Ephesus and Patmos.
By ALAN WALL.
The Fourth Gospel.
WHAT IS A text? If it is ‘a canonic text’, then a certain amount of thought must have gone into the matter. The OED says the word canonical means that something is ‘authoritative; orthodox; standard’. And it says that the canon itself is ‘the list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired’. So far, so straightforward then. But not for long. Should we turn to Tyndale’s version of the Gospels we will find some highly charged words being used. Why? The ghost of Tyndale’s text lurks behind half of the words of the King James Bible, though many had to be modified in order to assuage the powers that be (one of the phrases Tyndale had recently invented) in the subsequent editions that were to use so many of his words, without ever mentioning his name. His memory was simply too troublesome.
Tyndale was trying to get back to the Greek original, so as to avoid any unwanted textual accoutrements which had sprouted up through the centuries; the way the wishes of man have so often imposed themselves on revelation. What did the biblical words mean, before the Church had started to build its mighty edifice of interpretation upon them? What was Jesus actually trying to say fifteen hundred years before? If we could reverse the allegorical thrust of so much of the tradition, pull the text back from emblems and analogies, and thereby arrive at the original sense, as an actual account of actual events, we might once more find that the truth can set you free. He was eloquent on the subject: ‘I call God to record, against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience, nor would this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honour or riches, might be given me.’ This was dangerous ground in 1525, since translating the Bible into English without authorization was illegal. Tyndale had to get out of England to do it. And his translation pressed his own case, the case of an impassioned reformer. Instead of ‘charity’ he used the word ‘love’; instead of ‘priest’ he wrote ‘elder’; instead of ‘church’ he said ‘congregation’. This was non-ecclesiastical language. Some thought it anti-ecclesiastical. It could cost you your life. It cost Tyndale his.
No word is ever straightforwardly translatable into another language. All translations are interpretations and conversions. Bread, pain, and Brot might all be recorded as synonymous, but each carries a freight of tradition, association and cultural expectation. Should I now add that this bread is of heaven, then the terms paradis or Himmel are enough to project us into another linguistic universe entirely. Tyndale’s use of congregation instead of church was strikingly polemical.
Tyndale gives us, as do most of our familiar modern English versions, the Pericope Adulterae, the passage in which Jesus is confronted with the woman taken in adultery, and invited to condemn her. The earliest Greek texts of the Gospel do not contain this passage, and it has been speculated that it was a later interpolation, with a specific purpose: to show that Jesus was fully literate, that he could write as well as read.1 This is the only occasion in any of the gospels when Jesus does write, and his own words are immediately obliterated, since they are written in dust, as Keats feared his own name might be ‘writ in water’. Why did Jesus leave us no text from his own hand? He is constantly quoting from Hebrew scripture; he appears to be honeycombed with it. But never does he sit down for an hour with a stylus, in order to make clear the fundamentals of his mission and his teaching to his followers. This is a curiosity worthy of note, since he must surely have anticipated how soon the quarrels might get started after his death, and they have of course never ceased since. The curiosity is one that has recently taken on a further edge: the distinguished scholar Geza Vermes insisted that the word naggar, the Aramaic word for carpenter, also meant a shaper of words, an interpreter of texts, and that this word employed in the Palestinian Judaism of Jesus’s day would have been more likely to have had the second, metaphoric meaning, than the first and literal one – in the same way that a ‘mechanic’ in a poker game is nowadays a cheat. In other words, Jeshua the carpenter, son of Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth, should really be (if everything is hinging here on the word naggar) Jesus the interpreter of the sacred text, son of Joseph the rabbinic scholar. This feels very similar to Tyndale using congregation instead of church, or elder rather than priest: a whole world of meaning hinges upon a single word in a text. And a great many paintings of Jesus as a boy in the carpenter’s shop would be shown to have dubious linguistic foundations.
THERE IS A beautiful watercolour by William Blake that shows Jesus writing in the dust after the accusers have presented him with the woman taken in adultery; a text unique to John. He is writing something with great concentration, and the accusers are now leaving. This is the only occasion when Jesus’s body is presented by Blake as a figure of closure, like his portrayal of Newton and Nebuchadnezzar. And for once there is hardly any light emitting from the Saviour’s body – another oddity in Blake’s iconography. Given Blake’s antinomian reading of the Bible, there could be a reason for this: it is the only occasion in all the accounts when Jesus is writing, and what he is writing is the letter of the Law which, according to Blake, his own mission is designed to cancel. There was a strong tradition in the Byzantine tradition, still popular in parts of Russia today, that says that what Jesus wrote in the dust were the sins of the accusers. As they read them they realised that, since they were evidently not without sin themselves, then they could not throw the first stone either. And that is why, uniquely in this pericope, they are said to leave ‘one by one’.
Even if he had had any doubts about the pericope’s authenticity, this little tale surely fitted Tyndale’s purposes admirably. He was on the side of the humble interpreters of the Bible’s teaching, against those who thought themselves supreme authorities. Hence his famous statement: ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.’ This was addressed to a theological opponent, one said to be learned, whose position in society was somewhat grander than following a plough. We all have the right to midrash; to that questioning of the original scripture, as long as it is driven by a fierce will to get to the truth. Pushed on by the ploughman’s shoulder.
