Michelangelo: Last Judgment: angels waking up the dead
What is that unforgettable line?
~ Samuel Beckett
This brought to my mind a different sense of “line” -- one that continues, but is now never as long as it used to be. Here is an evocative photo of the line to see Lenin’s mummy, 1959. People were willing to wait for hours. (Also, talk about a “stone baby” that any ideology or religion is doomed to become.)
photo: Dmitry Balternants
A STONE BABY (LITHOPEDION)
“Lithopedions [calcified fetuses] are extremely rare; less than 300 cases have been recorded. The most recent case was that of a 92-year-old Chinese woman who was found to be carrying a 60-year-old stone baby in 2009.”
This may serve as a poem prompt: are you carrying a stone baby? An earlier self that’s still harboring a horrific grudge, or any other way you might want to imagine it?
THE CRUCIFIX AS A STONE BABY
I remember a Jungian lecture on the meaning of the Catholic mass, which is based on the rite of animal sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. Placating god with mere animal sacrifice was over; now the priest offered god “the perfect sacrifice,” his son, in the form of the host -- from Latin “hostia,” meaning VICTIM, and wine = the blood of that victim, blood being the synonym of life.
My revulsion as I heard let me know that my remnant nostalgia for childhood liturgy was over. I always hated the heavy smell of incense; now I realized it was originally used to cover up the stench of blood. “Without shed blood there is no freeing from sin” (Hebrews 9:22). This was the “bloody ransom” that we needed to enter paradise.
(In New International Version: “In fact the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” KJV uses the term “remission” -- “without shedding of blood there is no remission” -- the term for canceling a debt, bringing to mind a sort of economic exchange.)
I was also extremely disappointed to read the translation of the four eucharistic prayers the priest can choose from to perform the the miracle of transubstantiation. I’d expected something sublime, not these pedestrian words around the archaic concept of a sacrificial “victim.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GOAT THAT TAKES AWAY SINS?
It’s interesting that the rite of the “scape goat” was omitted. No more transfer of the sins of the community onto a goat, the animal then driven out of the city. So convenient, and yet so entirely abandoned, that custom of simply loading the collective transgression onto an innocent animal, like cargo on a ship, and away! Imagine if Christians still sang hymns about “the goat that takes aways the sins of the world.”
But the Yom Kippur ritual of offering a perfect lamb remained, now elevated to a symbolic human sacrifice.
As for the objection that to kill an innocent man is a crime greater than the Original Sin, and that one crime doesn’t wipe out another, all we can say is that once we are trapped in a circular argument of unreality, we can’t possibly expect a rational solution. Why did Jesus die on the cross? To pay for our entrance ticket to paradise? Pay it to whom? This was a subject of many medieval theological debates. A popular answer was that the devil had to be paid; later this majority opinion was labeled a heresy. Imagining any kind of economic exchange only plunges are deeper into absurdity, so we must cease trying to understand. Who are we to question god’s master plan?
The whole thing has become a stone baby, and must go. No one can “save” us by being executed in our place. But -- and this is where the liberation by truth comes in -- we don’t need to be saved. We are not born in sin and wicked by nature. On the contrary, it’s high time to acknowledge that most people are good, and we are wired for empathy and even altruism.
Or, as George Eliot remarked about one of her characters in Middlemarch, “Celia didn’t need salvation anymore than a squirrel.”
No religious symbol is as revolting as the crucifix. This would be obvious if we “modernized” it to be an electric chair. Imagine an electric chair at the center of every altar.
Crucifixion was more cruel than electrocution, causing a drawn-out agony, but that makes the crucifix all the more revolting. Interestingly, the crucifix does not appear until the Middle Ages. In early Christian iconography, the preferred image was that of a triumphant risen Christ. How did that radiant image of hope come to be eclipsed by the image of death by torture? Scholars have their answers: yes, history dictated a cult of suffering. How different the emotional tone of Christianity might have become without the compulsory crucifixes . . .
