speech-acts in the beginning, the speaker’s “speaking with” God “Thy will be done” is itself the doing of God’s will.

Herbert’s exploitation of the boundaries of language allows for a robust challenge to mortal self-authority over acts, including speech-acts, while preserving the possibility–indeed, insisting on the necessity–of authoritative utterances.  Herbert’s ability to bridge the gaps of language rests on his belief in the possibility of a real relationship with a transcendent God who made Himself known by Incarnation as the one authentic speaker, a speaker whose words have been recorded by and through others in the Scriptures.  Accepting such an authoritative Word, Herbert finds no danger in pressing language to the breaking point in order to illustrate the fact that no human speech-act has any final authority except where it is continuous with divine utterance, and that any claim to self-authority is futile, even sinful.  Through his use of confessional language, the language of the soul “speaking with” God, Herbert negotiates a path from the false certitude of self-authority, through the deconstruction of self-authority into sin and incoherence, to a tentative groping for the words to order revelation–a path which finally lays hold on the words of God Himself as the only sound basis for authoritative utterance.

Works Cited

“Answer.”  Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd ed.  CD-ROM.  Oxford U P.

Daniels, Edgar F.  “Herbert’s The Quip, Line 23:  ‘Say, I am Thine.’”  Explicator.  September, 1964.

Eliot, T. S.  George Herbert.  Harlow, Essex:  Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1968

Rickey, Mary Ellen.  Utmost Art:  Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert.  U Kentucky P, 1966.

Tobin, John, ed.  George Herbert:  The Complete English Poems.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1991.

Weatherford, Kathleen J.  “Sacred Measures:  Herbert’s Divine Wordplay.”  George Herbert Journal.  15:1.

My Recent Article—another Christianity & Buddhism interaction

The journal of the MLA Conference on Christianity & Literature recently published my article “Before a Fall:  the role of the interpreter in Endo’s Silence”; one of the key moments in that work is an extended discussion of some differences between Christian understanding of God and certain ideas that have become common in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, as these are reflected in the words of a character called only “the interpreter,” who helps to lead Endo’s protagonist Rodrigues to his apostasy (whether temporary or permanent) at the climax of the novel.

This gets really rather technical, so do fasten your seatbelts.  Here’s the relevant section from that article:

Buddhist-Christian dialogue and the interpreter’s summation

The third point of interest in the interpreter’s summation is complex, but worthy of extended treatment.  In this summation, the interpreter’s effort to force Rodrigues to adopt a secular standard for evaluating religious beliefs and practices adopts the protective coloration of ambiguous religious language:  “the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self” (146).  Much that has made Silence both appealing and controversial among its twentieth century Japanese and American audience can be unpacked from this sentence.

The studied ambiguity of the religious language the interpreter uses can be glimpsed in the supplemental “simply” in this translation.  “Simply” here marks the suppression of a complex process of truncation and deflation which makes mercy “simply” (or “merely”) a negative quality of the individual’s subjectivity; to call on another to “abandon self” in this sense begs the fundamental religious question of to whom or for what the self should abdicate its apparent self-authority.  This call also tacitly denies that the self in question is already abandoned to or participating in some larger order, such as the priest’s religious vocation and his receipt of holy orders.  It is impossible to escape the signal irony of the gleefully cruel interpreter describing this enforced religious migration as “the path of mercy.”  The reference to “the old bonze” instructing “Chuan” (Ferreira), who now wears Japanese religious vestments, evokes the history of Christian-Buddhist dialogue in the twentieth century, which has often been carried on in terms of the relationship between Zen and Continental philosophy.  The language of the interpreter’s summation is at least as suitable in that conversation as in any conversation that might have been held in Tokugawa Japan, and probably much more suitable.

A key point in that dialogue is, as Steve Odin has pointed out, “the mutual encounter of two monumental ideas:  Christian kenosis (self-emptying) and Buddhist sunyata (emptiness)” (71).  John T. Netland thinks that Endo has arrived at an understanding of kenosis in terms of “radically self-denying and culture-transcending love” in the course of his career, culminating in the character of Otsu in Deep River.  Netland says that “In Silence this love is the self-negating invitation of the emaciated Jesus on the fumie who permits Father Rodrigues to apostatize and who reaffirms his presence to the disgraced apostate” (“From Resistance to Kenosis” 192).  According to Netland, “always this love finds its origins and supreme expression in the broken body of Jesus hanging limply from the cross of Calvary.”  Netland thus suggests that Endo’s “self-negating” model of “radically self-denying […] love” remains essentially Christian, though he admits that such “radical love […] is not easily accommodated within the theological boundaries of Christianity” to an extent that makes Endo’s work “disappointing to Christian readers who wonder if this singular devotion to divine love weakens the soteriology of the cross” (192).  Netland points out that Endo’s “reluctance to use the language of atonement and justification” and “selective emphasis on the self-emptying love of Jesus” have systematic consequences (193); this approach “renders traditional theological boundaries permeable” so that Endo’s work represents “ambiguous spaces where Christian theology diffuses into a more inclusive, if theologically imprecise, ethic of love.”  Netland maintains that even though Endo “creates a blurred soteriology” he nonetheless successfully “assumes a transcultural point of moral reference” in a way that “points us to the mystery of Christ’s kenotic entrance into human history” (194).  The interpreter’s specific arguments, though, challenge the notion that this putative “transcultural point of moral reference” is distinguishable from a wholly secular determination of moral value that treats religious truth claims as culturally contingent.

Netland’s account does not penetrate to the heart of the matter because he does not attend sufficiently to the blurring of the term kenosis in the interreligious discourse indicated by the interpreter’s reference to the “bonze” (Buddhist monk) who instructs the apostate Jesuit Ferreira that Buddhism and Christianity converge on the effort to “abandon self.”  Renée D. N. van Riessen helpfully clarifies the usage of kenosis:  “Traditionally kenosis expresses the descent or approach of the Transcendent to earth” (180).  Such a “descent or approach” modifies the transcendent being (“the Infinite, or God”) in relation to beings on “earth” so that transcendent being “is no longer a lofty and elevated idea that prefers to remain by itself and can only be understood by itself,” an entelechy like “the representation of God in the philosophy of Aristotle.”  Instead, “A kenotic representation of God’s relationship to reality” posits “a descent or humiliation that is not contrary to God’s transcendence, but rather an articulation of it.”  He suggests that Vattimo’s philosophical appropriation of kenosis goes too far in “trying to argue that being itself is subject to a process of weakening in its historical development” because “the time of the world view (as Heidegger called it) is over. Thinking has gradually become ‘secularised’” (202).  Thus Vattimo’s account boils down Christian kenoticism to say that, “influenced by the story of the emptying of God in Christ, a process is going on in our culture in which man is learning to conquer the violent nature of the sacred and of social life.”  Such a reduction of kenosis to secularization strongly resembles the interpreter’s call for the Jesuits to “leave us in peace” after forcing them onto a “path of mercy” that substitutes a range of secular efforts for the practice of the Christian faith.

