Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The writing in the dust

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Note: I’m taking some time off for the holidays, so I’m republishing a few pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 22, 2017. 

About a year ago, I found myself thinking at length about what might well be the most moving passage in the entire Bible. It’s the scene in the Gospel of John in which the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus, bring forward a woman taken in adultery and ask him if she should be stoned according to the law, only to hear him respond: “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone.” After the other onlookers drift off one by one, embarrassed, leaving just the woman behind, Jesus asks if anyone has condemned her. When she answers no, he says: “I don’t condemn you either. You’re free to go, but from now on, no more sinning.” (The story was memorably, if freely, adapted as one of the most powerful scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.) In The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar writes of the passage:

The earliest ancient manuscripts of John do not have it, and modern scholars are virtually unanimous in concluding that it was not an original part of the Fourth Gospel…An impartial evaluation of the story has been impeded by its preservation as part of the Gospel of John…The fundamental question is whether this anecdote is a fragment that survived from an otherwise unknown gospel. Had it been discovered as a separate piece of papyrus, it would have attracted serious scholarly attention in its own right.

In the end, the seminar endorses it mildly, less as a real incident than as a reflection of what we know about Jesus himself, and the companion volume The Five Gospels includes the remarkable line: “While the Fellows agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done.”

I feel the same way. But I haven’t even mentioned the one detail that has always struck me—and many other readers—the most. When the Pharisees first pose their question, Jesus doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he stoops down and silently draws on the ground with his finger. He responds only after they insist on a reply, and then he bends down to write in the dust again. It’s impossible to read this without wondering what he might have been writing, and nearly three centuries ago, the biblical commentator Matthew Henry did as good a job of summarizing the possibilities as anyone could:

It is impossible to tell, and therefore needless to ask, what he wrote; but this is the only mention made in the gospels of Christ’s writing…Some think they have a liberty of conjecture as to what he wrote here. Grotius says, It was some grave weighty saying, and that it was usual for wise men, when they were very thoughtful concerning any thing, to do so. Jerome and Ambrose suppose he wrote, Let the names of these wicked men be written in the dust. Others this, The earth accuses the earth, but the judgment is mine. Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once.

That last line seems reasonable enough, and Henry concludes: “He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider?”

And the passage, authentic or not, is also precious as one of the few everyday actions of Jesus that have been passed down to us. I’ve spoken elsewhere of a gospel of nouns and verbs, but nearly all of it occurs in Jesus’s words, not in descriptions of him preserved by others. Jesus writes on the ground; he falls asleep in a boat; he feels hungry; he breaks bread and pours wine; he weeps. There isn’t much more. Part of this reflects the fact that the gospels emerged from an oral tradition, but it also testifies to its debt to its literary predecessors. In his great book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach writes of the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac:

In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the servingmen, or the ass, should be described, that their origin or descent or material or appearance or usefulness should be set forth in terms of praise; they do not even admit an adjective: they are serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects they were, are, or will be, remains in darkness. A journey is made, because God has designated the place where the sacrifice is to be performed; but we are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days, and even that we are told in a mysterious way: Abraham and his followers rose “early in the morning” and “went unto” the place of which God had told him; on the third day he lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. That gesture is the only gesture, is indeed the only occurrence during the whole journey, of which we are told…It is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.

At first glance, this style might seem primitive compared to that of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but as Auerbach points out, its effect on its audience goes much deeper than what we find in Homer:

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels…Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

This is the tradition to which Jesus—a historical person who feels much closer to many of us than the distant, shadowy figure of Abraham—was subordinated by the author of the gospels. As a literary strategy, it was a masterstroke, and it went a long way toward enabling Jesus to strike up an existence in the inner lives of so many. (Which doesn’t mean that its virtues are obvious. Norman Mailer once said of the gospels: “Where you don’t have a wonderful sentence, what you get is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story.”) It also means, for better or worse, that Jesus can mean all things to all people. We no longer see him clearly, and he’s being used even as I write this to justify all forms of belief and behavior. My version of him is no more legitimate than that of anyone else. But I prefer to believe in the man who drew that line in the sand.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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It was no thought or word that called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect—and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage.

Wendell Berry, “Damage”

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The temple of doom

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Steven Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Note: I’m taking some time off for the holidays, so I’m republishing a few pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 27, 2017.

I think America is going through a paroxysm of rage…But I think there’s going to be a happy ending in November.

Steven Spielberg, to Sky News, July 17, 2016

Last week, in an interview with the New York Times about the twenty-fifth anniversary of Schindler’s List and the expansion of the mission of The Shoah Foundation, Steven Spielberg said of this historical moment:

I think there’s a measurable uptick in anti-Semitism, and certainly an uptick in xenophobia. The racial divide is bigger than I would ever imagine it could be in this modern era. People are voicing hate more now because there’s so many more outlets that give voice to reasonable and unreasonable opinions and demands. People in the highest places are allowing others who would never express their hatred to publicly express it. And that’s been a big change.

