Archives for category: Literature

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a prolific writer primarily known for her novels To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando, and the feminist essay A Room of One’s Own. I was introduced to these novels in college and returned to them after certain cinematic excursions into the material. Dalloway and Woolf were central the novel and film The Hours. Sally Potter made a film of Orlando in the 1990s starring Tilda Swinton and featuring Quentin Crisp in the roll of Queen Elizabeth I.

Orlando (1928) is an outlier in that it’s in many ways a love letter to Woolf’s erstwhile lover, Vita Sackville-West. It’s comic, and light-hearted, which aren’t generally words associated with Woolf’s work. I picked it up again last night after a long time away from it. I try to find emotionally light reading for that half an hour at 2AM when I’m generally awake these days and don’t want anything too involving. Wodehouse often fits the bill, for example. However, I’d forgotten the opening paragraphs and was rather shocked by the sheer racism of those passages.

He…was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him.

Of course I have no idea why this passage never previously struck me, but it’s the nature of these times to question our assumptions, or lack thereof. The terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian to describe a single person, dead long before the action of the book begins, but obviously a source of the titular character’s emotional (and probably financial) inheritance. Woolf follows this statement with fairly glowing terms about the Orlando’s beauty, poetry, and outlook. But I return to those opening sentences and wonder at that casual approach Woolf takes.

1928 or no, it surprises me, and raises again the question of how one interacts with historical texts – do I say this person whose insights into the human condition are some of the most incisive in literature is no longer someone I’ll read, for the political reasons that we use to take other artists out of our personal spheres of influence?

It’s a casual racism in which shorthand is used to make up for characterization. Similar to the Jews in J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions, and possibly all of the non-Europeans in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

In The Trouble with “Heart of Darkness”, David Denby offers this opinion submitted by Edward Said: ‘Most imaginative writers of the nineteenth century…failed to connect their work, their own spiritual practice, to the squalid operations of colonialism. Such writers as Austen, Carlyle, Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, and Flaubert were heroes of culture who either harbored racist views of the subject people then dominated by the English and the French or merely acquiesced in the material advantages of empire. They took empire for granted as a space in which their characters might roam and prosper; they colluded in evil. Here and there, one could see in their work shameless traces of the subordinated world…’

Woolf, though writing 30 years after “Heart of Darkness”, seems to fall squarely within the canon Denby and Said are citing. Her hero is an heir to the fortunes of Elizabethan colonialism just as much as the characters in Austen and Dickens.

Denby’s essay is a counterpoint of sorts to Achebe’s An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness. ‘Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality..’

I’m pretty sure a reread of “Heart of Darkness” is in order right now. One of the thrusts of Achebe’s argument against Conrad is that he reduces the natives of the Congo to caricatures with neither language nor art. The excuses made for Conrad include an argument that this wasn’t the story he was writing. Denby addresses this – that arguments against HoD are often that he should show the same modern sensibilities towards the non-European elements of his story as he does to the European. This isn’t Conrad’s job, but the shorthand he uses to compare the savage internal world of Europeans with a non-existent savage external world of Africa is similar to the shorthand with which Woolf opens Orlando. And there is most definitely a conscious or unconscious racial/racist aspect to this shorthand.

Denby suggests that Achebe, as a novelist and not an academic, doesn’t bring the necessary rigor to this discussion. And it’s easy to write off some of what he says as unsupported assertions about Conrad’s racism in general (actually well sourced by Achebe) and the racism in “Heart of Darkness” in particular. I think I’ll run with my initial take on the matter which is that the racist tropes that both Conrad and Woolf employ are in service to easy analogies. The stories of the Africans, pagans, or Moors aren’t the stories either are telling. On the other hand, Conrad’s ‘dog in breeches’ comparison (cited by Achebe) is simply sloppy writing – Woolf using the terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian interchangeably to describe the same severed head is also sloppy writing.

Neither Conrad nor Woolf (who, in Orlando’s introduction, thanks no fewer than 20 fairly illustrious literary contemporaries for their feedback) are careless writers. But I think both writers are relying on a European readership to recognize the tropes and to play along with how these tropes define and refine the portrayals of their main characters.