SAVING JESUS FROM BEING A HUMAN SACRIFICE
I have come across an eye-opening book by Gary Wills, Why Priests? Wills quotes another author, René Girard, who argues against St. Anselm’s interpretation of the Passion as a substitute for animal sacrifice.
St. Anselm based based his argument on the dubious Letter to the Hebrews, which scholars established to be the work of an anonymous author passing himself off as St. Paul. “There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest the death of Jesus is a sacrifice, whatever definition (expiation, substitution) we may give for that sacrifice.”
The Letter to the Hebrews, Wills and Gerard argue, gives undue centrality to animal sacrifice as the way of worship. But if Jesus is trying to present a new concept of god as a god of non-violence, then the Roman soldiers who carried out the execution, or the high priest, or anyone else, could not be interpreted as offering a blood sacrifice to a god who rejects blood sacrifice.
Girard’s claim was all the more striking since he thought most other societies and religions were based on violence, on coalescence around a “founding murder,” and that “Christianity . . . is the only body of belief to escape the need for violence.”
As a lesser point, animal sacrifice had to be carried out in the Temple of Jerusalem, while the execution of Jesus was carried out outside the walls of Jerusalem, and obviously not in the Temple. (Once we get involved in arguing about archaic rituals like animal sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple, that’s the unfortunate literal and legalistic path we follow.)
As for medieval theologians like Anselm, “they read the Old Testament in the light of the New, in a regression to sacrificial concepts debunked by Jesus.”
THE TWELVE THRONES
So it’s possible to view the death of Jesus as simply the execution of a religious leader thought to be a danger to the Roman Empire, and not a “bloody ransom” for the Original Sin, or all sins. But is it possible to escape the view of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher who thought the end of the world was imminent?
My heart sank when I saw the medieval image of the Twelve Thrones and the apocalyptic explanation of it:
I tell you solemnly in the New World, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of splendor, you who have been with me will be seated on twelve thrones, to judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Mt (19:28)
And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.)
In Luke 22:30, modern version:
so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
But back to Matthew:
And everyone who has left houses or brother or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. Mt 19:29
Everyone who has left . . . children? (By the way, wives are curiously missing from this list. Why? Not important?)
What are we to do with such apocalyptic nonsense? It sends Jehovah's Witnesses door to door, and makes the lunatic fringe keep hoping for Rapture, no matter if constantly delayed for almost two thousand years. Sells books!
The apocalyptic perception of Jesus, which I have to admit has a high explanatory power, distresses me. Call me sentimental, but I was trying to cling to an admiration for Jesus. But the view of him as an apocalyptic preacher -- "let the dead bury the dead" finally makes sense, and a lot else besides -- and the view of the first Christians as end-of-the-world loonies -- one just can't argue with that.
Michelangelo: Last Judgment, St. Peter holding the key to heaven
SAVING JESUS FROM BECOMING A STONE BABY
BUT WAIT! There is a way that non-believers can translate “end of the world” so as to make it meaningful. It’s the “end of my life” perspective, a gift that those who believe in the afterlife are bereft of. Given that my personal world will indeed come to an end, there is absolutely no point carrying any “stone baby” of regret and resentment. When I decided that it was too late in life to be depressed, it also became too late to waste time complaining or accumulating useless things or delaying something for a “special occasion.”
There’s a man who stole a hefty sum from me by not delivering the goods. People advised me to sue him in small-claims court, but why should I go through that stress? I’d win, but collecting is another matter. It’s not worth it for me. Life is too precious for that, so I just let it go -- as close to “loving my enemy” as I can come. I know his life is a serious mess, and hope some resolution comes, some clarity so he can be an honest person again. It’s the same when I think of others who’ve hurt me -- what does it matter now? I feel mainly compassion for them. It’s too late in life for resentment.
So even if the wildly radical teachings of Jesus make sense only in the context of his expectation that the current world would soon be destroyed (“Take no thought for the morrow”) and New Jerusalem would follow, at least some of those teachings can still be applied in the context of our mortality.