What to leave in, and what to take out? And which words to use, so as to convey the authenticity of the original text most forcefully? That is effectively the story of the canon itself, and of every text within it. Should the Book of Revelation have been banished from the lectionary, as it is in the Eastern Orthodox tradition? Luther thought so for a long time, before ultimately changing his mind. Many were troubled by it at the time of its inclusion, and its riddles and ambiguities are probably the cause of as much mischief now as any other book of the Bible. Numerologists delight in its formulae for calculating the final calamity. For centuries it was generally held that it had come from the same hand as the Fourth Gospel. Few would argue this now, so different are the mental worlds conveyed by the two texts; so radically at variance is the language employed. But then few would now argue that the Fourth Gospel was actually written by the Beloved Disciple, the son of Zebedee portrayed in it, though others might still want to argue that much of it can trace a route that goes back ultimately to him. Maybe in a community in Ephesus, or maybe one in Antioch, or Alexandria. The Golan Heights have been mooted, as another possibility. We have become very textual regarding these texts. Very stylistic. Fastidiously historical. Troubled as to how much we can actually know. And then of course there is the question of form.
Once it seemed simpler. The finger of God had been at work. It was His finger which inscribed the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain, His finger that wrote on the wall at Belshazzar’s Feast: you have been weighed in the scales and found wanting. Belshazzar died later that night, they say. And it might have been this finger that Blake is portraying in action for the last time, when Jesus writes in the dust. This is the last enunciation of ‘Thou shalt not’ by one who is divine. And Jesus only propounds the law in order to abrogate it. It is written not on a scroll or codex, but in the dust where its traces might be kicked over. ‘Have none of them condemned thee?’ ‘No Lord.’ ‘Then neither do I condemn thee.’ The law is abrogated through the action of divine mercy. You have been freed from the letter of the text, so that you might exult at last in its spirit.
NOW BLAKE IS, in Harold Bloom’s sense, one of the strongest readers in the language. And he is never a stronger reader than when he is disinterring the Bible from its burial in social convention, by those he insists are its misinterpreters. In The Everlasting Gospel he makes it clear that the finger which wrote its commands in the sky is now gone for ever, and that therefore there is no one left to throw the first stone. In other words, Jesus can be seen propounding the law for the last time when he writes in the dust. And he is making it plain that, kicked over in the dust down there, is precisely where the letter of the law belongs. Blake’s watercolour of the woman taken in adultery is in effect a visual midrash.
It was during the nineteenth century that we adopted the notion of uniformitarianism in regard to geology. This insisted that the same laws applied back in the mists of time as apply now. That we are not to explain our origins through catastrophism, but by assuming that the same processes of erosion took place yesterday as take place today. The various liberal modifications of Christology during the same century were doing something parallel. There was a mythic accretion around the gospel narratives that had to be accepted as what it was: legendary matter. And then at the heart of this we might find the true figure of Jesus, lurking inside the tangled outgrowths of the very texts he had generated by the power of his presence, the potency of his words. Matthew Arnold was in no doubt that all the accounts of the miracles in the gospel were neither more nor less than a sop by the early church to the credulous and uneducated. They would therefore appear incredible (and rightly so) to any educated modern person.
So how then did we ever get the account of the miraculous birth of Jesus? Well, it’s never mentioned by Paul, the earliest of the texts we might confidently verify, and no mention is made of it in Mark either. As for John, he is going back much further in his opening; he is going back before time itself. How come? One answer is that the accounts of the birth in Matthew and Luke answered an early accusation against the early followers of Jesus, namely that the man they acclaimed the Messiah had had an irregular birth; that he was in fact a bastard. This was William Blake’s line precisely, except that he regarded it as an antinomian qualification; an embryonic certificate of authenticity for the mission ahead. Matthew and Luke effectively say, in reply to the accusation: You are quite right, and yes, his birth was most unusual. Not through any impropriety, however, but as a result of divine intervention. So then a word in the text of Isaiah, alma, with no hint of virginity in it, transmutes into a prophecy of parthenos, the virgin who gives birth to the Lord. Thus does the translation of one word in a text radically transmute the whole narrative into a different world of meaning. (Something similar happens as Messiah becomes Christ; we shift culturally from one intellectual universe to another, without any announcement of the fact.)