Odin’s work on kenosis in Buddhist-Christian discourse clarifies this parallel between the interpreter’s summation, Vattimo’s metaphysical reduction of kenosis, and Netland’s quasi-kenotic “ethic of love” interpretation.  In his critique of “the mutual encounter” between “Christian kenosis (self-emptying) and Buddhist sunyata (emptiness),” Odin provides the key to understanding the instruction “the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self” that the interpreter relays from the “bonze.”  Odin acknowledges that “Christian kenosis and Buddhist sunyata traditions” strongly resemble each other in that “the process of self-emptying becomes the pattern for true discipleship” (72).  This resemblance consists in the similarity between kenosis and “the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in its standard definition as anatman (no-self, selflessness, or non-ego)” (71).  The Buddha’s coming to conceive all things through the concept sunyata is “the model of enlightenment in Buddhism” insofar as the Buddha came to view the world as definitively and exclusively populated with objects of moribund desire, so that conceiving that which desires (the self) as itself an intrinsically ephemeral manifestation of that moribund desire becomes the central movement of Buddhist “enlightenment,” the realization of anatman.  Twentieth-century Buddhist-Christian dialogue presses the superficial similarity between kenosis and sunyata in much the manner suggested by the interpreter in Silence.

As Odin states, a perceived identity of kenosis and sunyata has become a cornerstone of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, especially in light of the work of thinkers in the Japanese Buddhist tradition of the Kyoto School, whose “project of relating kenosis to sunyata is a form of syncretism that is developed in the framework of a kenotic buddhology” (77).  Odin traces this juxtaposition throughout the work of the Kyoto School, from Nishida to Abe (73-75), but he proposes that the work of Nishitani Keiji offers the clearest examples of “identification of Christian kenosis with Buddhist sunyata or emptiness in its meaning as anatman or non-ego” (77).  Specifically, Odin cites Nishitani’s assertion that “What is ekkenosis for the Son is kenosis for the Father.  In the East, this would be called anatman, or non-ego.”  Odin’s summary suggests how much Nishitani’s approach modifies the understanding of kenosis found in van Riessen’s summary of the traditional teaching:

Nishitani calls for a shift from the Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal of divine perfection as “self-sufficiency” toward a completely nonsubstantialist ideal of divine perfection as “self-emptying,” or, as it were, “making oneself empty” (onore o munashikusurukoto) as espoused by both the Christian kenosis and Buddhist sunyata traditions.  However, of special importance here is Nishitani’s primary distinction between the original kenosis or self-emptying of God and the derivative ekkenosis or self-emptying of Christ. Kenosis is the original condition of “having made Himself empty,” which is essentially entailed from the beginning in the idea of the divine perfection of God, whereas ekkenosis or the activity of self-emptying love as typified by Christ and the command of man is the embodiment or practice of that perfection. Hence, the kenosis of God is the origin of the ekkenosis of Christ. (74)

Recalling that the fundamental meaning of kenosis, as seen in van Riessen, is “a descent or humiliation that is not contrary to God’s transcendence, but rather an articulation of it,” the shift in meaning proposed by the Kyoto School is evident.  Kenosis proper is now construed as a condition of divine being, a part of what is meant by naming “God,” while God’s self-disclosure through what Christians call kenosis—Christ’s descent to humanity in the Incarnation—is now seen as a “derivative” movement.

As Odin points out, “The Kyoto School project of relating kenosis to sunyata” represents a contribution to “a kenotic buddhology rather than a kenotic christology as such” (77).  Like Christian teaching about kenosis, Nishitani pushes off from the “the philosophy of Aristotle”; like Vattimo, however, Nishitani gives the term a radically different meaning.  By eliding the difference between Aristotelian and Christian conceptions of God, Nishitani pushes off against “the Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal of divine perfection as ‘self-sufficiency’” (Odin 74).  A properly Aristotelian view differs from a scholastic view precisely insofar as scholastic philosophy is Christian, that is, as the scholastics understood the kenosis of Incarnation to be the central fact of Christian revelation.  To conflate these views into an “Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal” masks the double movement from Aristotle to Aquinas and from Aquinas to the scholastics; it also masks the subsequent movements of thought that give Nishitani’s words, and the interpreter’s, a force today that they could not have had in the sixteenth century.

Despite the contextual differences, Nishitani and the interpreter employ the same rhetorical strategy.  The interpreter quotes the “bonze” as saying that “the path of mercy simply means to abandon self,” while interpreting “abandon self” under Japanese Buddhist assumptions.  When Nishitani prefers an understanding of kenosis which makes “‘making oneself empty’ (onore o munashikusurukoto)” the “ideal of divine perfection,” so that the Christian should imitate Christ (in his ekkenosis) as one who realizes the sunyata (emptiness) of a God whose divinity consists in perfectly manifesting anatman (no-self), he is making excellent Buddhist sense over against a misrepresentation of the Christian teaching of kenosis.   To use Christian vocabulary under such assumptions is to reduce the facts of God’s self-revelation that form the core of Christian faith to mere instruments for realizing sunyata; it shrinks hope until it can envision only the objects of moribund desire.  Especially under the conditions the Japanese authorities have created by persecution, the interpreter and the “bonze” seem eminently reasonable in suggesting that the only remaining senses in which Christian ethical teaching could be interpreted would demand apostasy.  They thus work a direct reversal of the sense in which a Christian is taught to “abandon self.”

Endo’s own Catholic baptism and the Catholicism of his Christian characters are chief contributors to the tension within his work, so it is hardly surprising that the interpreter’s words resonate far beyond their putative seventeenth-century context in this way.  As if to refute the interpreter’s misprisions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent declaration Dominus Iesus authoritatively restates key elements of Christian teaching about the Incarnation, especially in the context of interreligious discourse.  It points out that teachings which make “the revelation of Jesus Christ […] complementary to that found in other religions” are “in radical contradiction with the foregoing statements of Catholic faith according to which the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God is given in Jesus Christ” (6), then summarizes that revelation as follows:

The truth about God … is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity.

Such teaching expands, rather than eliding, the gap between Christian faith in God and a narrowly Aristotelian conception of deity.  Likewise, the Christian response to the kenosis of Incarnation leads the Christian to “abandon self” in a manner quite different than the Buddhist realization of sunyata as anatman would suggest:

The proper response to God’s revelation is “the obedience of faith (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) by which man freely entrusts his entire self to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ and freely assenting to the revelation given by him.”  (Dominus Iesus 7)

From the standpoint of Catholics like Endo and his protagonist Rodrigues, the choice which the interpreter offers should not be understood as between two interpretations of Christianity, or between two interchangeable religious interpretations of an essentially secular situation.  For Christians to “abandon self” means to yield “obedience of faith” to the singular revelation of God in Christ Jesus.

