Archive for the 'religion' Category

Guidère: Au Commencement était le Coran

May 8, 2018

61lnfOoUoKL._AC_US218_This is a very useful little book, and it’s a shame that things such as this don’t seem to get written in English. I’ve been interested in Islam for a long time, and have read fairly widely in what is available, and up until now Karen Armstrong‘s book Islam: A Short History has been the best thing I’ve come across.

This book is written by a Western expert; it’s very clearly written, and carefully balanced, taking no sides, but clarifying much that might seem obscure and mysterious to the ordinary (non-Muslim) person who tries to keep up and understand, without offending – I hope – anyone in the process. There’s a very wide scope: various schisms in Islam are explained, as are the various different versions of the Qur’an, its history, and various changes and alterations which have occurred. I even understood fully the controversy about the Satanic Verses for the first time (I did read the novel, and found it unremittingly tedious, I’m afraid).

Guidère explains the different currents in Islam and in Islamic jurisprudence; he clarifies the past and shows how it operates in and affects the world today. The complexity of the various rules (and various interpretations of them) regarding sexual behaviour, and the covering of women’s bodies, are examined.

He also points out that much of the knowledge which he is sharing is not widely known in the Muslim world, and it is very clear that there are real dangers for Muslims who would like to read, explore, analyse and challenge; to a considerable extent the Qur’an is a book imprisoned in its past, and he finds this sad.

For me, the most interesting thing I learned about was the concept of abrogation or annulment. This was new to me, the idea that one injunction that had been divinely revealed in one place in the book was annulled and superseded by another one that was revealed later. There’s a certain (human) logic to this, but then by the time Guidère explains the concept and exemplifies it, he has already made clear how much is unknown and uncertain about the compilation of the Qur’an, including when various parts of it were given to Muhammad. So, in short, what supersedes what?

Developing greater understanding of the complex issues that shape and trouble our world is a necessary and valuable enterprise: this book helps do that.

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David Boulton: Through A Glass Darkly

March 5, 2018

I explained that I wasn’t about to censor what I wrote about, when I posted this review of Derek Guiton‘s A Man That Looks on Glass a couple of years ago; despite its rather obscure intention – or perhaps because of it – it has been one of my most viewed posts, presumably by Quakers reading up on the debate. And so, out of a sense of fairness, I read this short riposte, by the man at whom Guiton’s book was mainly directed.

Boulton is a non-theist Quaker, one who does not believe in the real existence of a being that is God. On the other side are those for whom such a being has an actual existence. Boulton is concerned to refute some of Guiton’s charges and accusations and make clear his desire for inclusivity of belief within the Society of Friends. And for me, the most salient point he made in the entire book was that Quakers have avoided theological conversations for the last 30 years…

I found myself wondering, what about those of us in the middle, who are not able to nail our colours to either mast, those of us seeking after truth (or Truth) which we will perhaps never attain? ‘Agnostic’ is a nice easy label but doesn’t really do justice to the searching, and avoiding theological conversations is unhelpful, just as avoiding tricky issues generally gets one nowhere…

Increasingly I find myself accepting Feuerbach‘s notion that we make god in our own image – if we make one at all, because that is all we can do as humans. And if I make the god I (sometimes) believe in in my own image then I have a god that encompasses my sense of wonder and awe at the vastness and beauty of the cosmos, and a god that symbolises knowledge and understanding of it, which I regard as the highest of our human goals and achievements.

To me. all gods and religions have been and are a necessary and an understandable response by many (not all) humans to our knowledge of our own mortality and ultimate annihilation, which many of us find hard to understand and accept, an obliteration after what has been the marvellous experience of existence for our brief allotted span of time. And no, I can’t imagine an afterlife that I can recognise or understand, in which I might have an existence, which from my current perspective is what I’d desire…

As I grow older, I find myself wrestling rather more with such questions. Both Guiton’s and Boulton’s writings have stretched my thinking, for which I am grateful; neither has brought me nearer to an answer, which was perhaps to be expected, and so the search goes on. And I’m enjoying it, which is just as well, really…

Diarmaid MacCulloch: All Things Made New

January 10, 2018

51EaEVd-aYL._AC_US218_I think the blurb on this book is deliberately somewhat vague and misleading; the book isn’t a book so much as a collection of diverse essays and book reviews MacCulloch has written over quite a period of time, all linked in some way by Reformation themes. Having said that – and shame on Penguin Books for their marketing – it is a very good collection of pieces, as one would expect from the author.