In the meantime, that journey to Bethlehem in Luke – for a census unmentioned elsewhere in the historical record – permits another rebuttal: how could the Messiah conceivably have come from Galilee? Nowhere in scripture is this predicted or even allowed. So, the child we are presented with is now actually born in David’s city, and then that problem has been solved by the latest text too. Here the elaboration of the text takes the form of a series of answers to questions now largely forgotten, like rhyming slang that has jettisoned the word with which it once rhymed. But we must ask ourselves a demanding textual question: how come there is no mention of this extraordinary birth in Mark, the earliest of the synoptic gospels, and how come Paul never makes any mention of the fact either? Surely he, of all people, would have made something of the fact that Jesus had been born without the necessity of the normally required human agency? Between Mark and Paul the elaborations have begun, the answers constructed, the credulous start to be fed their fables and fantastications. And now? What are we to do here in our interpretative work? Away with catastrophism, we have insisted; let’s get on with the uniformitarian interpretation. If it could happen yesterday, then it can happen today. Otherwise, we’re away with the fairies. Blake had no difficulties with this at all. He reckoned that Joseph and Mary did clear off out of Galilee for the birth, in order to hide the fact that the child was not Joseph’s, but then nor was it God’s either, at least not in Luke or Matthew’s sense, even if it was indeed God’s in another sense. The Son of Man was, Blake insists, the divine in human form, but still you cannot break the laws of nature, and neither could he. Otherwise they would not be laws, now would they? The texts of existence cannot be so casually rewritten.
It is possible to think of the infancy narratives in both Luke and Matthew as a form of midrash. Midrash represents a return upon ancient texts in the Jewish tradition. The old text is asked questions it could not have asked itself, and comes up with answers it was not originally obligated to provide. Midrash breaks into the past, and fractures what might otherwise be a hermetically sealed text. Discovering difficulties and gaps which the afterlife of reading has revealed, a later consciousness intrudes and prompts the text (in a synchronous manoeuvre) to further reflections upon aspects of its meaning. It opens past scripture up to the future. The text, it transpires, was richer than anyone had previously thought.
This is what midrash does: it connects the present of the reader with an historic text. It permits the ancient text to ask and answer questions not available to it at the time of its own composition; to put things to itself, as it were, posthumously. In doing this it insists on a text’s versatility; its ability to reach out from the point of its composition in the past to the further requirements unfolding in the present. Arthur Eddington used to say that we live in four dimensions. In the first three we have remarkably little extension, but in the fourth, the temporal one, we can travel through a vast territory. Midrash opens up a text to the unlimited possibilities of temporality. And temporality here is inseparable from interpretative thought.
Blake used antinomian imagery all his life. One of his iconographic pairs was the prolific and the devourer. The one generates; the other consumes. It would be hard to think of a more vivid exemplification of this dialectic opposition than the year 1526, as William Tyndale printed copy after copy of his New Testament in English, and the Bishop of London, Tunstall, immediately seized them and had them burnt at St Paul’s Cross. Then the Bishop’s agents started to cross the Channel and bought the New Testaments on the continent, fresh from the presses, and burnt them there instead. The money from these sales immediately financed further revisions, translations and publications. Thus did the devourer prompt the prolific to generate all the more prolifically.
And the same imagery can be seen in Blake’s portrayal of the Woman Taken in Adultery. She might have sinned but as Jesus says elsewhere, she is forgiven because she has loved much. She is prolific in her affections. The devourers are no more than agents of the Law, the accusers; the word diabolus, from which we derive our word devil, means an accuser. Another tradition holds that what Jesus wrote in the dust was simply their names. And here the scriptural text might allude to its textual foretime: the Book of Jeremiah, where those whose names are written in heaven are saved, while those whose names are written in the earth are lost. Separated from the prolific, the devourer finally devours himself.
SO WHAT ARE the facts about Jesus? William Blake’s facts are obviously different from Bishop Tunstall’s, but then Tyndale’s were different from Tunstall’s too, as they were different from those of Thomas More. The facts here are inseparable from the texts in which they are generated and embedded, and that means we must understand the nature of the text if we are ever to try to understand what it is the text communicates; what type of actuality it offers us. When Bishop Ussher used Biblical genealogies to calculate the beginning of the cosmos in 4004 BCE, he was misunderstanding the nature of the text before him. You should not extrapolate scientific chronologies from Hebrew religious poetry. Philip Henry Gosse constructed a similar problem for himself in Omphalos in 1857. He was too good a scientist not to acknowledge the reality of the fossils then being unearthed and analysed. But he was too literal a devotee of the word of the Bible to relinquish the account of creation in Genesis. So, he propounded his theory. The fossils are in the earth because God made them, as fossils, and put them there. So as to provide a past for the present to find its footing on. No present, after all, can exist without a past to give meaning to it. The logic here, as Borges argued, is impeccable. The intellectual results catastrophic. He called the process prochronism.
A more convincing manoeuvre was enacted when Jewish scholars argued that the findings of modern physics were compatible with the account of creation in Genesis, because of a flexibility in the word yom, or day. This does not have to specify a twenty-four hour period, they said, because the sun and moon don’t actually appear until after Day Three. So what orbits would be doing the measuring here? Not those, anyway. This flexibility permits billions of years to cram themselves into those six days of creation in the opening book of the Bible. And God does not even need to fashion fossils. Merely to note to himself (with satisfaction, presumably) the immense flexibility of the word yom.
In his brilliant story, ‘Proofs of Holy Writ’, Rudyard Kipling has Ben Jonson sitting in Shakespeare’s garden in 1611. A rider delivers some proofs for revising. The proofs turn out to be proofs of the King James Bible, which Shakespeare has been involved in revising, if not translating. The two playwrights argue about the wording of some lines in Isaiah. How the English version needs to express itself; how the Englishing must proceed according to its own linguistic logic. It is a clever story because Kipling conveys so vividly how finding the right English words and cadences is a matter for the educated ear of the writer; how there is no straightforward and indisputable way of translating any text. The host language insists on its own identity, making its own demands upon writer and reader.