In this way it’s easy to contrast light with dark using these tropes, in the same way that Kurtz’ fall has to do with his adoption of the local nature and culture and his submersion in the native, dark part of the world, and his collusion in the enslavement and killing of the natives. The Grove of Death sequence cited by Achebe is essential to the story of Kurtz’ fall because it shows how the colonials used the natives to death in their trade. Orlando, like Woolf and Sackville-West herself, is a product of these activities – the wealth of the west is based on this kind of exploitation top to bottom and so is the exploitation pointed out in that opening paragraph.

I don’t know what to make of the fact that Woolf’s father was a prolific writer on ethics, science, and humanism and that her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent abolitionists.

Given how much input Woolf accepted regarding the history covered in Orlando, and how much she left in place, it’s hard to deny that the views expressed in the novel are her own, or those shared with Sackville-West, or those of the first readers. How else to explain the shorthand?

Later, the character Orlando compares the exploits of his ancestors (who killed individuals of different nationalities) with those of one particular poet. The poet, not the murderous ancestors, is immortal, and Orlando, too, ‘[perceives], however, that the battles which Sir Miles and the rest had waged against armed knights to win a kingdom, were not half so arduous as this which he now undertook to win immortality against the English language.’

Is Woolf saying that as Orlando grows, he grows from the limited mortality of his murderous ancestors into the immortal poet? It’s possible, but doesn’t reduce the shock of those opening lines. As the book progresses and Orlando (who remains about 30 years old from 1600 through to 1928) evolves away from that racism of that opening paragraph and the reader might be forgiven for thinking the attitude expressed there is that of the author and not the character himself. An argument might be made that because Orlando’s sex changes from male to female (in chapter 3), that this attitude belongs to the barbarity of maleness. And, in fact, the language of the story becomes more genteel for much of the story’s remainder.

As the book nears its conclusion, the narrator considers several of the lives Orlando has lived, ‘…a biography is consider complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand. Choosing then, only those selves we have found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the n*****’s head down; the boy who strung it up again,’ and two dozen more that we’ve met in the course of the novel. Again there’s the shock of her racist language when we thought we were or she was done with it.

There’s probably an answer to the question of Woolf’s racism if one delves into the letters and the diaries, and reads far more than I have. Or we can accept that she’s the product of her time and her place and her class. Oddly, she wrote of Ulysses that it was ‘egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating…When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?’ One question of Orlando is, why when Woolf could have prepared the meal to perfection, did she garnish it so crudely?

One of my current pieces of reading is Quentin Crisp’s 1968 autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. This went on my to-read list when Crisp passed away in 1999 (at just short of 91 years of age) and it’s taken me two decades to follow up. Early on in the book, he shares an anecdote of a classmate who was flogged by the headmaster having been caught in a tryst with a fellow student. I’d thought to just quote a sentence or two, but the entire paragraph is worth sharing for a couple of reasons. Both the brutality of his self-assessment (a hallmark of the book – he pulls no punches on himself) and the precision of its reflection of the larger world.

His sin was the occasion of the only public beating that I have ever witnessed. The entire school was assembled in the big hall and seated on benches on either side of the room. In the open space in the middle the modern Romeo bent over and the headmaster ran down the room to administer the blows. After the first two strokes the younger brother of the victim left the room. Even now I can’t help wishing that we had all done the same. What made this exhibition so disgusting was not the pain inflicted. Today a go-ahead schoolmaster would say, ‘This delights me more than it delights you.’ In many parts of London, such goings-on are just another way of making a party go with a swing. What was most insufferable was that a simple form of self-gratification should be put forward as a moral duty. Before that day I had disliked the head; afterwards I hated him. (p. 18, emphasis mine.)

