A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

World Elsewhere

Michael Godfrey, the first Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, appeared out of nowhere on the battlefield of Namur while the conflict was still raging. King William was, to harken back to older vocabulary, vexed at the sight of the civilian Godfrey and reasoned with him. His presence serviced no good purpose at all! Just as he reached the climax of his composite plea-and-demand that the banker take himself elsewhere and just as the brave banker replied that “I run no more hazard than your Majesty,” a cannon from the ramparts laid Godfrey dead at the King’s feet. This episode led to the cant phrase: “the fear of being godfreyed” (meaning not to expose oneself to needles dangers, when to do so is of no help to anyone).

Perhaps Vice Magazine should have kept in mind the phrase when they decided to do an extensive spread on female writers, their attempts and their successes in committing suicide. The article itself has now been replaced by a semi-apology. Enough to cover their ass but, practically speaking, ambiguous. Ironically, the criticism of the piece has the most pictures of it outside of the Vice print edition. Jezebel now provides us the pictures that, without their context, seem more titillating than ever. Luckily for us, however, Jezebel’s factitious criticisms (“conspicuously absent is any information about these authors’ works”) was not the only commentary. Harper’s Weekly also took up the mantle and, in practice, seems to obliquely rebut the reservations Jezebel’s caption writer had.

As writers smarter and more insightful than me have pointed out, writing about death has not only changed in quantity but also quality. Christopher Hitchens and John Updike round out an impressive list of writers. In that list I’d also include Tony Judt whose reflective Q&A book with Timothy Snyder flirts–if not actually crosses–the boundary between discussing the past and his losing struggle with LS. I have not had the time to read all of the books mentioned but after reading their descriptions I feel a slight itch. I am making my way to Seattle soon, for a brief foray into the city’s used bookstores. Perhaps, just perhaps, there will be a copy or two that will join this greedy squirrel’s collection. I can only hope.

I’ll quote the last paragraph.

Reading today’s secular literature of death one ultimately realizes that the medical language is a scrim: on the one hand, it’s purely descriptive, a way of “recording” the strange time of the hospital. But on the other hand, its foreignness is connotative. It subconsciously serves to express the author’s fundamental alienation from the fact that this is happening to his body, his wishful hope that this remain unreal even as he experiences it as total, an immersion in what Hitchens describes as living in “another country.” The dissonance here is that dying is not really like entering “another country.” As Sontag observed accurately, it is our country from birth: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” But in a world that lacks an ethics of death, as ours does, we live estranged from this deeper knowledge. Perhaps because we must.

I appreciate the article’s distinction between secular writers and those who are not. Perhaps, one day, I’ll take another look at the subject. I am sure that it has been hacked to death by graduate students pursuing their dreams. For now it is enough to highlight the contrast. The religious can always declare, with Shakespearean significance, “I banish you… There is a world elsewhere” before, in fact, leaving for this “world elsewhere.” Is it more or less confusing, then, that it is in the established religions that we find the most sustained opposition to suicide?

In pre-Christian thought there is little sustained thinking about self-destruction. Aristotle believed that he must remain and die than leave. Others, like Arendt, would later use that single scene as the basis for Western morality. But alone it hardly provides, well, anything without religious exegesis provided by the medieval monks. Others, like Zygmunt Bauman, have pointed out how modern life has made people ‘unwitting’ secular executioners… of themselves. James Tabor has looked for historical examples, in Noble Death, for those who–arguably–killed themselves for a higher purpose. In the cases where the impetus is ‘areligious’ there is little connection between their actions and their philosophy. At the end of the day it is, truly, Albert Camus who provides the best and articulate discussion of suicide. Yet, as the Harper’s Weekly article points out, it is not terribly articulate. It is a giant ‘well, fuck you!’ to the universe. It seems a rather droll contemporary to Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘so it goes.’

More importantly, for all the talk of suicide in modern thought is it not a little suspect at the lack of a straightforward contemplation of suicide in secular literature? Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday perhaps fit the bill but it nevertheless remains that ultimate taboo subject. We can talk about, well, dying itself but somehow the means of suicide seems a bit too peculiar for polite conversation. Or, for that matter, any conversation at all.