And what a difference one word can make. When Tyndale uses ‘congregation’ to translate ekklesia, even though Erasmus had done it before him, he is courting extreme danger. But then in using words the way he did, Jesus courted extreme danger too. They were both of them to be put to death by lawful authorities. One of Tyndale’s distinctions is his fondness for rough words, since rough words might better convey rough realities. In Chapter Five of his Gospel of John he describes the Pool of Bethesda as being close by a slaughterhouse. He explains in a marginal gloss that the Greek says ‘sheep house’, but that it is describing a place where beasts were killed, so his word is the more truthful. By the time the King James version was busily plagiarising Tyndale, his usage here was found too uncouth, and replaced with the word ‘market’, simultaneously more dainty and less exact. ‘Abattoir’ would come along in the nineteenth century to help a lot of delicate sensibilities with its lexical displacement. The whole thing sounds altogether less bloody in French.
AND THE WORD ‘slaughterhouse’ provides an unexpected angle from which to look at a text and its relation to truth. In 1969 Kurt Vonnegut published his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The title was provided by the large underground meat chamber in which he was incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war in 1945, while Dresden was being firebombed by the Allies. Because he was down there, he survived. Had he been up in the streets, he would have been incinerated, along with so many others. How many, though? The figure Vonnegut gives in the book is 135,000; consequently, Vonnegut claims that more people died that night than at any other moment in history. But he takes the figures from David Irving’s book The Destruction of Dresden, which deliberately inflated the figures so as to comply with Irving’s sympathetic portrayal of the Nazis. The actual figure, established by enquiries set in motion by the Dresden city authorities many years later, is probably nearer 25,000 to 30,000. The Nazis themselves insisted it had been 200,000, but that had been for their own immediate propaganda purposes. If anyone should have known, surely it should have been Vonnegut himself? After all he was there; he didn’t need to consult anyone else’s text. But how could he have known? Was he meant to go and count all the piles of black ash? Or ask around amongst the dazed survivors, hunting for their relatives?
And so Vonnegut never changed the figures in the book, even though he must have come to know subsequently about the discrediting of Irving’s statistics. He presumably felt that the truth of that text of his did not depend, one way or the other, upon the accuracy of the figures of fatality. The truth of the book lies in its portrayal of the insane destructiveness of war. That truth survives any other inaccuracies. Now a curious thing has happened with the Gospel of John. Matthew Arnold could greatly admire its rhetorical power, but he thought the topography depicted in it was nothing less than a fantasy. The text here, he reckoned, was unsound. Modern archaeology has proved him wrong there. Excavations have shown that the Pool of Bethesda was precisely where John said it was. Ditto the Pavement from which Pontius Pilate delivered his judgment. Does this make the Gospel more or less true? After all, we do not go to John to map Jerusalem. We go to find the identity of Jesus. (Actually we go to find the identity of Christ, since John’s text is at least as preoccupied with the transhistorical redeemer as it is with the historical preacher and healer.)
The only truth any text can generate is one that arises out of its form, function, and historical placement. If we could take Einstein’s famous equation back to ancient Rome, its meaning would be entirely unfathomable. Its terms can only be read through the findings of modern science. And here we should distinguish detail from truth. If we could establish that John’s dating of the trial and execution of Jesus was more correct in detail day by day than that of the synoptics, then that would indeed confirm the details of his text, but not the ‘truth’ of it. In the same way that the truth embodied in Vonnegut’s novel survives his miscalculation of the Dresden deaths.
If scripture is questioned and worried at by midrash, what happens when literature comes along? The term ‘literature’ here means simply written down, as opposed to being transmitted by an oral tradition. But it has come to mean something different. It has come to mean a text freer even than midrash to interpret what is presented to it in terms of tradition and experience. Literature can be midrashic; midrash can never entirely risk the freedom of literature, and we can normally see the difference between the classifications. The portrayal of Jesus by Blake, in all its antinomian vigour, would prompt most Christians to say that he has left the realm of midrash, and entered the freer world of literature. Blake has severed those anchoring connections with scripture and tradition which indicate subscription to a credal system. The first person of the trinity, for Blake, is simply Old Nobodaddy; a projection of our negativities and fears into a cosmic personage of law and punishment.
In Chapters 21 to 24 of Deuteronomy we are given Moses in all his scriptural glory. He points out to the Israelites that the law he has given them must be written on their hearts, or they will once more go whoring after strange gods. He sings the song he himself has composed. Then he gazes over the Jordan from Mount Nebo at the land of promise Yahweh has told him he’ll never set foot in. Then he dies. It is one of the most sublime moments in the Bible. Moses is, according to tradition, closing the Pentateuch. The great narrative will now be continued by Joshua.