QCselfportrait30The conflation of self-gratification and moral duty comes up in a variety of circles. One can consider it in the context of politics, military justice, familial dynamics, and general human interaction. This quote struck a nerve with me because my own schooling included a headmaster-equivalent who made an example out of kids when they were, for example, late by paddling us in front of our classmates. This was in the period my family lived in Synanon, a commune where children were kept separate from their parents. It was also a place that preached a doctrine of non-violence. Very confusing. The lines between self-gratification, morality, straight-up sadism, and personal confusion on the part of that tormentor have been blurred by more than 40 years of intervening time and the total lack of closure with the person in question.
In the political sphere, we see this dynamic play out with the conservative insistence on austerity for the poor who have somehow worked terribly hard to earn their punishments at the hands of the social system. I’m not sure if conservatives in England or the United States even mask this in the guise of moral duty any more, but there was a time. Authoritarian behaviour is not at its root sexual or deviant, until you call it something else. Is this the nature of authority in general, though? We run into folks like the current so-called leaders of the US and UK demanding the kind of moral purity from the poor that they have never exhibited or felt the need to exhibit. There’s a joke that goes around that Boris Johnson doesn’t even know how many children he has. Trump’s are from three different wives, and those who remember the impeachment of Bill Clinton have a hard time forgetting that the man who led the charge had left one wife while she was undergoing treatment for cancer and the second shortly after her diagnosis with MS. Was Gingrich’s hypocrisy and the ways he wallowed in it at the time a form of self-gratification? I shuddered at his insistence that he and his fellows on the right side of the aisle possessed some moral high ground over those on the left, and that the prosecution of the Lewinsky affair was some kind of moral duty, but I’ve always been unabashedly on the other side.
What can we say about the verbal ganging up that goes on in social media? Do we confuse various forms of virtue signalling with moral duty? And are these things confusions of self-gratification? I don’t follow many conservative leaning people on social media, but we do our own dirty work between ourselves on the left in which my support for candidate X can’t be good because candidate Y is the only one who can win (for example and for whatever reason). As if the positional debate were somehow invalid. Is this one of those places where moral duty masks self-gratification? Crisp, of course, is discussing sexual gratification, but how different is this from the gratification of our own moral upstandingness?
I want to argue that certain workplace dynamics fall into this category, but the ways in which middle management manipulates the rank and file are just a refraction of how middle management is manipulated by the various upper members of the hierarchy. Gideon Kunda in his 1992 work Engineering Culture posits that there’s much that we do in the workplace to ingratiate ourselves within an organization. Kunda quotes one person as saying, ‘Like the joke. you get to choose which 20 hours to work out of the day.’ (p. 18) How we feel about management in the context of the modern technological workplace is a product of our personal feelings and how we feel about/react to/interact with authority, both consciously and unconsciously. This workplace masochism seems to me to be an identification of a company’s stated morality with one’s own gratification on the organizational ladder.
I haven’t even delved into the various interplays of moral duty and self-gratification in the context of organized religion. Crisp is ostensibly describing a secular institution in England in the early 1920s. It’s no leap at all from there back to the Jesuit schools James Joyce describes or the Magdalen Laundries, the latter of which conflate venality and greed with claims to the satisfaction of moral duty and upholding the moral center of Irish life.
Crisp’s identification of self-gratification with moral duty is limited to that one instance of authority in the school, but it extends to how we operate in society. My tormentor was also acting out the morality of the organization, just as we attempt to act out the morality of the political world within social media.

 

So I reread A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a couple of months ago and was struck by several things – mainly that having read it a couple of times over the last thirty years, I’d never read it very carefully.  The other is that Portrait is easily as brilliant as any of Joyce’s other work – I have tended to rate it rather lower than Ulysses (which I reread last year and also found to be far deeper and wider and taller than I had in the past).

A look at Stephen’s alienation in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Through the course of A Portrait, James Joyce builds a compelling argument for Stephen’s flight from Dublin. At every turn of his upbringing, city, family, or the church conspire against Stephen’s artistic freedom. One might argue that these elements conspire against his soul.

