Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World

In the last post (March 25) I made reference to this 1999 work by my friend Patrick Henry.  Previously I did a series of posts on Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (Sept. 2013 – June 2014), by turns admiring, questioning, and protesting his work.  My biggest beef with Dennett is his lack of appreciation for the power of imagination, symbolic truth, and what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”

Although it was published seven years earlier, Henry’s book is the best answer I’ve read, from a Christian perspective, to Dennett’s often arrogant atheism.

The word “ironic” refers to some kind of discrepancy in language, in experience or in thought.  An “ironic” statement may mean the opposite of what it says.  (Sarcasm is a type of linguistic irony with an edge of hostility.)  An “ironic” situation involves a confluence of events that don’t seem to go together, with sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, effect.  An “ironic” thought, similarly, brings together ideas that one would not normally expect to coincide.

Openness to, even appreciation for, the unexpected is central to Henry’s version of Christianity.

Whereas Dennett dismisses anything that does not pass a verifiable scientific or demonstrably rational test as delusion and insists on the most literal, fundamentalist understanding of religion, Henry locates his faith in the unverifiable, indemonstrable, dizzying realm of uncertainty, and understands religion in figurative, symbolic, imaginative terms.

The sub-title of his book offers a clue as to what the reader is in for.  It is not a “treatise” or “study,” but a field guide, like Petersen’s field guide to wild birds.  The phrase “finding the marks of God’s grace in the world” even has a poetic rhythm to it.  This will not be a “defense” of or “argument” for religion.  Instead, we are invited on an experiential field trip into the wilderness of faith, a wilderness with as many hazards as beautiful birds and scenery, where there is as much danger of getting lost as promise of being saved.

Furthermore, while this field trip has a beginning, middle, and an end, don’t expect them to occur in that order.  Thus, while there is progression in the overall structure from the felt sense of uncertainty to the equally felt sense of Christian faith, this field guide wanders by a kind of association from the uncertainty of “little brown jobs” (birds that cannot be identified), through cosmic time and space, unexpected calls to attention, Keats’ concept of “negative capability,” human connections and interdependence, post-modernist decentering, the non-linearity of grace and faith, to trust in the universe. 

The “ironic Christian” is an uncertain, independent, imaginative, and ecumenical thinker, as well as believer.

Patrick Henry is a religious scholar who taught at Swarthmore College for 17 years.  Most recently he served as executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, MN.  A thoroughgoing academic, he is able to cite theological, scientific, philosophical, psychological, and sociological sources with proficiency; however, his style is personal, down-to-earth, and emotionally appealing, lending itself not only to esoteric Biblical and literary references but also to popular culture, including such children’s literature as Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Seuss.

In an age in which Christianity has come to be dominated by the literal, fundamentalist, narrow, evangelical, conservative brand, Henry seeks to break Christianity open in order to broaden its reach and enlarge its appeal—to save faith by testing it.  In the process, he opens Christianity wide enough to let non-Christians in.

“Once upon a time,” he writes, “the term ‘Christian’ meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around.  But these days ‘Christian’ sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow.  Many people who identify themselves, as Christians seem to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure.  When “Christian” appears in a headline, the story will probably be about lines drawn, not about boundaries expanded.” (p. 8)

The final message of the book is the same for both conservative Christians and atheists alike:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”  (Hamlet, Act I, scene 5, ll. 167-8)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Eisenheim the Illusionist"

I was so fascinated by the 2006 film The Illusionist ( that I read “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” a short story by Steven Millhauser (, on which the film is based.  Little did I know that this innocent act would lead me down a rabbit-hole of philosophy, art, literature, history, politics, and religion.  Anyone who has read much of this blog knows, of course, that all those topics are irresistible to me and are probably not be surprised.

In the film, I was struck by the way the story dramatizes the ancient saying that “All may not be as it seems,” not only in a magic show but also in real life.  Deception is at the heart of the illusionist’s craft and, in the film, deception is at the heart of a whole plot line that does not appear in the original.  Turns out that plotline is based on a historical event, which was itself and perhaps still is as mysterious as it is factual, but more of that later.