MIDRASH HAS AN inexhaustible source here. But beyond midrash we encounter far more dangerous ground. Having escaped the Nazis in Vienna, Sigmund Freud arrived in England and promptly set to work demolishing the foundations of the religion which had attempted to nurture him. He wrote a book, Moses and Monotheism, which argued strongly that Moses was not a Jew at all, but a patrician Egyptian. The evidence cited for this, which is characteristic of Freud’s later metapsychology, is linguistic, anthropological, and mythographic. Freud was only uttering what had come to be a well-rehearsed anthropological argument of his day. All the same, his endeavours caused alarm. At this, the most perilous moment for the Jewish people in modern times, the most famous living Jew on earth was about to suggest that the Jewish faith was founded on a misconception. Even worse, Freud went on to argue that so harsh was the law Moses imposed on the Israelites in the desert, and so bitterly unwelcome, that they killed him. And he reckoned they had dealt with their suppressed guilt by their paradoxical piety towards his person ever afterwards. Thus does our duplicitous psyche make amends. Abraham Yahuda pleaded with him not to publish; Freud was having none of it. Quod scripsi, scripsi. The Roman Catholic Church was not best pleased either. The Dominican Vincent McNabb wondered in print if this was the most gracious way for a Jewish refugee to thank Great Britain for taking him in at such a time of peril.
By the time we get to a text like Moses and Monotheism, we are no longer dealing with midrash. Midrash has been overtaken by a species of analysis which has snapped the thread which holds a tradition together. So has this now left behind scripture and midrash, and become instead literature? Well, it soon would be, even in terms of genre classifications. During the war Thomas Mann was invited to contribute a story to an American volume entitled The Ten Commandments. Over six weeks he wrote a novella entitled The Tablets of the Law. The rest of the book has been long-forgotten, but Mann’s piece is still an exemplary example of fiction that engages scripture with utter seriousness, but without feeling the constraints of any traditional pieties.
Mann knew his Freud well. He had delivered the address when Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize, and wrote an essay entitled ‘Freud’s Position’, which is a brilliant approach to Freud’s achievement. And ‘The Tablets of the Law’ has Freud immediately behind it, in the form of Moses and Monotheism. This Moses is the illegitimate son of a Hebrew labourer and the daughter of the Pharaoh; her wayward aristocratic passion costs the poor fellow his life. Out of the warring identities inside Moses comes the figure we know, devoted to his curious god of invisibility. But this is no longer midrash; it has become literature. Just as midrash passes over into literature in Robert Browning’s ‘A Death in the Desert’, where the aged John is close to death, tended lovingly by his disciples, contemplating what it means that the last living contact with Jesus is finally about to die.
The interactions between revelation and philosophy, between interpretation and analysis, between scripture and literature, are ceaseless, and not always measurable. Only in John’s gospel are we treated to the exposition of Jesus as logos. Why might this be? The tradition has held that John spent time (perhaps even the rest of his life) in Ephesus. And Ephesus was in some ways the home of the logos. Heraclitus had been there five centuries before, pondering how the scheme of creation is only intelligible at all because of its structuring through the logos; how logos is a mediation between the absolute of the godhead and the temporal and physical rootedness of human intellection. And then Philo of Alexandria had been in Ephesus at the time of John and Jesus, saying something remarkably similar. So it is at the least possible that the reason we have Jesus described as the logos is because he was being written about in Ephesus after his death; there is no evidence that he ever spoke thus of himself. That was not at all a part of the text he was expounding while he lived.
So here, it would seem, scripture itself is being shaped by the literature of philosophy. What Jesus effectively says in the story of the woman taken in adultery is this: the law is never separate from the agency enacting it, and that is you. Do not act as though the law can be separated from your imaginations, or your interpretations or your desires. For that is a form of idolatry. In this sublime moment, scripture, midrash and literature all become one. The text we are writing is the text of our own lives.
The Patmos Dictations
My mind’s turned dark and allegorical.
Words mangled into strange constructions
fashioned by my secretary here. He hears my secrets
each late afternoon, then writes them down
laboriously in our cellar overnight
to the solitary scratching of a rat’s chorus.
Ungrammatical his script may be
but this crabbed apocalypse could cost us both our lives
(mine I would happily relinquish).
That gospel I dictated too
(no need for fishermen to write –
what is there to be writ on water?)
but there one learned rabbi billeted in Ephesus
honeycombed my koiné with his scriptural allusions
leaving enough of my Aramaic meditations
to show beneath the surface like a rising Galilean shoal.
The Lord spoke Aramaic in the intimacy of his parables.
Only in cities, near the Temple, or propounding
from some Galilean hill
did his mouth mint coins for them
uttering the tribute money of the Caesars.
The language of our lords and masters.
Oppression’s tongue can still yield metaphors
as Kafka transmutes the cockroach
into a sentient and tragic protagonist.
Two decades later Heydrich moved to Prague.
Cockroaches, awaiting starvation in the ghetto.
The word its own prolepsis, then as now.
Such a devoted disciple, you write down
whatever fresh images torment me, though
rendered in the crudest letters. I’m no penman
but can hear each sound the words make
when you read them back. They’re crooked.