If, as Odin concludes, the fusion of Buddhism and Christianity apparently effected by the identification of kenosis with sunyata is an illusion, so must be the connection the interpreter suggests between “the path of mercy” as a religion-tinged secular effort to achieve social goods (“to help others”) and this syncretistic interpretation of the command to “abandon self.”  As Mark Williams has recently pointed out in a very important critique of interreligious themes in Endo’s work, in mid-career Endo already acknowledges that he is “indebted in equal measure to the Buddhist preoccupation with knowing the self and the Christian focus on redemption” (120).  In the character of the interpreter, Endo seems to dress twentieth-century interreligious discourse in seventeenth-century garb.

Not Nihility—Mishima, Lovecraft, and a little Buddhism

I’m connecting this piece from 2012 to my series of posts that develop my running side-theme of interaction with Buddhism, though that is not necessarily the focus of the piece.  This conference paper is another that was unfortunately written under great time pressure, and it features some very coarsely edited material from my dissertation and my thesis.  I was trying to bring these two into conversation, and I think that generally I achieved that in this piece.  Given time, I would someday like to make a smoother version of this work; I am convinced that it gets at something common to all my major scholarship, and something very basically human.

Here, then, my paper prepared for a panel I shared with Geoffrey Reiter at a Science & Science Fiction conference held at ORU in Tulsa:

ORU Conference on Science and Science Fiction
April 12 & 13, 2012

When East and West Collide:
Hope and Imaginary Bodies in Mishima and Lovecraft

Absolute selfhood opens up as nonobjectifiable nothingness in the conversion that takes place within personality.  Through that conversion every bodily, mental, and spiritual activity that belongs to person displays itself as a play of shadows moving across the stage of nothingness.  [. . .]  It is the field commonly seen as “outermost” by the personal self and referred to as the external world actually present in the here and now, ever changing.  [. . .]  The “outer world” emerges here as a self-realization of nonobjectifiable nothingness, or, rather, makes itself present such as it is, in oneness with nothingness.

The field of true human existence opens up beyond the outer and the inner, at a point where the “shadowy man” is in oneness with absolute selfhood.  We have here an absolute self-identity.  Thinking, feeling, and action are, on every occasion, entirely illusory appearances with nothing behind them, the shadowy heart and mind of the shadowy man. 

Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness


There are few obvious similarities between Yukio Mishima and H. P. Lovecraft, but at first glance many readers will be hard put to tell which author penned the following lines:  “It naturally followed that when it did show itself unmistakably as a terrifying paradox of existence—as a form of existence that rejected existence—I was as panic-stricken as though I had come across some monster, and loathed it accordingly. ”  These words from Mishima’s Sun and Steel describe a phase of his development as man and writer in which his “stubborn refusal to perceive [his] body” could be accounted for by his longing for “the ideal body” that would “be absolutely free from any interference by words.”  Mishima’s idealization of what Shu Kuge calls “‘existence’ not yet translated into discursive language” could bear comparison to Lovecraft’s dream fantasies, his life-long memory of his childhood terror of “Night-gaunts,” and his fascination with things we cannot conceive before, beneath, and beyond our individual and collective consciousness, things that might turn out to be (literally) unutterably significant.  Focussing on Lovecraft’s story “The Outsider” and selections from Mishima’s Sun and Steel, I want to look at the ways that bodily experience of consciousness expresses nihility in both.

In bringing these two writers together, I am not only bringing an American and a Japanese writer onto the same stage, but attempting to build a bridge between various elements of my own research and teaching.  (In keeping with that goal, let me point out that significant portions of this paper are derived from earlier works whose arguments I am here advancing.)  In Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” then, we are looking at a quasi-autobiographical work from the Coleridge-Poe-Lovecraft tradition which has helped to invest much of the field of science fiction, fantasy, and horror with significance.  In Mishima’s Sun and Steel, we are looking at a quasi-autobiographical work situated squarely at the confluence of Romantic and existential “Western” thought with the “Eastern” though of Japanese Shinto-Buddhist culture.  As with the works of Coleridge, or of Friedrich Nietzsche or Antonin Artaud, these radically global and personal works of Lovecraft and Mishima both assert and reject a radical opposition between life as articulated in significant actions and utterances and life idealized as an inarticulate, pre-discursive unity.  Like Mishima’s “I,” the first-person speaker of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” finds his whole body of experience nauseating when he finally perceives his body.  We will begin by looking at how Lovecraft’s “Outsider” responds to such self-knowledge, then proceed to draw the parallel to the response Kuge reports from Mishima:  “The surface is not a representation or reflection of what is hidden beneath.  The surface is everything.”

“The Outsider”

The foremost editor and promoter of Lovecraft’s work, S. T. Joshi, characterizes Lovecraft’s 1921 story “The Outsider” as “haunting and inexhaustibly interpretable” (85).  Yet Joshi seems to find the story difficult to interpret, saying that “on the face of it, the tale makes little sense” and that “it is still hampered by conceptual difficulties, excessive derivativeness, an unfortunate reliance on overheated prose, and a ‘surprise’ ending that cannot be much of a surprise to many readers” (87).  It seems odd, though, to single out “The Outsider” as an example of “overheated prose,” as Lovecraft’s penchant for overwriting persists throughout his career.  Lovecraft did acknowledge that the story “represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its height” (qtd. in Joshi 86), and this accounts for much of its difference from Lovecraft’s later work.

More importantly, though, this dependence on Poe answers Joshi’s protest that “The Outsider” elicits no surprise at the end.  On this point, Joshi seems inexplicably insensitive to the conventions of the genre.  Both Poe and Lovecraft would tell him, in their critical writings, that the effect of such tales as “The Outsider,” in the tradition of Poe’s “William Wilson” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” is not surprise at all, but dawning awareness.  The reader does not experience a sudden and unexpected reversal of expectations; rather, the reader experiences a sudden confirmation of a pattern suggested but not proven by the events of the tale.  The mind, sensing the pattern, is drawn to look for confirming evidence, always suspecting the possibility of a reversal; as the evidence mounts, the conclusion begins to seem inevitable and the progress of the narrative at once inexorable and seemingly interminable.  When the sudden confirmation comes, all the evidence and suspicion–and the terror of the imagined possibilities which are not confirmed–is allowed to fall into place, effecting a sudden transformation in the reader’s perspective on the story.  Careful reading of such a story, then, should pay careful attention to problems of memory and perception that might appear as “conceptual difficulties” upon a first reading.

In reading “The Outsider,” the most significant such memory problem concerns the status of the narrator.  The story’s first-person narrator repeatedly speaks of the oblivion-inducing “nepenthe” which comforts him; he says of the climactic moment of the tale that “in the supreme horror of that second I forgot what had horrified me” (5); and the opening line of the final paragraph says that “nepenthe has calmed me.”  It is strange, then, that the very same paragraph closes with the narrator’s description of the “supreme horror” of the tale’s climax.  Upon a first reading, it seems impossible to explain the narrator’s ability to tell the story of an experience which he claims, while telling it, to have forgotten.