Prefects, professors, and deans all exercise the will of the church over Stephen in such away that he desires to pull out from under its authority. At one end, we have the church, in the form of Father Dolan and his swishing soutane and pandybat (chapter I), physically punishing Stephen for no other reason than sadism. This unreasoned sadism reflects that of the other boys at Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit boarding school he is sent to at the age of about six. At the other end, we have an English dean of studies, a convert to Catholicism, who argues the words funnel and tundish with Stephen. The first is an offense against Stephen’s person, and perhaps against his self-mastery. The latter is an offense against his linguistic mastery, which is already a point of pride, ‘The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe’. (Chapter V)

jj-psSomewhere in between these two events, Father Tate, leading an English class, calls Stephen out for blasphemy in a sequence that evokes in the reader a sense of the secret mysteries of the church (chapter II). The teacher cites merely a fragment of a sentence, ‘”Without a possibility of ever approaching nearer.” That’s heresy.’ Stephen backs down, saying, ‘I meant ‘Without a possibility of ever reaching.’ The teacher accepts this, ‘O. That’s another story.’

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So I’ve reread James Joyce’s Ulysses in the last couple of months. I hadn’t read it in its entirety since I’m not sure when, but I grabbed a digital copy on Bloomsday this year and it’s been my middle of the night reading. I’ve got a couple of thoughts that probably aren’t original, but the novel has struck me rather differently at 51 than it did at 22 and 35, for certain.

Usually when I write something like this, I take the trouble to add citations and build a semi-cogent argument, but I’m not handing this one in.

Ulysses men by John Conway V2Coming to the end of the Ithaca chapter, I found Stephen’s departure more mythological than I used to. The assumption (or the presentation made by more than one college professor on the matter) is that Stephen leaves his encounter with Leopold Bloom in order to go into the world and become James Joyce. I think that while there’s pedagogical merit to stating it that way, there’s more of a mythical parallel here. Homer gives us the romantic conclusion to the story (Odysseus passes Penelope’s test by knowing their bed can’t be moved because one part of it is a tree trunk), and Tennyson extends it with Odysseus rallying his troops to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and engage once again the forces of the world. In the Greek myths that Homer retells, we never learn much of how Telemachus comes into his own. Stephen Dedalus, similarly, steps from the house of this strangely parental figure, Leopold Bloom, into the sunrise, and into his own mythology. As the last act before parting, Stephen and Leopold urinating in the back garden of the Blooms’ flat, one could argue that Stephen quite literally pisses off.

The entire effort of Ulysses is about bringing the loftiness of Homer’s epic poetry down to earth, and this is another symbol of it.

Molly Bloom’s urination and masturbation in the course of the monologue that makes up Ulysses’ ultimate chapter are redolent of this same earthiness. Leopold has his own reasons for not making love to Molly that are associated with the death of their infant son, so Molly takes her desire elsewhere. We get the impression from her recounting of her loves, that it’s also in her nature to express her desire where she will. I’m not the first to compare Molly with Emma Bovary, the difference being that Molly isn’t punished for her desire. More than one professor has argued that Joyce, through Molly’s soliloquy, has successfully portrayed women’s inmost feelings and desires. What hit me in this rereading, is that what Joyce seems to have performed more successfully is to project common fears about partner infidelity and assumed lack of respect onto Molly. Or perhaps Joyce simply represented an accurate projection of his own such fears about his partners’ inner lives.

What he’s also gotten right is the estrangement between partners who aren’t open about their desires with one another. Molly, in the last bit of her fantasy delves into topping Leopold and making him do dirty things to her. What she touches on in this fantasy is right out of Bloom’s fantasia at Bella Cohen’s brothel. While it’s hard to tell whether any of that fantasia actually happened from a story continuity point of view, we are, I think, supposed to believe that what Bloom is shown to experience is at least a projection of his own desire.

What’s disheartening is the realization that with a little discussion, Molly and Leopold could have a more mutually satisfying relationship. (The reader has this same feeling when they recognise the gap between Gabriel and Greta Conroy as The Dead shifts from the party to the time the Conroys have alone together.)

It seems that while Molly loves Leopold, she neither likes nor respects him. The fear people have about what others feel about them is here writ large. Molly considers Leopold a failure at life, in terms of job security and home security, and something of a failure in the way he goes about expressing his desire. She especially mocks how he behaves around other women. While Leopold has an emotional response to Molly’s assignation on the day of the novel’s action, he also feels out of contention regarding the partners she takes on (which he enumerates in Ithaca, though possibly inaccurately) or has taken on.