You stumbled, my lad, while you learned your abecedary.
No remedy for this now. Here’s what we’ll bequeath.
Once I listened as he made each word
explode like old suns, done at last with shining
throwing themselves at darkness in a final flourish.
Candelabra seven-branched sent back as booty
to imperial Rome. Accoutrement for the next triumphal arch.
Men women children self-slaughtered at Masada.
And he who promised to be back before
we’d counted to a hundred
still not here. Now heavens fill with emblems.
Rome even dictates a change in the weather.
Ravens fall out of a blackened sky
on creaking wings. Ocean waves
describe a dragon’s tail
lashing away its salt detritus.
Dragons whores and Babylon
while I’m mewed up in my melancholy
a dizzard fondling his Bedlam chains
waiting for the shilling to be spent.
You listen to my breathing
in the night sometimes, when you are done
scratching away at the parchment
trying so hard not to blot it.
I hear you barefooting across the boards
to eavesdrop on my ancient heart; to auscultate
and sigh: The old man’s not gone yet;
we’ll get another day’s dictation
as shadows hunger round his tomb.
How many days
how many decades
did they gather round
in Mary’s tiny house at Ephesus
while she sat by the window
waiting for the sun to drop out of the sky?
Day by day
he walked out of the darkness of his death
as a man walks smiling – his shroud intact –
into a gospel future.
City of Artemis.
One breast for every free hand in the market.
When Paul arrived here, thrashing about the areopagus,
they twitched, those silversmiths who make her votive offerings,
fingering their leather wallets.
He’d never met the Lord, you know,
and never did grasp what I meant by LOGOS.
He should have stayed in Ephesus as long as I did:
Herakleitos. Philo. Hard to escape: dust in the alley.
Each of his words a bird on the wing
carried by thermals over the abyss
and not a single feather fell
but his father in heaven would catch it and blow.
The wind’s bravado is its own apocalypse.
Meteorology translated to catastrophe.
Hear Marduk smashing the skull of Tiamat
with every sizzling breaker.
Could the earth have died with him?
Mineral veins fossilized
green sap once
forced through. Like Artemis
he turns into his own stiff effigy
to which the pilgrims make obeisance
while Empire’s pterodactyls hover overhead
drones ready to drop exploding metal eggs
on Pashtun villages.
Patmos is here and everywhere.
All times and now.
The island you can never flee; its sea a noose
tightened round the future’s neck.
So many years ago
it is another lifetime
I stood on a hill above the Dead Sea.
Out of a querulous mist the Qumran brothers
strode, vigorous in self-denial
loathing every moving shape beyond their hallowed walls:
sons of darkness; beslimers of the Law
caged in this world’s bestiary.
A different species.
And I stood riddled in forgiveness
alone as the mist embraced me.
Caspar David Friedrich could have painted this
as Schumann’s fractured melodies rebuked the scathing wind.
Now we pour wine
to close this private seminar.
Listen to the storm’s effrontery outside
shaking trees as though they were
standing dumb before the vernal Emperor.
The skies tonight are chaos.
Let the world’s dark emblems
talk themselves into exhaustion.
He poured once at the table
for his beloved disciple
and I would drink it down.
A shared transfusion.
Note the cup’s kenosis:
then filling up again.
Each day now
I count another resurrection.
The Cult at Ephesus
MORE THAN TWENTY years after his death, I first went to see the dream-shaper. Told him I wanted the labyrinth of my mind prepared for the Lord’s re-entry. He could clear away whatever lumber and rubble he chose, just as long as I’d encounter once more the healer from Galilee in the streets of darkness that are my dreams.
We have been in Ephesus for all of these years. I had taken his mother, as he had instructed, and we had cleared out of Judaea. We travelled north, but Galilee was altogether too riddled with memories for both of us. So we came here. Where the synagogue was happy enough to hear from us at first. But now they show us the door. They could allow that he might be a messiah. But not the Messiah. There’ve been so many, you see, coming and going, closing the door on time. Now they say we are a cult, to be deprecated. At the mere sight of us they utter anathemas. Dark reports are delivered to officials in Jerusalem.
My followers call our home the House of the Interpreter. They come once a week in the evening, and I read to them from the scroll he left. He spoke in Aramaic and Koinē, sometimes in alternate lines, as when he gave the mountainside blessings. (Our spirits were bilingual in those days.) But only ever wrote in Aramaic, and when there was nobody else around, except the Beloved Disciple. That’s me. And then he gave me the scroll, the night before they came to take him. It took years for me to learn to read my way through without stumbling, and to this day I can’t write. The two sons of Zebedee had no need to read and write. The old man taught us to count up to a hundred, so we knew how many fish were in each net, but reading and writing: that was for scribes. The ones with no dirt beneath their fingernails. They scratch things down for me on parchment, my followers; that’s for the codex. But only I am permitted to hold the scroll and read out his words. And when I die, it is to be buried with me: that was his requirement and request. They call me the Eagle. Only the Eagle, you see, can look into the sun and not be blinded.
She sits over by the window, and stares into the cup of wine I poured her. Seldom drinks. Only stares. As if the wine were about to speak. In one language or the other.