FORMER GREAT LOVE AS A STONE BABY
Since this is officially a poetry blog, let me offer a poem related to the theme of a stone baby.
At first glance, there on the bench
where he’d agreed to meet, it didn’t seem to be
him -- but then the face of grim
friendliness was my former husband’s,
like the face of a creature looking out
from inside its Knox. No fault, no knock,
clever nut of the hearing aid
hidden in the ear I do not feel I
love anymore, small bandage on the cheek
peopled with tiny lichen from a land I don’t
know. We walk. I had not remembered
how deep he held himself inside
himself -- for fun, for thirty-two years,
to lure him out. I still kind of want to,
as if I see him as a being with a baby-paw
caught. His voice is the same -- low,
still pushed around the level-bubble
in his throat. We talk of the kids, and it’s
as if that will never be taken from us.
But it feels as if he’s not here --
though he’s here, it feels as if, for me
there’s no one there -- as when he was with me
it seemed there was no one there for any other
woman. For the first thirty years. Now I see
I’ve been hoping, each time we meet, that he would praise me
for how well I took it, but it’s not to be.
Are you as happy as you thought you’d be,
I ask. Yes. And his smile is touchingly
pleased. I thought you’d look happier,
I say, but after all, when I am
looking at you, you’re with me! We smile.
His eyes warm, a moment, with the accustomed
shift, as if he’s turning into
the species he was for those thirty years.
And turning back. I glance toward his torso
once, his legs -- he’s like a stick figure ,
now, the way, when I was with him, other
men seemed like Ken dolls, all clothes. Even
the gleam of his fresh wedding ring is no
blade to my rib -- this is Married Ken. As I
walk him toward the street I joke, and for an instant
he’s alive toward me, a gem of sea of
pond in his eye. Then the retreat into himself,
which always moved me, as if there were
a sideways gravity, in him, toward some
vanishing point. And no, he does not
want to meet me again, in a year -- when we
part, it’s with a dry bow
and Good-bye. And then there is the spring park,
damp as if freshly peeled, sweet
greenhouse, green cemetery with no
dead in it -- except in some shaded
woods, under some years of leaves and
rotted cones, the body of a warbler
like a whole note fallen from the sky -- my old
love for him, like a songbird’s rib cage picked clean.
~ Sharon Olds, Stag’s Leap, 2012
How many times have we seen this: a woman degrading herself, pursuing a man who no longer cares about her. Begging -- I can imagine her asking the husband who left her for another woman to meet again only as begging -- and no, he’s not interested, though courteous enough to go through it with a “grim friendliness.” We sense he didn’t really want to see her -- that he doesn’t want to see her ever again, and why should he? He’s married to someone else, and that’s his real life, not memories of how it was with the ex-wife. He feels awkward sitting on the bench next to the woman with whom he no longer feels any live connection.
I think here we also get a bit of a glimpse of the speaker as someone who’s been through a lot of therapy (this is revealed in other poems) and assumes that it’s good for everyone to psychobabble about every detail of their inner and outer lives, and that which you manage to verbalize is the true story rather than one of the many fictions and perspectives. In my observation, most men are utterly uninterested in that kind of analysis. Strange to say, I find myself joining the minority of women who likewise simply have other interests. Music! Literature! New developments in science! There is an exciting world out there, and a larger family. Waiting for the ex-husband to change his mind (or open up) is like waiting for Prince Charming, or -- for the Rapture.
YOU HAVE TO LET A CAT BE A CAT
When I can a cat, Georgia Dziordziusińska-Dziordziuśkiewicz, I learned that you need to let a cat be a cat. This widened to the view that you need to let each person be themselves, and you actually grow to enjoy them when they are relaxed and natural (who knew so many people were naturally charming when they don’t feel judged?), without feeling any demands put on them. Most people are good human beings, and like to be treated as such. They don’t care to be “lured out” to talk about the relationship with their father or whatever is assumed to be their “core issue.” Is that really so important? Can’t we respect the fact that perhaps they’d rather read the newspaper or go to the movies? Personally I enjoy the “strong silent” type. I have enough heavy stuff of my own and don’t want the burden of someone else’s complicated psyche piled on me. Not for free, in any case.