There’s also the number of traumas they’ve suffered which haunt the space between them. Molly’s first lover, Mulvey, is killed in the Boer wars, and there’s the loss of their son Rudy, and Leopold’s father’s suicide. It doesn’t seem as though they have ever examined these events together.

Leopold has an intellectual, or pseudo-intellectual, approach to the world that Molly doesn’t appreciate and, in her thoughts, mocks, but which is essential to his characterization. We know a sentence or a thought of Bloom’s instantly because of its expression in his thought processes, especially in his (pseudo-) scientific examination of the world around him. Molly finds finds this ridiculous. On the other hand, when Leopold thinks about Molly’s less intellectual, more physical approach to the world, he seems to smile at it. He doesn’t berate her. He seems amused by her taste in smut, but may not even know of her love for Byron’s poetry. It’s another piece to the puzzle of their non-communication. And then there’s the matter that at the last, Molly blames her infidelity on Leopold’s redirected desire. He doesn’t want to lose another child, and so stops fucking her, and they have never yet found a way together around that.

As I said, just a few thoughts on it. Rereading Dubliners now and, again, getting a far different richness from it than I did in my first readings.

Considering ‘Cleanness’, translated by Marie Borroff, amongst other things. Borroff has published translations of all of the works found in the manuscript containing ‘Gawain and the Green Knight.’ In this essay, I reference The Gawain Poet Complete Works, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

In her introduction to the collected translations, Dr. Borroff presents her credentials as deriving from her study of philology and her work as a poet. Her introductionborroffs and notes also evince a strong Christian background. Born in 1923, PhD 1956 Yale, English professor (first such at Yale). Does the fact that she was in her 70s when she undertook ‘Cleanness’ have bearing? Possibly.

Her translation of ‘Cleanness’ was first published in 2001 which, by my reckoning, is awfully late for such a work to be introduced and explicated with references to sodomy and sins of the flesh being the those things most abhorrent to G-di. The poet, she tells us, was ‘devout, deeply thoughtful, and offers a window on one version of medieval Christianity.’ii The issue isn’t that she’s explaining the poet’s position as such, but that she does so without much comment. To be fair, the first sentence of the poem’s introduction indicates that of the five available works by the poet, ‘Cleanness’ ‘is the least accessible to the modern reader.’ This might be her concession to the gap between medieval doctrinal Christian morality and modern acceptance of multiple sexualities.
After retelling the parable of the wedding feast from the Gospel of Matthew, the poet tells us ‘Uncleanness is the one sin that rouses G-d to merciless anger. Lines 193-204 earn no footnote, but set the stage for the main sections of the poem. Indeed, one could, as Borroff suggests in her introduction to the poem, read these lines as the poem’s thesis:

But I have listened long and hard to many learned clerks,
And in writings well reasoned read it myself,
That the peerless Prince who in paradise rules
Is displeased at every point appertaining to sin.
But I have never seen it set down in a book
That He punished so impatiently the people He had made,
No avenged Him so violently on vice or on sin,
Nor so hastily did harm in the heat of His anger,
Nor so severely and swiftly sought to destroy
As for filth of the flesh that fools have practiced.

The poet quickly addresses The Fall of the Angels, The Fall of Man, and The Corruption of Adam’s Progeny followed by a detailed retelling of the story of the Flood. Before moving on to a lengthy treatment of the destruction of Sodom, the poet provides another Warning Against Uncleanness. The warning concludes:

But when the folk fall into foul deeds of defiling lust
He loathes so that lewdness, He lashes out at once,
Cannot bear to hold back, but abruptly strikes,
And that was openly proven by a punishment once.

That last line obviously refers to the Flood. The poet does a very clear job of retelling the story of Lot, his daughters, and G-d’s angels at the gates of Sodom. He isiii quite clear that the desire of the men of Sodom for the angels is unacceptable in the eyes of G-d, but presents Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters without any judgment. Lot tells the men of Sodom, when they demand the angels a second time:

My abode here is blessed by two beauteous daughters;
They live with me alone – no lover has had them;
None seemlier dwell in Sodom, though I say so myself.
They are ripe and ruddy fleshed; they are ready for men;
To embrace such bonny maids will bring you more pleasure.
I bestow them with my blessing, that are buxom and blithe,
And lie with them as you like, and let my guests be.