TODAY IT HAPPENED, finally. The dream-shaper is a man named Alexis. Of no known faith, with a beard as variegated as the rocks around Qumran. When he stares into your eyes you become luminous and vacant, as though thieves had come and emptied the house in your head of all its furniture. And then set fire to it. His extasis; your kenosis. The hours stop moving. The dark side of the moon begins to whisper to you in an unknown language. Beckoning.
‘First we will empty you. Only then will what you want arrive. To be filled you must be emptied first.’ That was what he always said, too. I sometimes wonder if the shaper simply finds words inside me then gives them back, as echoes. Today Alexis says: ‘I think you need to meet the Logos Man. The Alexandrian philosopher. A fellow called Philo.’
‘How would I do that?’
‘He has just arrived from Egypt. He will be here in a moment.’ And in a moment he is.
A feud today between high winds and waves. So when the Alexandrian speaks, his lips are already salted with acerbity as well as love. This is Philo from over the seas.
He sits and stares at me. I sit and stare at him. His bald head a shiny dome, a basilica’s roof after rain. Eyes: two amethysts that have swallowed a flaming torch apiece. And a beard that harbours no philosophical doubt, a beard that certainly knows its own mind regarding anything and everything. Each thought uttered out of that beard stiffens its bristles in assertion. Juts its chin. In the beginning was Logos. And at the end as well. The teaching of Herakleitos five centuries ago, and in this very town. His smile bright as a sun in summer.
Philo beckons me outside, into the garden. Alexis nods for me to go, though he stays behind.
‘Look, my friend. The tree is earth’s answer to heaven’s light and water. That’s how Logos translates heaven into earth.
‘Now if he met you there by the Lake of Galilee, then that was Logos alive among the living. Talking with his mouth. Fishing with hungry fishermen. But now he has passed through death. Now he must come to you in dreams and visions. So you must prepare a Logos-shaped basilica inside your sleeping mind to receive him. Alexis has been helping you, he tells me. He is already there, your Lord, I can see that, but he remains exiled, flickering in pale flames: consumed in the Gehenna of your affections. You are still bitter at his fate, and he never counselled that. You cannot see him in such a tohu-wabohu desert of incomprehension. Logos awaits his invitation: he never forces an entry. But with eagle eyes and the ant’s diligence, you will arrive. Arrive at the place where you first started. And count the fish once more.’ He pauses for a moment now. ‘Did he really do all the things they say, my friend?’
‘I watched as the powers left the tormented one in Gadara. As though a darkness bigger than the night flew out of his mouth, his nose and his ears. A flock of bats so vast that it cancelled day and sunlight, and then they were gone into the pigs, the herd that froze for a second as though they would all fall over, and then ran for the water. The comfort of drowning. Anything but to have that darkness scorching you like hot coals burning right through your belly.’
‘I bet the pig-man was not best pleased.’
‘No. He did not become a disciple that day. Went and told the Roman landlord that he’d never pay him now. Another casualty of the Decapolis. The pigs were for the legionnaires. No worries about kosher food with those boys.’ I can feel his spirit now as he locks on to something inside my skull.
‘How did you lose your smile?’
I was not expecting this. I try to explain. How a moment comes in every life when irony must die. When the double-dealing miscreant on the stage stops grinning. When the dark side of each word’s moon stops offering its lunar escape. That day on Golgotha. When we looked up to see the angels descending in glory to raise him up. And they never arrived. As we put him in the linen shroud, Joseph of Arimathea said: ‘The grave will never be able to hold him.’
We’d needed a drink, all of us, believe me, when we finally reassembled, after all the hours of torture and execution that day. But when it came at last there were dead flies floating on the wine’s bloody surface. One sip turned to wormwood and gall. We all threw the contents of our cups on the ground. And only then did we see the earth’s red wounds. His death now part of the landscape.
‘I think he might want you to start smiling again. It will begin any moment. In your dreams tonight. You are ready to encounter Logos.’
Am I? Already in Jerusalem, I hear, tabernacle toadies have started to misquote me. And I have never used this word. This word they all keep uttering.
AROUND THE TEMENOS of Artemis’s temple you can buy statues of every kind. Gold silver bronze. Painted clay for the poor man. But particularly silver. Women bury them inside their clothes or down in the black holes between the bedsheets, so as to ensure fertility, as the deed is done in darkness. This week he came here, preaching before the temple. Until they ran him out of town, the silver merchants, sensing a serious threat to their livelihoods, nervously fingering their leather money pouches. He never came near us, and we never went near him. He who never met the Lord in life, but will now teach the whole wide world about him; those who spoke no Aramaic at all. The word among us is that it was Paul, or Saul as he was then called, who cast the first stone at Stephen, the first of us to die for the faith. Saul, filled as he was then with the Law’s malignancy. And now he says all that has gone, gone with the dawn tide, to be replaced by love. Which throws him from his horse and blinds him.