The speaker in “The Outsider” begins with a melodramatic pronouncement bewailing his memories:

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.  Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. (1)

From the very beginning, the typical Lovecraftian disposition toward memory is established:  it is a burden, even a curse, that the speaker would escape if he could.  Other examples abound:  the narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time” finds it a source of hope that “my experience was wholly or partly an hallucination” (275).  The narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” opens his account by saying, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.  We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” (52).

“The Outsider” intensifies this horror of memory by passing from the “fear and sadness” of “memories of childhood” to a horror even deeper:  “And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other” (1).  The main tension of the story unfolds in the space created by these two statements about memory:  no matter how unhappy the slice of reality depicted by his conscious memories may be, the speaker would rather “cling desperately” to those memories than allow his “mind […] to reach beyond to the other.”  The speaker then describes the tale of his own growth and exploration of his surroundings, his descriptions giving the reader a clear understanding of what the speaker refuses to clearly acknowledge: 

I know not where I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible […].  The stones in the crumbling corridors seemed always hideously damp, and there was an accursed smell everywhere, as of the piled-up corpses of dead generations. (1)

The narrator clearly signals his unreliability when he follows a statement about selective memory with a description beginning “I know not.”  In fact, the speaker’s memory is to be doubted at every turn, with the “smell […] as of the piled up corpses” being, in fact, a literal description rather than the metaphor intended by the speaker.  That the speaker found “nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons that strowed some of the stone crypts” reinforces the reader’s impression that the speaker has, himself, grown up in the crypts or catacombs beneath an ancient castle.  That the speaker considers these things normal clearly flags the distance between his perceptions and those of his audience.

The narrator’s circumlocutions leave the reader to piece together the significance of “the other” which the narrator is so eager to forget.  Progressively revealing elements of the unsurprising “surprise ending,” the narrator prepares his audience for a sudden transformation from suggestive uncertainty to confirmation.  In keeping with the genre and Poe’s example, the confirmation is delayed until the very end, even at the cost of some awkwardness.  The reader finds the narrator in a place so dark “that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief” (1) and follows his ascent, beginning when

in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky.  And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day. (2)

Having never seen the light, except that of candles and the gradations of twilight that exist even in the darkness of his world, the speaker nevertheless hungers for light; in this he echoes Poe’s critical appeals to a “thirst unquenchable” based on a “prescience of glories beyond the grave” which underlies all aesthetic appeals.  (Both of them, of course, are also refracting Plato’s parable of the cave through a lens of Christian apocalypticism.)  “The Outsider,” of course, is himself in the grave.  For the narrator in the story, the search for light will take him back up out of his grave, emerging into the world of the living in the first of the revelations for which the reader has long been prepared by the hints of the narrator:  “The sight itself was as simple as it was stupefying [. . .] there stretched around me [. . .] nothing less than the solid ground” (3).  In climbing the long tower up from his “castle,” the speaker has reached, not “a lofty eminence,” but the surface of the earth.  He emerges through a church, finding that “my mind, stunned and chaotic as it was, still held the frantic craving for light” (3).

As he emerges, the speaker becomes “conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory that made my progress not wholly fortuitous” (4).  Here the narrator’s and the reader’s journey coincide:  both are becoming aware that this is not a quest after knowledge, but after memory; something has been forgotten which will be recalled.  As the speaker continues, he arrives at a “castle [. . .] maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me.”  Approaching the castle, he sees “open windows–gorgeously ablaze with light and sending forth sound of the gayest revelry [. . .] an oddly dressed company, indeed; making merry, and speaking brightly” (4).  Here, it seems, is what he has been longing for; yet the reader is already prepared to ask whether this is “the other” to which the speaker referred; the audience is invited to wonder why the “latent memory” which guided him to this sight, the light for which he longed, was termed “fearsome.”

The answer is not long in coming:

I now stepped through the low window into the brilliantly lighted room, stepping as I did so from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realisation.  The nightmare was quick to come; for as I entered, there occurred immediately one of the most terrifying demonstrations I had ever conceived. (4)

“The nightmare” begins with all of the revelers fleeing in “clamour and panic” as the speaker enters the room (4).  Afraid of whatever could cause such a disturbance, the narrator looks around and approaches an archway, screaming “the first and last sound I ever uttered” as he sees “in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious fugitives” (5).  The speaker “cannot even hint what it was like,” but calls it “the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.  God knows it was not of this world–or no longer of this world.”  Of course, the reader familiar with the genre will have predicted what the story reveals in its last sentence:  the speaker “stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame [. . .] and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass” (6).

“The other,” then, is himself–is a view of himself in a mirror.  The usage of the phrase at the beginning of the tale, though, implies more.  “The other” is a thing “my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to,” analogous with but not identical to the physical reaching of his hand to the monster.  Hence, also, the speaker’s plunge is “from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realisation.”  “The other” represents a whole scheme of repressed knowledge.  As the speaker says at the moment,

In that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single and fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory.  I knew in that second all that had been.  I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own. (5)

The speaker, having been dead, has returned, less than human but still animated, to his home; his memories are dim and antiquated, but very much his.  Having once been a member of the “merry company” of the living, he has fallen into decay.  He cannot help but look at the brightly-lit revel, and risks everything all he knows to see its beauty; but he cannot see the beauty without being shown, immediately and drastically, his unfitness to participate in that beauty.

Elsewhere I have traced the relationship between Lovecraft’s horror fiction and the aesthetics of apocalypse in the Christian tradition that Lovecraft energetically defined himself against.  We may note one simple distinction between the Lovecraftian protagonist and the response of prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition at this point.  A prophet would follow this horror with a promise of restoration, a message of hope centered in the apocalyptic transformation of the believer into a being fit to behold God with loving desire.  In Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism, however, there is no place for hope and no grounds for such a transformation.  The only fit solution for “realisation,” then, is unreality.  Immediately following the moment of “soul-annihilating memory,” the speaker continues by saying,

But in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe.  In the supreme horror of that moment I forgot what had horrified me, and the burst of black memory vanished in a chaos of echoing images.  In a dream I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently in the moonlight. (5)

The “chaos of echoing images” could itself be a description of Lovecraft’s fiction, works which attempt to perform the sleight-of-hand whereby a culture which seeks to repress the irrepressible may both look on the “merry company” and forget the horror of its own unfitness.  Hence the central image, the all-important “realisation,” is always “inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable”; the speaker “cannot even hint” at it, but knows it for “a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny [cf. unheimlich], unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable,” a “nameless, voiceless monster” which earns “the first and last sound” of the speaker:  “a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause” (4-5).  The expression must be inarticulate because to articulate the “realisation,” to provide details of the life which the speaker remembers and then represses, would be to defeat the repression.  With no hope of transformation, Lovecraft’s narrator finds the only adequate response:  “In a dream I fled.”