(By the way, I’m still not sure about cats versus dogs, now that pets have become an option. I love watching a cat be a cat and a dog a dog, sniffing around in ecstasy of exploration. I identify with that. And I know that neither species will ask me about some childhood trauma or some other “stone baby” I might be carrying, but without feeling burdened; no need to reactivate those old neural circuits; the most important and beautiful part of memory is forgetting.)
The clouds were so beautiful on the way to Coronado Library, again I thought that if I could no longer read or write, or contribute in any way, just looking at the clouds would make life worthwhile. But that’s assuming a brain functional enough to experience beauty, in which case it would probably be functional enough to read and write. Best not to fly in the no-think zones of potential dementia. But if someone asked me, when I'm past 80, what I loved most in life, it’s possible that I’d reply “clouds.”
photo: Jeffrey Levine
I can’t image Sharon Olds replying in this manner, and I don’t blame her: she’s herself, fixated on the body and family relationships, and I am myself, a lover of clouds (and more, but the list would be too long). She had to meditate on and on about the end of her marriage, even if to some of us that implies a sad waste of time. Her ex-husband certainly seems to want to move on without revisiting the old marriage, and who sees no more reason to see the ex-wife a year from now, or (I think this is implied) ever again.
At this moment I remembered one of my favorite scenes in the movie “A Serious Man.” The protagonist tells his “temptress” type of neighbor that he’s separated from his wife. She asks, “And have you been taking advantage of your new freedom?”
This is a wonderful point of view. Are you taking advantage of the opportunities of the moment, or are you incubating your stone baby? I speak as one who was guilty of that in my younger years, when I had spent way too much time talking in my head to my great love who married another woman. Luckily, I also developed as a writer, and creative work took over, along with teaching and journalism. And in my mental cemetery I found not the picked-clean skeleton of my once-great love, but the lilacs of gratitude: how wonderful that the cruel narcissist didn’t marry me! How magnificent that there were limits to his desire to destroy me . . .
Even so, I found the poem an interesting study of this unequal meeting of ex-spouses in which the ex-wife is still showing signs of clinging, even though she ends by implying through an image that it’s over, it really is over. But first she had to torture both of them by going through this unnecessary meeting, in the course of which she realizes that if he doesn’t look radiantly happy, that’s likely because of her presence. Her very presence is oppressive to him, is a form of silent nagging, some implied criticism of him as not open enough, or no longer husbandly.
Well, it happens: sometimes our very presence is oppressive to someone. If we recognize it, the only decent thing is to move on.
THE SHOOTING STAR
Mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves, and when the archangel comes, they throw the cigarettes away: that’s when you get shooting stars.
~ Vladimir Nabokov
This is clever as everything that Nabokov ever wrote, but I saw a shooting star last night, after a long period of not seeing any, and it was a lovely recognition. As usual, by the time I thought of making a wish, it was too late.
But what’s wish-making next to the great spectacle we are offered every night . . . One-tenth would have been enough to make me rejoice (typed “rejoyce”) in being here to see. Did I really, REALLY, go through three years of thinking about suicide every single day? I who say that one sunset can hold me, that I’ll never get tired of clouds . . . We change; life changes; and I am infinitely grateful to have experienced the moment -- later many moments -- when I understood that just to be alive is sublime.
But back then I was carrying a stone baby -- my rejected great love for a man whose greatest gift to me was marrying someone else.
Then I discovered that dropping idealization -- this took years -- dissolved the stone baby. I was finally free of that false pregnancy.
And I can still enjoy Michelangelo’s muscular (look at that biceps!) Jesus in the Last Judgment scene. For me this is actually a Mr. Universe contest, and Jesus wins the trophy.