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What word will be spoken that will give meaning to all this?

José Saramago

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Saturday, February 12th, 2011

🦋 East of Eden

It might seem peculiar to go to Saramago seeking reverence -- he is rather famously atheistic, maybe even intemperately so; he was notoriously denounced by the Catholic church heirarchy after publication of his final novel, Caín, when he said humanity would be better off without the Holy Bible. (And who am I, no Christian myself, to be seeking or discussing reverence? We'll leave that question by the side for now.) But: I found The Gospel According to Jesus Christ to be a superlatively reverent book, that quality was one of my favorite things about the book; and I am hoping as I start Caín that it will share that quality.

Things are looking a little dodgy starting with the epigraph -- Saramago quotes chapter 11, verse 4 of St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews, and attributes it to the Libro de los disparates, roughly the "Book of Nonsense". I agree with Rafael Rodríguez Hernández that this is a lousy opening: it seems to me like Saramago ought to treat his source text with more respect...

Be that as it may, I'm enjoying the first few chapters. Eve and Adam are coming through nicely as characters, Saramago seems really to be interested in their humanity and their hardships. It looks like it will be a fun game to figure out which of Saramago's details are canonical and which are not -- for instance he has only a single Cherub guarding the gates of Eden, whom he identifies as Azael*; tradition assigns this role to two angels, Metatron and Melchisadec. But I will probably spend less time on this kind of thing as I get deeper into the story. Eve's flirtation with and implicit seduction of Azael is very strongly non-canonical/blasphemous, but it is rendered so lovingly that I am going to go along with it -- it is one of the high points of the first few chapters.

*Gustav Davidson's Dictionary of Angels identifies Azael as "one of 2 fallen angels (Aza is the other) who cohabited with Naamah, Lamech's daughter, and sired the sedim, Assyrian guardian spirits." Cool! I knew vaguely (based on Genesis 6:1-2) that there was angel-human cohabitation in the Abrahamic tradition but did not have any specifics.

posted afternoon of February 12th, 2011: Respond
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Monday, November 22nd, 2010

🦋 Christ in the Desert

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

-- Luke 4 (NIV, 2010)

After he had walked he knew not how many hours, thirst and weariness were defeating him. He thought to himself that his destination could not be so far away now. He felt he was lost. The only thing that he could do was to let himself fall onto the sand. He sat in a lotus position, his little paper sack between his legs. As always in such difficult emotional times he commenced to pick his nose. He looked about himself: it was as if he were in the dead center of a circle composed of the horizon on all sides, a circle as if it had been traced by some celestial hand, perfect, round, endless. The silence, the solitude were of such divine purity, they moved him, they were tangible. He removed his sandals. He wanted to take communion with the land.

He sat there, listening, for a long time.

Evening’s flame lit the horizon. Red. Impressive. Overwhelming. It made him think of dusk, of Golgotha. His surroundings swam before his eyes into a great ring of fire. “The fiery ring of a lion-tamer,” he said. He sensed suddenly, and with divine clarity, that the lion-tamer was God; he, the lion, tamed. That his master was ordering him to jump. Yes; to jump. Highest glory to the Eternal Father!

He jumped.

He closed his eyes and jumped.

-- The art of resurrection ch. 4

The art of resurrection is reminding me a bit of reading The Gospel according to Jesus Christ (and I ought to track down Saramago's take on the temptation in the desert passage...) in the degree of sympathy each author expresses for his imperfect messiah.

Update: ...And also SFAM is getting in on the Messianic action.

posted evening of November 22nd, 2010: Respond
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Saturday, May 29th, 2010

🦋 Memory, History, Fiction:

At UCLA in 2002, Saramago reads from some of his work:

Thanks to education blog Teach Our Children for the link.

posted morning of May 29th, 2010: Respond
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Sunday, January 10th, 2010

🦋 Martyrdom and tragedy

I went over to Woody's house last night and watched The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I've seen a couple of times and loved for its visual beauty; I think I may be getting past the gawking and starting to be able to appreciate the tragic beauty of Joan's story. In particular I was noticing something in common between watching this movie and reading The Gospel According to Jesus Christ -- how my understanding of the story is shaped by knowing the lead character will suffer martyrdom. It probably goes without saying (though I don't know if I would have made the connection myself before yesterday) that Joan is a Christ-like figure -- in her story as in Jesus' there is a sense of fatality, that he will go to his death on the cross and she to hers on the pyre because God has set in motion the course of events and it is not subject to change.

Something that had held me off from reading The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was the subliminal fear that it would be mocking Jesus -- I am not a religious man and indeed have been known to appreciate lampoons of religion and of Christianity, but the idea of a life story of Jesus which mocked him was rubbing me the wrong way. I am glad to find my worries were totally misplaced.

posted evening of January 10th, 2010: Respond
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Sunday, January third, 2010

🦋 Nativity

I'm impressed again by Saramago's eye for the details of the story as he looks at Joseph and Mary's predicament -- they are in Bethlehem, 100 km from Joseph's shop and source of livelihood, they need to find a way to feed themselves for the 33 days Mary must remain in confinement following the circumcision of her son. My unresearched understanding of the Nativity sort of has the Magi showing up with their gifts immediately the night Jesus is born (and I am wondering whether the visit of the Magi will figure in Saramago's retelling*) -- I should go look at some source material and see how close this is to the accepted story. Joseph's taking work building the Temple has me thinking of Balthazar working on the Convent.