Lovecraft’s 1926 essay “The Materialist Today” helps to generalize the significance of the narrator’s responses in “The Outsider.”  Ironically, the passage is bracketed with statements which, taken alone, would seem to run exactly counter to the fictional narrator’s flight into dreams:  “It is most sensible just to accept the universe as it is, and be done with it. [. . .] He will get most satisfaction in the end by keeping faithful to these things.”  The sentences between, though, tell the story:

All is illusion, hollowness and nothingness–but what does that matter?  Illusions are all we have, so let us pretend to cling to them; they lend dramatic values and comforting sensations of purpose to things which are really valueless and purposeless.  All one can logically do is jog placidly and cynically on, according to the artificial standards and traditions with which heredity and environment have endowed him.

Lovecraft here recommends to his reader precisely the course of action taken by the narrator of “The Outsider”:  the reader should “pretend to cling to [illusions]” just as the speaker escaped “in a dream.”

Such efforts to avoid certain kinds of knowledge at any cost are typical of Lovecraft’s “cosmicist” philosophy.  The universe, he claims, is purposeless; but the illusion of purpose is necessary for human conduct and emotional stability.  In a 1927 letter to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales magazine, Lovecraft defines “cosmicism” when he says

all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large. […] one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. […] when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown–the shadow-haunted Outside–we must remember to leave our humanity–and terrestrialism at the threshold. (209)

Ultimately, the nihilism from which some of his characters wish to protect the world is precisely what Lovecraft seeks to inculcate.  Lovecraft believes that, by facing the horror of a universe in which man does not matter at all, the reader will be forced to discard his illusions (among which, of course, Lovecraft would place religion) and to “jog placidly and cynically on.”  In Lovecraft’s materialistic universe, hope of the sort described by the Christian tradition is ridiculous; instead, as he wrote to Helen Sully in 1935,

What most persons can rationally expect is a kind of working adjustment or resignation in which active pain is cut down to a minimum. . . . This, therefore, should be the only norm in matters of expectation and endeavor (304). 

The experience of Mishima, and the troubling abandonment to dark fantasy of the living-dead narrator in “The Outsider,” suggest that this resolution is fraught with moral and bodily hazards.

The speaker’s flight is, indeed, an escape into a dream-world:  he joins “the fiendish ghouls that ride the night-wind”; but, after his “burst of black memory” has “vanished,” they are “the mocking and friendly ghouls” who “play by day” in exotic, faraway places (5).  Readers of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fiction, the dream-fantasies which revolve around his story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” will recognize the ghouls and their typical haunts.  While Lovecraftian ghouls may live in the subterranean reaches of the waking world, as in “Pickman’s Model,” and often haunt places where Lovecraft is wont to find stairways and gates between waking and dreaming, they are primarily creatures of the dream-world; only in a dream can the speaker “ride the night-wind” (5).  When we have taken a look at the parallel between this part of Lovecraft’s work and some elements in the work of Yukio Mishima, we will return to Lovecraft to build on this analysis, and hint toward a more general approach that will reach beyond the strictly post-Christian and Western horror fictions of Lovecraft.


As also happens in quasi-autobiographical works from Coleridge, Nietzsche, and Artaud, Mishima’s works foreground a struggle between the self of utterable, lived experience and the self idealized as prior to that discursive being.  In Sun & Steel, Mishima seems to echo Lovecraft’s “Outsider” in what we are meant to take as a critical commentary on Mishima’s own development:

Interestingly enough, my stubborn refusal to perceive my body was itself due to a beautiful misconception in my idea of what the body was.  I did not know that a man’s body never shows itself as “existence.”  But as I saw things, it ought to have made itself apparent, clearly and unequivocally, as existence.  It naturally followed that when it did show itself unmistakably as a terrifying paradox of existence—as a form of existence that rejected existence—I was as panic-stricken as though I had come across some monster, and loathed it accordingly.  It never occurred to me that other men—all men without exception—were the same.

[. . .]  Never dreaming that the body existing in a form that rejected existence was universal in the male, I set about constructing my ideal hypothetical physical existence by investing it with all the opposite characteristics.  And since my own, abnormal bodily existence was doubtless a product of the intellectual corrosion of words, the ideal body—the ideal existence—must, I told myself, be absolutely free from any interference by words.  (Mishima 11)

The “ideal body” in this passage represents the hoped-for unity prior to the discursive formation of the self.  The effort to construe the human subject in this way, in Mishima as in Lovecraft or modern Western metaphysics, leads to “a terrifying paradox of existence” which leaves him “panic-stricken” before a global problem:  “other men—all men without exception—were the same.”  Mishima’s response to this is helpfully summarized by Shu Kuge:

The “body” in Mishima’s thought is a metonymy for “experience” that is not yet translated into discursive language.  Mishima once clamored:  Why don’t people realize the importance of the depth of the surface?  The surface is the depth; in other words, the surface is not a representation or reflection of what is hidden beneath.  The surface is everything.  (Kuge 66)

For Mishima, the “terrifying paradox” of “the body existing in a form that rejected existence” (the very crux of Nietzsche’s assault on Christianity, and his critique of Buddhism, in The Antichrist) is ultimately resolved, beyond the naïveté of simple oppositions, by an insistence on the surface—on the very skin itself—as the phenomenal being, here, now, than which nothing else can be meaningfully represented.  This ultimately meant, for Mishima, that only the act of ritual suicide by cutting into the skin with a sharp blade, only at the peak of physical perfection, and only at the historical moment when he (vainly) hoped his public political act would lead to revolution, could be meaningful.

The example of Mishima thus presses the urgency of the problems from which Lovecraft’s “Outsider” flees into narrative oblivion.  As Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel points out, drawing a parallel between the bodily experiences of Pier Paulo Paolini, Michel Foucault, and Mishima, the “terrifying paradox” passage marks a “horror of incarnation” in response to which “the author undertakes a quest for an incorruptible ‘ideal body’” (218).  The metal of weights that Mishima uses in body-building transform him so that “his muscles” can be seen as “the steel that becomes the sword for his disembowelment.”  As Chasseguet-Smirgel describes it, such extremes as Mishima’s may “constitute the culmination of mute unconscious gnostic ideas” which “is often allied with an unleashed eroticism that does not accommodate itself to the limits of the body” or to any of the differences which mark bodily experience and ground discourse in living bodies.  Like the problematizing move which authorizes the dead narrator of “The Outsider” to repeat for us a tale which denies his memory and his death, such radical experimentation attempts to realize the unthinkable, to experience that which is inconsistent with the conditions of bodily life.

