Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A vision of the chariot

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Technically, you aren’t supposed to study the work of the chariot until the age of forty, but I first encountered it as a teenager, in the pages of The White Goddess by Robert Graves. At the time, I thought that this was one of the greatest books ever written, and although it’s still among my favorites, I’ve since come to regard it with a degree of ambivalence. In fact, it’s an incredibly evolved version of the sort of obsessive overinterpretation that we see among the characters in Foucault’s Pendulum, or even the novels of Dan Brown, only executed at a immeasurably higher level of sophistication. If anything, this makes me love the book all the more: it’s unsustainable as a religious or historical argument, but as an example of an unparalleled intuitive intellect exercising his talents on the whole range of poetic and mystical literature, it’s a delight, and there’s never been anything quite like it. I still think it’s a book that everyone should read, but with full awareness that it’s more like an ingenious magic trick, infinitely repeated, than a tenable work of religious history.

Not surprisingly, the parts of the book that have stuck with me most strongly are the ones that seem, at first, like sidelines to the main argument. Graves tells us, in an aside, how to untie the Gordian knot, and gives us practical solutions to the “unanswerable” questions from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial: what song the sirens sang, and what name Achilles assumed when he hid among the women. And he also deals, unforgettably, with the vision in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, in a handful of pages that have haunted me for most of my life. Ezekiel is in exile, standing by the river Chebar, when the heavens open and he has visions of God. From out of a whirlwind, he sees four winged cherubim emerge, each with the head of a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox, as well as the feet of a calf, and the wheels of a vast chariot—each “a wheel within a wheel”—that turn of their own accord. Above the chariot is the figure of a man, made of fire from the waist down. Ezekiel falls into a swoon, and out of the sky, a voice begins to speak.

The first point that needs to be made about this vision is that it was literally dangerous to its readers: the rabbinical tradition tells of students who studied the vision before they were adequately prepared, and were struck by lightning or consumed by heavenly fire. It was forbidden to be read aloud in the synagogue. Yet the very act of setting up warning signs around a text like this amounts to an invitation for certain readers to study it more closely, resulting in a vast tradition of merkabah, or chariot, mysticism designed to allow the initiate to experience a similar vision, even at the risk of madness or death. Graves, for his part, believed that the vision amounted to a religious revolution, initiated by Ezekiel, in which the cult of the mother goddess and her two consorts was replaced by that of a masculine creator set against the goddess and the devil. At least, that’s what I seem to remember—the argument here is even more convoluted than usual, although frequently spellbinding on the page.

And the story continues to fascinate me. Part of it, I suppose, is the idea of a text that can cause the death or madness of an unprepared reader, which might be taken as an extreme example of the power of secrets and the risks of incautious interpretation. As I result, I spent years trying to get it into a novel, starting with an unfinished manuscript I began in high school, and intermittently in the years since. When it came time to write City of Exiles, which also centered on questions of interpretation—and the dangers that come with its misuse—I finally had an excuse to delve into it more deeply, in the person of my character Ilya Severin, who I knew would take an interest in such things. And it wasn’t until recently, when I discovered the extraordinary book The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin, that I began to glimpse a solution that made literary and dramatic sense. Halperin’s book is very hard to find, and I wound up devouring it in one sitting, taking copious notes, in the reading room of the British Library. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how I ended up there, and why I decided to set my second novel in London.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

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