The men of Sodom reply that Lot is a newcomer, though in Sodom he has grown rich. Regarding Lot’s offer, Borroff makes no comment. Her omission suggests that the Sodomites’ rejection of the female is sufficient demonstration of how they have earned G-d’s wrath.

Without evidence, she also suggests that the punishment suffered by Lot’s wife has something to do with her salting the meal served to their guests. In a footnote (p.91), she writes, ‘According to the version of the story that most closely resembles the poet’s, the angels visited Lot during Passover, and that is why Lot insisted that they be served unleavened bread, containing neither yeast nor salt…It seems clear from the poet’s treatment of the story that he had read one or more of the Jewish commentaries on Genesis, presumably in Latin translation.’

Her assertion that Lot was entertaining the angels during Passover is as patently ridiculous as the presence of whole loaves of bread on the table of the Last Supper, a not uncommon sight in medieval/renaissance depictions. The story of Lot predates the Exodus by multiple generations. (Quickly: Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Abraham is the grandfather of Jacob who brought his entire household into Egypt at the end of the book of Genesis. At the beginning of the second book of the bible, Exodus, we learn that the generation of Jacob’s offspring (14 children) were all deceased, but their descendants had multiplied such that pharaoh was alarmed. This is the beginning of the story that culminates in the Jews’ escape from Egypt. It is this story that is told at Passover each year. The event that the Passover holiday commemorates hadn’t occurred at the time of the destruction of Sodom.)

But, listen. I’m an atheist bisexual and a non-practicing Jew. My passing interest in Christian doctrine derives from my study of English literature and a desire for accurate allusions in my own writing. I might be the wrong person to criticize Borroff’s ignorance or omissions with regard to her presentation of the work in question. I came of age in the 1980s and studied literature (including her go-to translation of ‘Gawain’) at San Francisco State at the height of the AIDS crisis, so I have a certain bias.

My own sense of morality enables me (and entrusts me) to side with victims of sexual assault, and at the very least look askance at those who commit assault or stand by when assault (or invitation to assault) occurs. Angel of the Lord or no. Consensual sex, regardless of parts, is up to those participating. I come at this poetry from the firm belief that we must be clear and open about who we are in order to give strength to those who are increasingly persecuted. These are treacherous bloody times in which to be dishonest and not open to the needs of those without choice. If being public about who I am comes by way of literary examination, so be it.

The question is perhaps, ‘Does the poetic translator bear a responsibility to question such a stark moral dichotomy?’ Does the editor bear some responsibility in this regard. I say yes to both, but only partly because the poems aren’t necessarily presented as doctrinal texts. In many ways they reflect doctrine, certainly. Borroff says that the poet’s suggestion that G-d taught sexual pleasure to mankind is outside Christian doctrine because it ‘omits…the intention on the part of both man and woman to conceive a child’ (p.41):

When two were tied together with true minds and hearts,
Between a man and his mate would mount such delight
That the pure joys of Paradise could scarce prove better

The blaze of love between them so bright and so fierce
That all the mishaps on earth could not hold back its heat.

I find ‘Cleanness’ to be problematic not only for its treatment of sexuality but for the implicit comparison of men to the holy vessels of the Temple. It’s no secret that women are responsible, biblically speaking, for the ills of the world (Do I need to rehash Eve giving the apple to Adam?), but the poet takes this assertion to the next level in his retelling of the story of Balthazar.