His introduction is challenging, and reminds us of his magisterial scope, taking in Luther‘s profound pessimism about human beings and his seeing their salvation as completely dependent on God (I can’t help seeing such a god as a kind of gigantic, slightly sadistic, computer-game player), underlining the profound religious differences that exist between the United States and Europe, which are not usually understood or taken into account, and reminding us that during sixteenth century, if toleration existed, it was in Eastern Europe – Poland and Romania – rather than in the West… He never shies away from pointing out clearly the contradictions, contortions and illogicalities of both Protestant and Catholic beliefs.

There are sections on the Reformation generally, but a good deal of the book is taken up with the English Reformation more specifically. I didn’t know, for instance, that one of the primary financial motives behind the dissolution and destruction of our monasteries was to raise cash to build coastal fortifications against a possible French invasion. One of the lengthier and most interesting chapters explores and charts the complexities of the characters, beliefs and infighting during the reign of Henry VIII which ultimately permitted a successful reformation in this country, along with the attendant cultural vandalism. MacCulloch is also fascinating on the development of the Book of Common Prayer.

I particularly liked his description of the ‘theological schizophrenia’ of the Church of England… the more I read, the more confusing and confused the entire establishment and development of the English Church appears, and MacCulloch does nothing to dissipate this impression. He tackles the inaccurate, falsified and plain biased accounts of the English Reformation over the years, and also provides an interesting and helpful survey of a range of historians of the Reformation from various perspectives.

The book concludes with two rather long and to be honest, slightly tiresome essays, one on Hooker and the other on a forger of documents who deceived historians for over a century; though I was expecting (and enjoyed) an academic book, these two pieces seemed just a bit too specialised, really.

A useful read if you are seriously into history and religion; a good read because anything by MacCulloch has been, so far, in my experience.

Philip Hughes: A Popular History of the Reformation

November 7, 2017

51e6r1aeoCL._AC_US218_An account of the Reformation from a Catholic perspective is a rare thing, and this one is over sixty years old; for Catholics, the Reformation is usually something to regret and condemn, rather than attempt to understand. After more than forty years of not being a Catholic, however, I still find the beliefs of that Church rather more humane than those of Protestants, particularly when they write about salvation and damnation, the elect, and the doctrine of predestination: Catholics seem to place far more emphasis on the individual conscience, on humans doing their best, and on a God that would understand human weakness…

Philip Hughes wrote from a Catholic, universalist perspective; his book is not an all-encompassing tome like MacCulloch‘s. He goes for the broad-brush approach, and offers a useful sketch of the pre-Reformation world with which few non-Catholics would disagree, I think. He is strongly, though guardedly critical of the failings of the mediaeval (Catholic) Church and the abuses that went on, showing an understanding of the complexities of things, though he does seem to slip into an apologia occasionally… perhaps one has to take into account the times and circumstances in which he was writing. So, serious flaws are admitted, whilst at the same time he does put the best possible gloss on the Church’s achievements, and contrives to ignore completely the horrific deeds of the Inquisition, the massacres of the Cathars and quite a lot more.

As one might expect, he offers a sturdy, orthodox and convincing Catholic demolition of Luther‘s teachings on justification, righteousness and salvation by faith alone; he does a great job of pointing out the flaws, illogicalities and inconsistencies in the reformers, at times slipping into ridicule, which I find inappropriate and uncharitable in such a book. Sarcasm is not necessary; a more measured approach would have left reformers to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. So I was disappointed by a certain Catholic blinkeredness, overall, and could not recommend this as the only book one read on the subject.

His particular specialism is the Reformation in England, which is also the title of his major work – I must go back and re-read it – and here he is much clearer and stronger; His broad sweep shows the royal process and complete control of the Reformation in England, using the absolute power the Tudors enjoyed, and some very capable henchmen, as well as the overarching financial motivation behind the seizure of church property and the destruction of the monasteries. The hypocrisy of the jobsworths who made careers and fortunes out of doing first Henry VIII’s and then Edward’s bidding, turned tail under Mary and then again under Elizabeth – the Cromwells and Cranmers – is laid shockingly bare. Hughes voices understandable Catholic sadness over Mary’s short and horribly ill-advised reign, and then it’s all over: a highly managed and political Elizabethan settlement that has forty years to embed itself… the English Reformation wasn’t really about religion at all.

