Someone must have once upon a time jutted an argument against the suggestion of mob rule and it stuck. That must be why we don’t have mob rule in the U.S. I wonder what this country would look like if, for the duration of my own generation at least, instead of the current form of government (whatever you want to call it), we had allowed the people collectively to decide all matters. Individuals everywhere vote on everything; and the popular vote wins, plain and simple. Would we go down in flames?
Right in the middle of winter we’ve had a couple days of warmth. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the temperature rose above freezing, and there was not much wind; so I rode my bike to the park on each of those days. It’s the same park I’ve been visiting for the last few summers. Year after year, everything stays the same here, or gets worse. Life is a dimming repetition. Trying to enjoy the open air, the natural scenery, the great outdoors of this town, which feels not quite urban and not quite rural, is like taking one’s daily exercise in a prison yard.
And there’s no “Get Out of Life FREE” card in the deck.
So I went to the library and browsed and found a book about Jesus and tried to read that. It’s hard to read books about Jesus. (Not by but about.) You ask yourself: “Who cares?” And then you have to answer: “Everyone; yes, more than two thousand years into futurity, the entire world is still up in arms about this shit.” So you try to pretend that it matters. You try to forget all that you know, so as to consider the subject afresh. You try to clear your mind of cant. Just open the book you checked out: give it a shot. But it’s too hard. So you give up. You close the cover. You read the Bible instead.
The last time I heard a believer mention Jesus was a couple weeks ago: this woman was talking about reading the Gospel of John with her church’s scripture-study group – she couldn’t believe “how rude the Pharisees were to Jesus.” So I said: “If I were to walk into your church and speak as Jesus spoke in the temple, wouldn’t your congregation treat me the same way?” And she answered: “But you’re not God.” And I said: “If your point is that Jesus was God, how were the Pharisees supposed to know that – did Jesus glow or sport a visible halo plus wings?” And she said: “All the prophecies say that Jesus is God; the Pharisees should have known their own scripture.” And I rolled my eyes and told her just to forget it.
The Pharisees said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true.
Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true…
(That’s John 8:13-14, by the way – I cite this only to remind myself what level of zaniness we’re dealing with.) Then she said: “Wait; why did you give up just now – do you think my answer’s too pat?” And I said: “No, it’s that you refer to ‘all the prophecies’ as if they point to some clear meaning unanimously – have you even studied those ancient writings, or are you just taking your priests’ word for it all?” And, to her credit, she admitted: “No, I haven’t studied the prophets on my own.” And I said: “Although I’d never claim to have mastered those scriptures that you mention, I have at least read them, and I don’t arrive at your conclusion; but, even supposing I’ve committed a misinterpretation, there’s no way to tell where I went wrong, since you haven’t bothered to familiarize yourself with the passages that you hold so important! However, what’s worse is that I really love Jesus; it’s the apostle Paul I have a problem with.” And she said: “What do you mean – what’s wrong with Paul?” So I recited my spiel about how P’s obsession with J’s death eclipses the importance of J’s teaching. “And yet,” I added, “honestly, I’d rather simply convert to your faith, if it would save me from having to waste any more time talking about it.” And I really meant that. I shouldn’t have gotten into it. I must remember to stay away from religious discussions. Stick to politics: Federalist… Whig… Democratic-Republican…
Yes, I regret recording the above exchange; but it helps me burn the trash to write it down. And what’s done is done. Now I’ll copy two quotes from what I was reading today, and then I’ll really be done. First is an essay called “The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth” by Frederick A. Pottle, which contains an excerpt of a letter from William Wordsworth to Walter Savage Landor, dated January 21, 1824. Pottle writes:
Landor has said that he is disgusted with all books that treat of religion. Wordsworth replies that it is perhaps a bad sign in himself, but he has little relish for any other kind. “Even in poetry it is the imaginative only viz., that which is conversant [with], or turns upon infinity, that powerfully affects me—perhaps I ought to explain: I mean to say that, unless in those passages where things are lost in each other, and limits vanish, and aspirations are raised, I read with something too much like indifference.”
And having recently finished The Golden Age, I am now under Gore Vidal’s spell and craving more of his “Narratives of Empire,” so I checked out the very first book in the series: Burr. It’s named after Colonel Aaron Burr, whom the back cover’s blurb calls “perhaps the most complex and misunderstood of the Founding Fathers.” Below is a simple excerpt from the novel’s beginning – I only started it today, so this doesn’t represent its heights; just something that caught my eye, moreover it seemed vaguely to resemble the contrast between the poets’ views in the quote from the essay above. I would’ve underlined it if it weren’t the library’s copy. (Incidentally, Burr is neither the “he” nor the “I” of this particular snippet.)
He cannot exist unless he is plunged deep in some cause or quarrel. It actually matters to him that there are black slaves in the south and exploited working-men in the city. I envy him. He is never bored; lives on his nerves, hurling inky thunderbolts at those in power; all fire and aggression.
I am the opposite; drawn to the past, to what is secret; and prone to those dreams of dominion that make it possible for the dreamer to subvert with the greatest of ease class, nation, honour.
All this reminds me of the epigraph to Harold Bloom’s book The American Religion (whose subtitle I admire: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation), which was taken from the journals of Søren Kierkegaard (translated by Alexander Dru):
Even now, in 1848, it certainly looks as though politics were everything; but it will be seen that the catastrophe (the Revolution) corresponds to us and is the obverse of the Reformation: then everything pointed to a religious movement and proved to be political; now everything points to a political movement, but will become religious.
In attempting to puzzle out the difference between religion and politics, I fall to thinking childishly: politicians can be seen, whereas gods are transparent. But is it like actors versus stagehands – one goes onstage while the other remains behind the curtain? A footnote in Ahmed Ali’s translation of the Qur’an explains “Jinn means to hide, used both for invisible forces […] and nomadic tribes.” Then I think: What if the believers’ prediction proves true, and the Creator someday makes an appearance in our world? Will we be inclined to search yet deeper, for an even less visible superpower? (As Groucho refuses to join any club that would have him as a member, will mankind deny any deity that manifests physically, which is to say, vulgarly?) Or will we say: This is good: We have our answer now: This one’s a keeper. (And how long until some upstart eon grows doubtful and schisms away from our satisfaction?)