Two passages from this section that I think illustrate the broad range of tone Saramago brings to this story. First a belly laugh:

On the eigth day Joseph took his firstborn to the synagogue to be circumcised. Using a knife made of flint, with admirable skill the priest cut the wailing child's foreskin, and the fate of that foreskin is in itself worthy of a novel, from the moment it was cut, a loop of pale skin with scarcely any bleeding, to its glorious sanctification during the papacy of Paschal I, who reigned in the ninth century of Christianity. Anyone wishing to see that foreskin today need only visit the parish church of Calcata near Viterbo in Italy, where it is preserved in a reliquary for the spiritual benefit of the faithful and the amusement of curious atheists.
and only a few pages later, Joseph is walking back from the construction site where he has found employment; he passes by Rachel's Tomb, and we get deeply reverent, mournful introspection:
Without so much as a word or a glance, one body separates itself from another, as indifferent as the fruit that drops from a tree. Then an even sadder thought came to him, namely, that children die because their fathers beget them and their mothers bring them into this world, and he took pity on his own son, who was condemned to die although innocent. As he stood, filled with confusion and anguish, before the tomb of Jacob's beloved wife, carpenter Joseph's shoulders drooped and his head sank, and his entire body broke out in a cold sweat, and now there was no one passing on the road to whom he could turn for help. For the first time in his life he doubted whether the world had any meaning, and he said in a loud voice, like one who has lost all hope, This is where I will die.

* No, it does not.

posted afternoon of January third, 2010: Respond
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🦋 The Journey down to Bethlehem

Saramago's telling of the trek Joseph and Mary must make from Nazareth down to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary's pregnancy, is utterly gripping and fascinating. I had never thought much about this aspect of the Christmas story; Google Maps gives the distance they had to travel as either 155 km (taking the westward route) or 166 km (taking the eastward route) -- perhaps 2000 years ago, on donkey and foot rather than in a car, it would have been shorter to go due south, not sure what the geography is like there. This is a long way to be forced to travel in service of paying taxes to an occupying power! The four canonical gospels do not spend much time on it, I wonder if there is another biblical source for this.

I'm moderately surprised to find this book (so far, at any rate) not strongly hostile to religion; prayer in particular is being treated as a vital source of comfort to the impoverished Nazarenes. There is a lot of hostility towards the villagers' patriarchal misogyny apparent, and this misogyny is encoded in much of the prayer; but it isn't seeming to me like this translates directly to an anti-religion stance.

A little bit of beauty from the third night of the trek, as the travellers take refuge in a caravansary in Ramah:

That night there was no conversation, no prayers or stories around the fire, as if the proximity of Jerusalem demanded respectful silence, each man searching his heart and asking, Who is this person who resembles me yet whom I fail to recognize. This is not what they actually said, for people do not start talking to themselves like that, nor was this even in their conscious thoughts, but there can be no doubt that as we sit staring into the flames of a camp fire, our silence can be expressed only with words like these, which say everything. From where he sat, Joseph could see Mary in profile against the light of the fire. Its reddish reflection softly lit one side of her face, tracing her features in chiaroscuro, and he began to realize, with surprise, that Mary was an attractive woman, if one could say this of a person with such a childlike expression. Of course her body was swollen now, yet he could see the agile, graceful figure she would soon regain once their child was born. Without warning, as if his flesh was rebelling after all these months of enforced chastity, a wave of desire surged through his blood and left him dizzy.

posted morning of January third, 2010: Respond
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Saturday, January second, 2010

🦋 Revelation

Mary put out her hands to receive the earthenware bowl, which, through some extraordinary optical illusion, perhaps due to the light of the sky, was transformed into a vessel of the purest gold.
I started reading Saramago's Gospel According to Jesus Christ last night, the book which precipitated his self-imposed exile from Portugal. Taken aback by the grandeur of the heresy he lays out and by the subtle beauty with which he commits it. His voice describing Galilee and its denizens, and Mary and Joseph, has a familiar ring to it -- this book is very clearly written by the author of Balthazar and Blimunda.

By happy coincidence I was at the Brooklyn Museum today and got a chance to look at their collection of James Tissot's watercolors of The Life of Christ -- beautiful, meticulously researched and composed. Tissot is of course coming from a very different place than Saramago. But the commitment to a naturalistic rendering of Christ's life had me thinking of Saramago's work as I looked through this exhibition.

A few reading notes: The opening of the novel is a detailed description of a painting of the Passion, it had me wondering whether Saramago is describing a particular existing painting or a fictitious composite work. In the third chapter, when Joseph tells his tale to the council of elders, they send a delegation composed of Zacchæus, Dothan, and Abiathar ("names recorded here to forestall any suspicion of historical inaccuracy in the minds of those who have acquired their version of the story from other sources" -- ha!) to question Mary about her vision; I wonder where Saramago is getting this bit from. The three names are Biblical but I'm not finding any connection to the story of Jesus' conception.

posted evening of January second, 2010: 1 response
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