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Reformation – Europe’s House Divided

November 2, 2017

Warning: a post about religion. I do not set out to offend anyone, but recognise that my opinions may offend some. If in doubt, avoid.

The writer makes it clear from the beginning that the mediaeval Church was not in a state of terminal decay and decline. However, poor leadership, numerous scandals and much internal squabbling did seriously undermine its authority in the years leading up to 1517. He manages, despite the complexity of the task, to give a clear picture of the differing theological positions of the leading actors in the various reformations in different parts of Europe at different times.

Much centres around the issue of predestination, a topic that it is very difficult to get one’s head around: the idea that people can be damned or saved from the moment of their birth, and be unable to do anything about this, suggests that some of the reformers invented a really cruel God for their new churches. I got just a little lost trying to follow how Augustine of Hippo, echoing Paul, and his doctrine of original sin, seemed to lead reformers inevitably to predestination, but it did… along with the baggage that came along with the labelling of original sin as a sexual sin, too. To me, predestination reads like a human attempt to limit the power of God, as it were, and I’m with whoever it was – Ludwig Feuerbach, I think – who basically said that man creates God in his own image… It all does seem astonishingly arrogant, if one wants to believe in a God, to then tell him (for it is a He!) how to run his creation. There was also an astonishing amount of hair-splitting about the nature of the Eucharist, and the arguments read like a re-run of the attempts a thousand years earlier to out-manoeuvre various early heresies.

The history of the early years of the Reformation, in Wittenberg, Strasbourg, Zurich and Geneva, shows how quickly very real differences emerged between those challenging the authority and teaching of Rome; this has been a facet of Protestantism ever since. Chaos ensued and everything flew apart very rapidly. Not only did Protestant oppose Catholic, but Lutheran opposed Calvinist, and so on… until you reach the Thirty Years War, a hundred years after the start of the Reformation, and an utter cataclysm for large parts of Europe.

MacCulloch’s scope and knowledge astonishes, and I learned many new things on this, my second reading of the book. Luther approved of images, which is why so many German churches retain their glorious mediaeval painting, sculpture and carving, which was so comprehensively trashed by Henry VIII’s hooligans in this country. I learned that there were different attitudes to Purgatory in northern and southern Europe, crucial as it was the issue of indulgences – designed to allow the dead to escape Purgatory – which initially fired Luther’s anger in 1517. And then there was the issue of the difference between reading and writing, which I deal with in an earlier post (here).

There were apparently lengthy and repeated attempts over a considerable number of years to effect reconciliation between the Reformers and Rome, but eventually the Roman hard-liners defeated the conciliators in the 1540s, and then followed the Council of Trent and the entrenchment of the Counter-Reformation. The picture of Protestantism is fragmented, that of the Catholic Church monolithic, and elsewhere I read recently that what the Catholic Church offers are rigid, inviolable beliefs, pronounced with authority, to be accepted and obeyed, no questions asked, but along with that, a recognition that its stance is an ideal and recognising that humans are necessarily imperfect and fallible; nevertheless, the Church gives its believers something to aspire to, even if they don’t achieve it. Somehow – although it’s not for me – that is rather more humane than the hellfire and damnation of Protestant fundamentalism.

When he deals with the Reformation in England, MacCulloch pulls no punches, labelling it as one of the most violent in Europe, and laying out much evidence which contradicts the feeling that we like to have about ourselves and our country, that we are such a tolerant place.

MacCulloch manages to offer clear explanations to non-believers, and without patronising believers, and those who are familiar with the events and issues; there are copious helpful notes and references and an excellent bibliography. His scope is very wide, and justifiably so. This is the book on the subject, I think.

La Belle Sauvage – again…

October 22, 2017

If you think about it, the Dark Materials trilogy is a self-contained work that cannot itself be added to or extended: the events of those novels span multiple universes, made possible by the operations of Lord Asriel, and also by the use of the subtle knife, and when the novels end, the doors between the universes must all be sealed up, and the knife broken, so no further movement between worlds is possible: this is what makes the separation of Will and Lyra at the end of The Amber Spyglass so moving and painful – as well as necessary.