As a result, this radical experimentation (whether sexual, political, literary, or religious) repeats the moribundity of the desire which founds the discursive being in more radical fashion:  such radical experimentation “can lead not only to murder—an absolute possession of the object—but also to suicide—an absolute dissolution of the subject” (219).  If “the surface is everything,” then fatally piercing the surface, in a final physical refutation of discursive being, appears as a conclusion which is not only logical, but emphatically actual.  Thus suicide comes to be, as it is represented repeatedly in Mishima, something akin to “apotheosis” (220), at least in some wish-fulfillment fantasies.  Chasseguet-Smirgel concludes that such a “Foucauldian body” provides us with “a particularly striking example of the wish for a body that is disorganized, without hierarchy, and with perfectly interchangeable parts.”  Such a body is not merely local in its conception and representation; the rupture of the body, which in lived experience never achieves or recovers this idealized inarticulate state, seems to achieve what it represents, the “dismembered body” that “is projected upon society or even onto the cosmos, so that the frame of the world collapses and the heavens are disemboweled.”

Lovecraft’s “Outsider,” who is already dead, flees his unfitness for the beauty of life in a life-rejecting oblivion of abandoned fantasy; Mishima’s “I” in Sun and Steel flees his own discursive being, his life as a particular body situated within the world, through a program of intentional idealization by which body and words were whetted for their own extinction.  Confronting the bodily experience of consciousness with any degree of artistic and intellectual honesty within a framework that insists on a reductive solution to the mind/body problem, that is, poses both moral and physical hazards of the first order.  Under such a schema, the bodily experience of consciousness must be treated as an illusion or error, rather than (as the Christian tradition would suggest) a flawed experience of a really present unity.  Under the reductive schema, this illusion or error must be corrected by efforts to achieve or recover an inarticulate unity of thought and sensation, a wholeness without difference.  Lovecraft’s “Outsider” mimics the hero of a Platonic allegory in his ascent to enlightenment, but finds “soul-annihilating memory”; Mishima’s words describe the hardening of his body which prepared him to protest his integrity with his life, leaving us with the dilemma of an entire discourse reduced to a single term—its last, the gesture futile in its political meaning and abortive in its self-rejecting personal and literary significance.

We may return to Lovecraft, then, to see once again that this is not a condition unique to Mishima’s personality or culture.  I apologize slightly for deviating from my proposal to discuss “The Dunwich Horror,” which would have provided me with a more obvious alien-monster hook for a sci-fi conference.  I think the significance of the parallel between “The Outsider” and Mishima’s work is elaborated much more clearly by revisiting Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fiction, writings about outlandish worlds of outer and inner space which have a very different flavor than Lovecraft’s very late stories of interplanetary aliens and advanced pre-human civilizations.  In particular, the somewhat obscure story “Celephais” and the prose poem “Ex Oblivione” rather neatly connect the ambivalence of Lovecraft’s “Outsider” to the decisive rupture of bodily and discursive being in Mishima.

“Celephais” and “Ex Oblivione”

Given Mishima’s example, we need not be surprised to discover that the escape into illusion is represented as a suicidal journey in Lovecraft’s fiction, as well.  “Celephais” and “Ex Oblivione,” both written within a year of “The Outsider,” show clearly the relation between death and dream in Lovecraft’s tales.  “Celephais” begins with the following evocative passage:

In a dream Kuranes saw the city in the valley […].  In a dream it was also that he came by his name of Kuranes, for when awake he was called by another name. […] he was the last of his family, and alone among the indifferent millions of London, so there were not many to speak to him and to remind him who he had been. […] he did not care for the ways of the people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams.  What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he showed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write. […] Kuranes sought for beauty alone.  When truth and experience failed to reveal it, he sought it in fancy and illusion, and found it on his very doorstep, amid the nebulous memories of childhood tales and dreams. (26)

Like the narrator of “The Outsider” or Mishima’s “I,” Kuranes is fixated on a solitary pursuit of beauty.  Both are repulsed by society, and both turn to illusion instead of truth, leaving behind articulation.  Whereas the already-dead narrator of “The Outsider” has no real options, though, Kuranes is very much living; his escape into dreams is, like that recommended by Lovecraft in “The Materialist Today,” a deliberate choice based on what he takes to be a failure of revelation.  That “truth and experience” do not disclose beauty to Kuranes begs the question whether they “failed to reveal it” or whether he, like “The Outsider,” found it intolerable, repressed it, and escaped into dreams.  On Lovecraft’s view, of course, the question does not arise; revelation will fail, and the escape into illusion is “all one can logically do.”

Kuranes finds himself increasingly drawn into his dreams, so that “the more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been quite futile to describe them on paper” (26).  Indeed, so fully does he escape into illusion that “he grew so impatient of the bleak intervals of day that he began buying drugs in order to increase his periods of sleep” (31).  The drug element, somewhat unusual in Lovecraft (though not unique), is strictly instrumental to the process of withdrawing from the world into dreams.  Kuranes, having reached the point where he no longer functions in the real world, eventually walks out of it:

Then one summer day he was turned out of his garret, and wandered aimlessly through the streets, drifting over a bridge to a place where the houses grew thinner and thinner.  And it was there that fulfillment came, and he met the cortege of knights come from Celephais, to bear him thither forever. (31)

“Fulfillment,” of course, is a word which, like “salvation” or “enlightenment,” makes a teleological claim; and in the texture of the work, this suggests the ascent to paradise of a spiritual seeker.  Only by understanding that the dream-world is in no way susceptible of articulation in the world of “truth and experience,” by noticing that it is utterly neglectful of body and the realm of embodiment, can the reader discern between the poetic fantasy of the tale and the horror which lies beneath its surface.

“Celephais” does not follow any of the conventions typical of a horror tale; but it is precisely this absence of horror elements that makes the fantasy’s completion of the dream-escape trajectory begun in “The Outsider” so dark.  The language is beautiful, the images rich and exotic, and the story richly communicates a longing for transformation, the desire to gaze on sublime beauty.  The dream, though, is death itself.  The story ends by saying,

And Kuranes reigned thereafter over Ooth-Nargai and all the neighbouring regions of dream, […] and will reign happily for ever, though below the cliffs at Innsmouth the channel tides played mockingly with the body of a tramp who had stumbled through the half-deserted village at dawn; played mockingly, and cast it upon the rocks by ivy-covered Trevor Towers, where a notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer enjoys the purchased atmosphere of extinct nobility. (32)

It is possible to conceive of this as a sort of afterlife, and indeed in Lovecraft’s later story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” Kuranes re-appears and interacts with the protagonist.  At the same time, this afterlife is in the “regions of dream,” places of very questionable metaphysical status.

Like “The Outsider,” though, “Celephais” explicitly enacts its central illusion; for the reader is given fair warning that “it would have been quite futile to describe [the dreams] on paper” (26).  Whatever reality the dreams have is strictly the product of the reader’s willingness to suspend not only disbelief but memory itself; to leave behind even the demand for verisimilitude in order to gain a series of verbal impressions, beautiful enough in their way but deriving their true power only from what they conceal.  On the story’s own terms, the only communicable details of the protagonist’s experience are these:  a lonely, nameless dreamer quit working, quit writing, spent more and more time escaping into dreams, took drugs to enhance the dreams, and eventually walked off a cliff and died.