After an interlude instructing how to emulate Christ’s purity, nearly half the poem is spent retelling the story of the Babylonian exile. It’s a leap from the mythology of the first book of the bible to an event that is documented both in the bible and elsewhere, with a firm date in the 6th century BCE. We learn first how the last king of Jerusalem and Judea ‘used abomination, bowing to idols / And prized little the laws he should loyally have kept.’ G-d therefore uses Babylonian king Nabugodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar) to destroy Jerusalem, raze the temple, and enslave the Jews. Nabugodonosor is mostly loyal to G-d, and he never uses the treasures taken from the Temple of Solomon. When his son Balthazar inherits the throne, he orders the holy vessels of the temple be brought out during a drunken feast. In retaliation for this sin, G-d invites the Persians to sack Babylon and kill Balthazar, much as He had invited Nebuchadnezzar to sack Jerusalem and kill or enslave its inhabitants.

The poet implicitly equates Balthazar’s sin with that of the Sodomites and of Noah’s contemporaries; the poet equates the desecration of men through sins of the flesh with that of those cups from the temple. Men are the holy vessels and women are as nothing, even to the point of being raped by those same men. Is it any wonder women are repressed in the Church, and in orthodox Judaism for that matter?

Leaping forward a couple of centuries, Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry G-d’ (1741) exemplifies the same kind of disdain of those considered sinners as the poet of ‘Cleanness’, though Edwards spreads the damnation around. He also ascribes to G-d a kind of infinite wrath that the poet only hints at. It’s a guess that most faithful in these times would find that kind of wrath unlikely.

“And it shall come to pass, that…all flesh come to worship before me, saith the L-rd. And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24) It is everlasting wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty G-d one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains.iv

While the excesses described have been mirrored elsewhere (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example), it is reflected more obviously (in my reading) in works of cosmic horror and performed by creatures from outside the realm of Christian mythology. The eternal torments meted out by G-d to the unbaptised and unsaved in Edwards’ sermon are similar to those inflicted on the narrator of I Have No Mouth and I Must Screamv, forced to perform unspeakable acts by an omnipotent intelligence.

Assuming that the poems of the manuscript are all by the same poet, he presents a vision of heaven in ‘Pearl’ that offers biblical basis for the afterworld as earned by what the Puritans would later call The Elect.

‘Pearl’ sets forth what is essentially an ecstatic dream vision that assumes the dreamer and the reader will achieve, or can achieve, this heaven by staying on the path of righteousness. Borroff is clear and consistent in providing the biblical sources for the poem, specifying the translations used and obviously works from the assumption that the poet wasn’t being somehow satirical. From my perspective, being at this late date more familiar with the Old Testament than the New, I find the poet’s take on G-d’s perspective, even as Jesus was supposed to have been the answer to and resolution of Mosaic law, a little hard to take.

What we come away with is that while G-d can be forgiving and recognise the human struggle for grace, there are places where the L-rd’s ways are not our own, but distinctly reflect human prejudices. And, yes, we should be over that by now, except that they’re set forth in the holy books.

Occasionally I read, and utter, the opinion that those who preach against homosexuality should also heed the other dictates of the Old Testament, especially those set out in the book of Leviticus. Have you mixed cotton and linen in the same fabric, eaten shellfish (or cheeseburgers), had sex outside of marriage? These all earn punishments similar to those for homosexuality. The argument is that while Jesus is the way and the light and is the new embodiment of the law set down in the Old Testament, not all of the old sins hold equal weight. There seems to be a distinction drawn between what is immoral and what is simply illegal.

As I’m considering how to conclude this, I’ve come across an opinion in the NY Timesvi that suggests the prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus was originally a prohibition against homosexual incest, but later editors fudged it. Biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz argues that the glosses on a couple of sentences seem to contradict or subvert what might have been the more limited earlier prohibition. While it is nice to see this matter considered, what preachers old and new (including the poet of ‘Cleanness’) are elucidating is not the specific legal prohibition, but the evidence in the earlier stories that specifies what G-d Himself finds odious.

The problem is that all of our understanding of human biology; of the nature of love, lust, and desire; and of the importance of living in honesty with oneself goes head on with two thousand years of anti-gay interpretation of scripture. The power of that interpretation undermines any other way of looking at scripture and practicing most established versions of Christianity.

i I follow here the Jewish tradition of not spelling out the complete name of G-d or any of its synonyms.

ii I’m unable to find the reference – I’m pretty sure it was in the general introduction to the volume.

iii I operate from an unfounded assumption that the poet is male.