So, any subsequent books, including La Belle Sauvage and whatever the second and third parts of The Book of Dust is to be called, are additions: La Belle Sauvage happens in Lyra’s world, which we all know and love, but does not extend outside of it. The machinations of the Church, and Asriel, and others researching the Rusakov particle, will lead to the fantastic events of the trilogy ten years later, and the ten years after those events, the following books may be set in Will’s or Lyra’s world (or both) I imagine, but without connection between them.

What these limitations leave Philip Pullman with, it seems to me, are his ideas, which for me were always at the heart of the Dark Materials trilogy anyway: questions of innocence and experience, the notion of good and evil, original sin, and the role of God, if there is one.

The world of the Church and the Magisterium is a cruel and Calvinistic one, it seems to me, and its evil has been clarified for me by some of the reading I’ve been doing lately that has been prompted by the 500th anniversary of Luther‘s ninety-five theses and the start of the Reformation. One of the things which came from the Reformation was a stronger emphasis on what can only be called predestination: the idea that, in religious terms, or if one accepts that particular Christian doctrine, most people are born with no hope of salvation, doomed to damnation, and the small (smug?) band of the elect, or the saved, are saved through no effort of their own. Obviously I oversimplify, but it’s a pretty cruel God that some people have invented, and one that my own Catholic upbringing makes me find repellent.

The idea that we must try to build the Republic of Heaven here and now, in the world we are actually living in, is not a new one, though Pullman has made it clear and concrete in a different way in HDM. The choice to rebel against an arbitrary power (God, if you like) was evil, wrong, Satan-prompted, in traditional Christian terms, although even Milton in his epic Paradise Lost cannot help turning Satan into some kind of hero. But Pullman emphasises that the choice to reject control, to assume power oneself, is a positive and liberating one, as well as being the one that makes us fully human; again, it’s this final point that Milton cannot avoid in his poem. So, ultimately, is this choice to be human wrong – a sin – or inevitable, given our free will, and also liberating: this is what we are, and can be?

Free will is the problem, of course, for us humans now: many can and do choose evil, make wrong choices that harm and oppress others. Predestination removes the problem: we don’t have free will if we are predestined to damnation from the moment of birth, with no hope of changing our fate through our own actions, and what follows then is that nothing that happens in this world is of any ultimate significance or consequence at all: the elect get heaven anyway, and everyone else ends up in hell…

Back to Pullman, who nails his colours clearly to the mast in HDM: the Fall was a felix culpa, but not in the traditional Christian sense: the Fall liberates us to be human. Will and Lyra made many choices, considered and with the help and advice of many wise creatures, on their epic journey. Having read and enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, but thought further some of its inevitable limitations, I now realise that it’s the next two books that I’m really waiting for: what did happen next?

On 31 October, 1517

October 13, 2017

All sorts of things have been reminding me of October 31 being the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther‘s 95 theses, whether or not these were actually nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. Having a Catholic school education in England in the 1960s was an interesting experience, as there was still some of the feeling of being a member of a persecuted minority in the air; we were presented with a sketchy outline of the split in the Church as part of history lessons at primary school. Moving to a secondary school where the Anglican Church was the norm and saw itself as continuous with the church brought to England by Augustine at the end of the sixth century, I was offered an account of events from an opposite perspective, together with no small amount of mockery of Catholic beliefs and practices. Then I moved to a Catholic secondary school and got everything in more detail from the ‘right’ perspective again…

I suppose those experiences were useful in terms of teaching me about different viewpoints; they certainly got me interested in what could have caused such major ructions at the heart of Christianity. I’m still learning, and there’s an excellent explanation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in this week’s edition of The Tablet.

My travels have taught me how different the Reformation was in Germany compared with England; in Germany there seems to have been much more of a continuation than a violent rupture; no mass iconoclasm such as destroyed so many cultural riches in England. I continue to be appalled by the vandalism and wanton destruction of Henry VIII’s reign.

There are three writers who I’ve found very helpful in developing knowledge and understanding of the religious issues and historical events. One is a Catholic priest who wrote in the 1950s, Philip Hughes, who wrote a short volume on the Reformation in general, and a second, monumental tome, The Reformation in England, which details the demolition of Catholic England.