In his prose-poem “Ex Oblivione,” Lovecraft puts the same elements in simpler, more direct form.  In the middle of his troubled life, the poetic speaker seeks “the irradiate refuge of sleep” and finds in dreams “a little of the beauty I had vainly sought in life” (2).  As the dreams grow more vivid, “the days of waking became less and less bearable from their greyness and sameness” (3).  Eventually, he learns of a drug which will enable him to pass the gates of sleep permanently, becoming forever a resident of the dream-world.  The drug must be taken while awake, of course, which means it affects the body; and the speaker, upon having taken it “last night,” now tells the reader,

I drifted on songfully, expectant of the glories of the land from whence I should never return.

But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of the drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space.  So happier than I had ever dared hope to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity and crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour. (4)

As with “Celephais,” the words sound beautiful; the desire to gaze on beauty is aroused.  The arousal, however, is strictly pornographic; this false beauty can never be revealed in the realm of “truth and experience.”  If the reader wishes to be rapt by the beauty of the text, he can do so only by repressing several key truths:  that it is impossible for the speaker to be telling the tale if he has merged with infinity; that the text plainly despairs of all joy in bodily life, as the speaker claims that “oblivion” makes him “happier than I had ever dared hope to be”; that, at its most prosaic level, the entire piece is no more than a suicide note.


Given human mortality, a life of illusion and a suicide amount to the same thing.  Kuranes, who lives in his dreams only to die in reality, and the speaker in “Ex Oblivione,” who commits suicide in order to live in his dreams, in the end achieve nothing which the “notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer” of the last sentence of “Celephais” does not also achieve.  Lovecraft’s fictional speakers may dislike the secular illusion, may be dissatisfied or even tormented by the mundane, but they do not improve on it.  Seeking sublime beauty, “The Outsider” finds only his unfitness to participate in that beauty, represses the memory, and escapes into illusion.  The significance of the ambivalent dark fantasy of “The Outsider” is clarified when Kuranes’ body washes up on the shore, or when we realize that the body of the speaker from “Ex Oblivione” was eventually found lying in his bed.  Similarly, the idealization of the “surface” that led Mishima to hone his body and his words into razor-sharp instruments for destroying his bodily and discursive being did not survive his death; not even in the form of literary immortality, for the literary specimens we call “Mishima’s corpus” are only the preparatory strokes, the hesitation marks, before the act which those words declared significant.  Immortality for Mishima’s corpus would refute the violence with which he rejected bodily and discursive being in favor of the razor-sharp, honed surface tested to destruction by his final act.

Despite the intentions of their authors, these texts amply warn us of the nihilating tendency inherent in confronting the bodily experience of consciousness from a reductively idealist or physicalist perspective.  Having rejected any possibility that the significance the bodily experience of consciousness calls for is determined in a way that makes human acts and words participate in a personally significant, globally relevant enacting of history, and confronted with the incoherence of efforts to reduce the bodily experience of human consciousness within the scope of mere bodies or mere words, one risks being faced with a choice between mere illusion and frank suicide—a choice frequently offered, for example, in TV shows like House.  The nihility which grounds all uncreated being, if there be any such thing, can take place in history only as fictional rationales for postponing or hastening death; the works of Lovecraft and Mishima stand together in asserting that it lacks by definition the potential to create life.

Grad School Writing Sample–Conrad’s Lord Jim

Perhaps the strongest point of interest in this piece, which I reworked from a paper I wrote in the Fall 1998 (my senior year at TMC), is that my rejection of Romanticism is beginning to take shape, here:

Writing Sample
Baylor Graduate School
Department of English
April 1, 1999

In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad presents a highly stylized image of a young romantic, trapped in his own dreams of heroism on the high seas, falling to cowardice on his first real temptation—a fate worse than death, according to many of his contemporaries. Given a shot at redemption, Jim makes good and exceeds all expectations in a remote post in the interior where no one has heard of his great failure. However, the intrusion of outlaws from “outside” his territory ends in a great fall; Jim loses the faith of his native followers and faces death at the hands of their leader. It is in voluntarily facing this death, when he could have escaped, that Jim finally lives up to the romantic ideal he has set for himself. Ironically, it is this death which fulfills the expectation which immediately followed his first act of cowardice. However, in view of all that had transpired since that first fall, the voluntary submission to an unnecessary and undeserved death seems tragic or even foolish. It is this apparent folly which Conrad examines through several character viewpoints. An analysis of the four major character views of Jim’s death yields a multifaceted insight into Conrad’s pessimistic evaluation of the hopes and dreams of men.

In opening the last phase of the account, that which deals with the circumstances leading up to Jim’s death, Conrad presents the reader with a new character. One of the hearers of Marlow’s tale which makes up the bulk of the story, this person (unnamed) is revealed as a former adventurer who, according to Marlow, “showed an interest in him that survived the telling of his story, though . . . [he] would not admit he had mastered his fate” (252). It is in response to this continued interest that Marlow sends a letter revealing all he has been able to find out concerning Jim’s unfortunate end. Marlow sets the tone for the entire ending in his letter, when he says, “The point, however, is that of all mankind Jim had no dealings with anyone but himself, and the question is whether at the last he had not confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and progress” (253). In this way, Conrad flags to the reader what the theme underlying Marlow’s narrative will be and, through the character of the unnamed hearer, foreshadows what the outcome will be.

The four primary character views on Jim’s death are those of Jim, “the girl,” Marlow and Stein. Jim believes his fall (abandoning 800 people on a sinking ship of which he was Chief Mate) has left him dead to the world of civilization, where he must forever be branded a coward. Even his achievements in the interior, which include reviving a failed trading post, destroying one enemy of his tribal friends and forcing another into submission, and maintaining peaceful and profitable order, cannot erase from his mind the blot of his failure to face death honorably. He swears never to leave the girl (his wife, by common-law at least) because he knows he can never go back to the world at large.

As a result of this view of his relation to the world, when Jim finds himself face-to-face with death once more he is unwilling to run, though the girl implores him to do so (309). Having failed to do his duty before through his cowardice, Jim now compensates by deliberately going to his death in order to complete the redemption of his self-image. From his viewpoint, his death is the heroic expiation of his sins against his romantic ideal, the act of heroism by which he validates all that he once believed to be true of himself.

The girl, however, is unable to see it that way. She sees Jim only as false to his promise to her; for, in serving his romantic ideal, he has abandoned her and failed to uphold his promise to her. She casts this up to him as they part, trying desperately to induce him to fight or flee, rather than deliberately go to face death. She calls to him as he leaves in an especially revealing passage:

‘Will you fight?’ she cried. ‘There is nothing to fight for,’ he said; ‘nothing is lost.’ Saying this he made a step towards her. ‘Will you fly?’ she cried again. ‘There is no escape,’ he said, stopping short, and she stood still also, silent, devouring him with her eyes. ‘And you shall go?’ she said, slowly. He bent his head. ‘Ah!’ she exclaimed, peering at him as it were, ‘you are mad or false. Do you remember the night I prayed you to leave me, and you said you could not? That it was impossible! Impossible! Do you remember you said you would never leave me? Why? I asked you for no promise. You promised unasked—remember.’ ‘Enough, poor girl,’ he said. ‘I should not be worth having’ (309).