Spielberg, it’s fair to say, remains the most quintessentially American of all directors, despite a filmography that ranges freely between cultures and seems equally comfortable in the past and in the future. He’s often called a mythmaker, and if there’s a place where his glossy period pieces, suburban landscapes, and visionary adventures meet, it’s somewhere in the nation’s collective unconscious: its secret reveries of what it used to be, what it is, and what it might be again. Spielberg country, as Stranger Things was determined to remind us, is one of small towns and kids on bikes, but it also still vividly remembers how it beat the Nazis, and it can’t resist turning John Hammond from a calculating billionaire into a grandfatherly, harmless dreamer. No other artist of the last half century has done so much to shape how we all feel about ourselves. He took over where Walt Disney left off. But what has he really done?

To put it in the harshest possible terms, it’s worth asking whether Spielberg—whose personal politics are impeccably liberal—is responsible in part for our current predicament. He taught the New Hollywood how to make movies that force audiences to feel without asking them to think, to encourage an illusion of empathy instead of the real thing, and to create happy endings that confirm viewers in their complacency. You can’t appeal to all four quadrants, as Spielberg did to a greater extent than anyone who has ever lived, without consistently telling people exactly what they want to hear. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how film serves as an exercise ground for the emotions, bringing us closer on a regular basis to the terror, wonder, and despair that many of us would otherwise experience only rarely. It reminds the middle class of what it means to feel pain or awe. But I worry that when we discharge these feelings at the movies, it reduces our capacity to experience them in real life, or, even more insidiously, makes us think that we’re more empathetic and compassionate than we actually are. Few movies have made viewers cry as much as E.T., and few have presented a dilemma further removed than anything a real person is likely to face. (Turn E.T. into an illegal alien being sheltered from a government agency, maybe, and you’d be onto something.) Nearly every film from the first half of Spielberg’s career can be taken as a metaphor for something else. But great popular entertainment has a way of referring to nothing but itself, in a cognitive bridge to nowhere, and his images are so overwhelming that it can seem superfluous to give them any larger meaning.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws

If Spielberg had been content to be nothing but a propagandist, he would have been the greatest one who ever lived. (Hence, perhaps, his queasy fascination with the films of Leni Riefenstahl, who has affinities with Spielberg that make nonsense out of political or religious labels.) Instead, he grew into something that is much harder to define. Jaws, his second film, became the most successful movie ever made, and when he followed it up with Close Encounters, it became obvious that he was in a position with few parallels in the history of art—he occupied a central place in the culture and was also one of its most advanced craftsmen, at a younger age than Damien Chazelle is now. If you’re talented enough to assume that role and smart enough to stay there, your work will inevitably be put to uses that you never could have anticipated. It’s possible to pull clips from Spielberg’s films that make him seem like the cuddliest, most repellent reactionary imaginable, of the sort that once prompted Tony Kushner to say:

Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic…Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

Kushner, of course, later became Spielberg’s most devoted screenwriter. And the total transformation of the leading playwright of his generation is the greatest testament imaginable to this director’s uncanny power and importance.

In reality, Spielberg has always been more interesting than he had any right to be, and if his movies have been used to shake people up in the dark while numbing them in other ways, or to confirm the received notions of those who are nostalgic for an America that never existed, it’s hard to conceive of a director of his stature for whom this wouldn’t have been the case. To his credit, Spielberg clearly grasps the uniqueness of his position, and he has done what he could with it, in ways that can seem overly studied. For the last two decades, he has worked hard to challenge some of our assumptions, and at least one of his efforts, Munich, is a masterpiece. But if I’m honest, the film that I find myself thinking about the most is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It isn’t my favorite Indiana Jones movie—I’d rank it a distant third. For long stretches, it isn’t even all that good. It also trades in the kind of casual racial stereotyping that would be unthinkable today, and it isn’t any more excusable because it deliberately harks back to the conventions of an earlier era. (The fact that it’s even watchable now only indicates how much ground East and South Asians have yet to cover.) But its best scenes are so exciting, so wonderful, and so conductive to dreams that I’ve never gotten over it. Spielberg himself was never particularly pleased with the result, and if asked, he might express discomfort with some of the decisions he made. But there’s no greater tribute to his artistry, which executed that misguided project with such unthinking skill that he exhilarated us almost against his better judgment. It tells us how dangerous he might have been if he hadn’t been so deeply humane. And we should count ourselves lucky that he turned out to be as good of a man as he did, because we’d never have known if he hadn’t.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 26, 2018 at 7:30 am

The evensong

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Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another light that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are…

But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Written by nevalalee

December 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

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