Then there is Eamon Duffy, who has written works of socio-religious history which trace the actual effects of the English Reformation on its people in two detailed and astonishingly well-researched books, The Stripping of the Altars, and The Voices of Morebath. This second volume looks at the changes as they affected on small rural community over the years between the first breach with Rome and the Elizabethan settlement.

Finally there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose hefty tome Reformation came out in 2003, and which I have decided to revisit as we come up to that symbolic 500th anniversary. I’ll write more about his book when I’ve finished it.

And then, I cannot forget some of the literature which uses the Reformation as its starting-point. Kingsley Amis‘ novel The Alteration posits the Reformation never having happened in England and focuses on the moral horror of a young boy who is due to be castrated to preserve his voice for use by the Church. And Keith RobertsPavane, a far better novel for my money, is set in a world where the Reformation also didn’t happen, along with various other events consequent upon it…

A curious novel – Q – was published a decade or so, apparently written by an Italian collective who presented themselves as one Luther Blissett. It focuses on the social upheavals in Europe during the early years of the Reformation particularly the Anabaptists and the events in Munster, along with the early efforts of Rome to thwart what was going on.

Finally, I can’t overlook the astonishing religious poetry of my favourite poet, John Donne, a man genuinely torn by the religious strife in England and the theological controversies – although he ultimately knew which side his bread was buttered on. He brings to his Holy Sonnets and other poems the same ardour he brought to his sexual conquests and fantasies in his love lyrics, before he ‘saw the light’, took holy orders in the Church of England and went on to become Dean of St Paul’s and a man whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Not much likelihood of similar fervour nowadays.

My travels: L is for Lübeck

September 22, 2017

I’ve wanted to go to this northern German city for a long time, mainly to see the Marienkirche, because that’s where Dietrich Buxtehude was organist in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; my hero, the young J S Bach, walked the two hundred miles from Arnstadt in Thuringia to hear the celebrated organist and learn from him. Having absented himself from his post for several months, Bach then walked back to work… apparently he could have stayed, and inherited the post of organist, at the traditional price of marrying the incumbent’s daughter (!), but Bach didn’t fancy Miss Buxtehude who, shall we say kindly was no beauty and quite a bit older than him.

The Marienkirche is truly stunning. First of all, it’s vast – the largest brick Gothic church in the world, a helpful verger told me (but wrong, as I surmised, the title going to St Mary’s in Gdansk, which I also know, and thought was bigger) – and it’s beautiful inside and out. It took me many years of church-visiting to realise that in Western Europe, churches and cathedrals are stone because there is stone, whereas there isn’t further east, so when in mediaeval times the citizens became jealous of what the French and English were building, they persuaded the architects to come and help them create similar wonders in red brick. There is a Backsteingothik route all the way across northern and eastern Europe, ranging from tiny village churches to huge basilicas and cathedrals, and the more I’ve seen, the more astonished I’ve been.

The RAF fire-bombed Lübeck in 1942, and the Marienkirche burned. The bells fell from their tower and remain smashed where they fell as a memorial to the wanton destruction; a small plaque notes that the smaller one had rung for over 430 years, the larger for some 270. The church maintains links with Coventry Cathedral. But, as the verger explained, the dust and grime was burned off the walls which had been whitewashed at the time of the Reformation, revealing wonderful mediaeval painting and decoration.

More about the Reformation became clearer to me in this quincentennial year as I explored this and other of Lübeck’s churches: the altar is relatively unimportant, and the glorious centrepieces of the churches are the pulpits and the choir-lofts, because for the reformers, the sermons expounding the word of God and the hymns singing his praises were at the heart of everything. The choir-loft and organ in the Aegidienkirche (St Giles’), the smallest of Lübeck’s churches, left me speechless; the marvellous altar-pieces and gilded carvings there and in other churches made me realise just how much art we must have lost here in England in that orgy of state-sponsored vandalism that was the Reformation here…

There’s much else that is wonderful about this city, small enough to be walked around, surrounded by water, its two mediaeval gates, its astonishing town-hall, the numerous tiny alleys with courtyards and streets of houses almost hidden from view… and it’s also the home of marzipan. Which was duly sampled and enjoyed.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

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