Artemis. She has a breast for every shyster from here to the moon, selling his sacred trinkets. Some of the daintier ones round here insist they are not breasts at all, but the ova of the sacred bee. Well, they look like breasts to me. On her feast days, this place is Babel. Give the preacher credit where it’s due: he’s not short on courage to have gone down there to preach, with so many of her devotees hovering around, frisky as hornets. And now he’s gone again, leaving us to pick up the pieces. He who threw the first stone. In Jerusalem they laughed whenever we opened our mouths.
‘Ignorant pigs. What can they know of the law or the spirit? They can’t even speak so that anyone but a pig can understand them. Send them all back to Galilee where they belong.’
The ventriloquists of human contentment have been at their anaesthetic toils. All will be well, etc. Not here, it won’t. Anyone telling you so is a snake-oil merchant. A gargoyle disfiguring the cathedral’s sacrifice. Even though there are as yet no cathedrals. But there will be, believe me. My dreams have begun now, as the shaper predicted, and they inform me of days to come.
She has already gone to bed. I sit in the chair and do what the shaper has taught me. Concentrate so hard on a memory that I enter it, and it enters me. We are back in Samaria. The two of us. He needs a rest from crowds who sluice the sacred out of him, as though he were a wadi, rushing suddenly across a dust-dry plain. He stares up at the sky.
‘I saw Satan falling from heaven.’
‘How did he look?’
‘Like a great bird hit by lead slingshot.’
And at some point I fall asleep, and he is walking through the streets of darkness in my mind. The darkness immediately falls away.
They have brought her before him for condemnation on the Sabbath. So he can only write in dust. Anyone writing two letters together on that day would be liable to condemnation, according to the ancient law of the Rabbis. But writing in the dust, where the words cannot remain for longer than an hour – that is deemed permissible. He could also have written in water, fruit juice or soft cheese. But it is in dust that he writes. Quia pulvis est. Writes their names, these accusers, and their chief sins, which far exceed any darkness inside the weeping adulteress. They read their condemnation in the dust, one by one, and they leave, as he kicks over the traces of the script at his feet. The words of their expulsion vanish now, just as the words of her condemnation have vanished too. Into the dust; into the air. Thus law is overwhelmed at last by forgiveness. Thus did the light shine, and the dark comprehended it not, but it never overcame it either. For this is Logos, and now I understand, as if for the first time.
The day arrives with Roman trumpets, lictors and street glories. It is beribboned. Even the sky is dressed up like a dog’s dinner. Celebrating Caesar in his pomp and glory. A breakfast for ravens; ashes for the quick. What’s left over will sink and be vermiculated. Now that true dreams have started I know that I live at last in the realm of the Prolific and the Devourer. One speaks life only, and the other swallows it. In the corner a cockroach is eating a speckle of bread. That last white crumb of meaning consumed by the shiny black body. Alpha. Omega. White page black ink. By the time we arrive at the bottom of the page, he might have returned.
When my little flock turn up this day, I have something new to tell them. I recount to them the new story, the one he returned to in my dream, so as to remind me. To recapitulate. My dracophobic followers do not wish to spend eternity in the inferno that is the flaming gut of the dragon. They are avid for any news of mercy and atonement.
‘Why have you never told us this before?’
‘Perhaps the time was not right before. But now it is. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’
Stylus scratches over parchment. Then I stare hard at the scroll, even though I am not reading from it. The words have been written inside me, and are translating themselves now on to my tongue. I have been imprinted. I do not want to confuse them, these fierce and loyal friends of mine.
‘And there’s something else. Something that needs to be inserted. Please write it down.
‘In the beginning was Logos, and Logos was with God; and Logos was God. At the very beginning there with Him. All things, you see, were made by Logos and through Logos, and without Logos nothing that was made was made. Life was in it, shining, and this life was the light of all men. And the light shines in the dark, but the dark can never baffle it. We were made through Logos. So we are one with Logos. Sons of light not of darkness.’
‘Shall we put this at the end, Teacher?’
‘No. At the beginning, I think.’
THEY ALL LEAVE finally. I sit and stare through the window all night. In this dwelling-pace of intermediate spirits, hovering. Awaiting the dictation of Logos. Seeing light in the darkness out there. I stare into the polished metal and see an old man staring back at me. Grey beard. Eagle eyes. That old man is me, but not yet. Not yet.
So much is now written inside me. The plaited lines of a luminous manuscript seem to knot and then unknot their braids, as each tide swallows another mouthful of an island away in the north somewhere. Dreams are carrying me forward into time. I can read (with such ease, suddenly) their insular minuscule. Keep it so small that only a migrant preacher would even notice such words, as they scurry from holes in the rock, where the dragon’s breath can’t scorch them any more.
Dawn is pulling back the sheets. The cup of wine I poured her sits still on the wooden table. She never touched a drop. I drink it off and sit down to read what they wrote last night. Still a little space on the parchment they left behind. We’ve not reached the bottom of the page. Yet.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in January. A collection of his essays has now been published by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint.
Note: This essay has been reposted because of a technical error.
- If it is an interpolation, then the interpolator was one of genius. The story encapsulates the way Jesus constantly turns the Law around, so that those who would prosecute it, find themselves disqualified from condemnation by their own evident imperfections. ↩