Here Jim’s view and the girl’s come into direct confrontation. For her, his death is unnecessary and faithless, a sign that his word has always been flawed—as she has always feared. He, meanwhile, cannot escape the sense that he is already dead because of his previous cowardice. His view of himself takes precedence over her claims on his love and honor; she, sensing this, cannot forgive him—for he is impenitent.

Ironically, when the girl’s perspective is taken into account Jim’s redemption by facing death loses its redemptive quality; instead, it becomes a second failure. In the first failure, Jim fails to live up to his romantic ideal and, in so doing, also fails to discharge his duties honorably. In his death Jim also fails to discharge his duties honorably, this time in pursuit of the romantic ideals he had previously failed. The irony is that Jim never does learn how to behave rightly and honorably; he simply swings from one extreme of narcissism to the other, without ever getting the point. As Marlow says to the stranger, “Jim had no dealings with anyone but himself” (253). Never learning love or honor, Jim is doomed to a fate for which the girl cannot forgive him—she who has devoted her life to him can only bitterly condemn him for his faithlessness.

The third view, and probably the most impartial, comes from Marlow. In his view, Jim’s redemption is limited by Jim alone; while Jim achieves the ideal he sought, this is made tragic by its cost in terms of real human relationships. Because Marlow is Conrad’s major viewpoint character, he is fairly explicit about his views:

He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic. Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such extraordinary success! For it may well be that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an eastern bride, had come veiled to his side (312).

“That opportunity,” of course, is that chance to face death with stoic resolve which Jim had nurtured since his earliest days at sea—and which he had failed to take advantage of earlier. It is this glorious deathwish that, to Marlow, defines Jim; in an earlier passage, Marlow comments that “he had no leisure to regret what he had lost, he was so wholly and naturally concerned for what he had failed to obtain” (61). In the end, then, Marlow sees Jim likewise unconcerned with what he loses, in seeking to obtain that elusive glory which so concerns him:

We can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiles wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied—quite now, I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us (312).

It is Marlow’s statement that Jim “is one of us” that sets the tone for the final evaluation of Jim’s behavior, and broadens the conceit of Jim’s “exalted egoism” to include, ultimately, all the hopes and dreams of humanity.

The final major character view of Jim’s death is that of Stein—which is not offered directly. Rather, Stein’s view is offered through the symbol of his butterflies, and through his position as a catalyst for Jim’s chance at redemption. Stein’s prophetic descriptions of Jim’s personality and needs are invoked at the very end of Marlow’s letter, which is the end of the novel: “Stein has aged greatly of late. He feels it himself, and says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this; preparing to leave . . . ‘ while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies” (313).

The image of the butterflies is a universal image of the mortality of human ideals, introduced earlier in the account when Marlow first goes to Stein for help in understanding Jim. Stein rhapsodizes about butterflies, prompting Marlow to exclaim, “And what of man?” To which Stein replies,

Man is amazing, but not a masterpiece . . . Perhaps the artist was a little mad . . . Sometimes it seems to me that man is come where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him; for if not, why should he want all the place? Why should he run about here and there making a great noise about himself, talking about the stars, disturbing the blades of grass? (153-4).

In describing the experiences of his own romantic youth, Stein equates the finding of the butterfly he had seen in a dream—the prize of his collection—with the love of his wife and child, the support of his friends and the discomfiture of his enemies (156). Of them all, only the butterfly remains, a fact Stein notes in summary fashion:

‘Friend, wife, child,’ he said, slowly, gazing at the small flame—’phoo!’ The match was blown out. He sighed and turned again to the glass case. The frail and beautiful wings quivered faintly, as if his breath had for an instant called back to life that gorgeous object of his dreams (156).

To make the analogy clearer, Marlow describes Jim to Stein as a “specimen,” though “nothing so perfect” as a butterfly. Stein’s revealing reply is, simply, “Well—I am a man, too” (156-7). When Jim’s case is explained to him, Stein diagnoses it simply: “He is romantic” (157). Asked for a remedy, Stein says, “There is only one remedy! One thing alone can us from being ourselves cure!” (157). The implication is clear: death alone will deliver Jim from himself. As Marlow says, and as the reader senses, “The case which he had made to look so simple before became if possible still simpler—and altogether hopeless” (157).

The issue Marlow and Stein are consulting about, however, is not how to cure romanticism—which Conrad makes clear is hopeless. Rather, it is how to live out life with it; and this, Stein makes clear, is a matter of man’s ideals outracing his mortality. Man wants to be more than he can be, and so fights to remove himself from the “destructive element” that is the world about him—to be delivered into an ideal realm which transcends daily life.

In the end, then, Stein’s opinion of Jim is that he fails to submit to the destructive element—that, like a drowning man, he tries to “climb out into the air” rather than “make the deep, deep sea to keep you up” (158). The dream, like all human dreams, must be followed—while remembering that, like the butterfly specimen, it too will die. Only the appreciation for the ultimate emptiness of dreams makes the dreams worth pursuing—while man is trying to transcend them, to idealize them beyond the limits of mortality, he is drowning.

When these views are taken together, Conrad’s theme is clarified: Jim has not truly “confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and progress” (253). Rather, he has failed to realize the mortal limitations of all human dreams, and therefore failed to even manage the minimum standard of his self-image. Jim’s egoism prevents his attaining those objects of love, friendship and victory which are the content of the romantic dream. Instead, his idealization of the dream is self-destructive. Only Stein, the romantic who has given himself over to the dream and survived its destruction, has a handle on the depths of the romantic problem—and he sees it as the underlying tension in all men’s lives, the reason why older men like Marlow long to relive their youth in younger men like Jim, yet know that they can’t go back; and the reason why, the dream gone and Jim gone, Stein begins to age badly.

In the end, Conrad’s view is deeply pessimistic. Despite his accurate perception of Jim’s fatal egoism, the stubborn clinging to the romantic ideal of himself which destroys all he loves, Conrad continues to imply that this is perhaps the best humanity has to offer. The element in which those who survive must immerse themselves is the “destructive element” which drowns dreamers; at the same time, the dream must be retained in order for there to be a reason to swim through the sea and breathe the air of dreams. In the end, Stein’s butterflies are better than humanity; but those butterflies are dead, pinned in cases. They are static beauties, once alive but transient; and while the beauty remains, the life passes. To Conrad, the greatest hope allowed a man is to live out his life in the expression of a beatiful dream, then die without having given up the dream. While he condemns Jim for confusing the dream and the reality, he generalizes Jim’s egoism into a description of all human hopes—and so precludes any possibility of a hope outside man’s ego.

Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1965