In any case, the proverbial philosophical debate over art vs. life, illusion vs. reality, and appearance vs. truth is thrown into sharp relief.  In the original story, there is more suggestion of the supernatural, at least in the minds of Eisenheim’s audiences and perhaps in that of the police inspector, who attempts to arrest the magician for “crossing of boundaries,” disturbing “the essence of things,” “shaking the foundations of the universe,“ and “undermining reality.”  When Eisenheim disappears it is “the faithful” who know “that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.”  Perhaps that “realm” is that of art and myth, perhaps of something even more timeless and “indestructible.”

In the film Eisenheim’s art is inextricably bound up with his life, indeed the love of his life.  He fashions a necklace for her with a trick chamber that later becomes evidence in her apparent murder, and, of course, the whole story of her murder is an artfully designed deception, which entraps her abusive fiancĂ© (who also happens to be the Crown Prince) and enables the lovers to be reunited.  “All may not be as it seems.”  What seems real may be as illusory as a magician’s trick, and, likewise, the illusion is crafted with the materials of real life. 

When the police inspector realizes the trick and the scales fall from his eyes, I was reminded of that moment in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady when Isabel sees her husband in a particular pose with Madame Merle and immediately knows all that has been hidden from her in their relationship.  And that moment in Melville’s Benito Cereno when “across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept, illuminating in unanticipated clearness his host’s whole mysterious demeanor, with every enigmatic event of the day….” All may not be as it seems.

In Millhauser’s original story, I was reminded of Hawthorne’s oft-used device of “multiple choice” or “alternative explanation” (Washington Irving used it first but for purposes of mockery rather than speculation.).  Some spectators say that when Dimmesdale pulled back his shirt a scarlet letter clearly appeared etched on his breast; others claim to have seen no such thing, affirming that his flesh was as bare as that of a “new-born” infant.  Do we see what we want to see or do we see what is truly there?  In “Eisenheim the Illusionist” there are various theories to explain why “all may not be as it seems,” ranging from ingenious practical, perfectly natural methods of deception to more supernatural theories, such that he had “sold his soul to the devil for the dark gift of magic.” 

This theme of illusion vs. reality is prominent also in The Goldfinch (see Oct. 2014 blog post), in which reality is permeated with illusion and every illusion is created out of factual material.  The painting of the title is a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion in which art objects are made to appear like real life.  The main character of that novel comes to believe that “there’s no truth beyond illusion.  Because, between ‘reality’ on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”  We might add, perhaps, it is that space where religion also exists, but more of that later. 

“Stories,” states the narrator of “Eisenheim,” “like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams…”

So, what about history in this rabbit hole of illusion and reality?

Both the film and the short story take place in Austria at the end of the 19th century when magic shows were all the rage.  The Eisenheim character may be based on Robert Houdin, from whom the 20th century Houdini took his name.  At this same time in Austria the Hapsburg dynasty was withering on its vine.  Could that be part of the police inspector’s anxiety over Eisenheim’s increasingly supernatural-seeming illusions?  “For where would the Empire be, once the idea of boundaries became blurred and uncertain?”  Is the decaying Hapsburg Empire the “crumbling order of history” from which Eisenheim escapes?

One of Eisenheim’s illusions is the ghostly appearance of a young woman named Greta.  Among the speculations is that Greta “was really Marie Vetsera, who had died with Crown Prince Rudolph in the bedroom of his hunting lodge at Mayerling.”  There are other speculations, but the Mayerling Incident (, as it came to be called, may be the basis of the murder-suicide plot in the film.  To this day, the historical murder-suicide in Mayerling is shrouded in mystery.  All may not be as it seems.

Another political (and mythic) allusion should also be noted since Eisenheim is Jewish.  The anti-Semitism of the day may have fed the speculation that he had made a pact with the devil.  One commentator has suggested that Eisenheim’s disappearance into “the indestructible realm of mystery and dream” aligns him with the myth of the Wandering Jew (

Which brings us to the “boundary” between history and myth.  Is “official history “all that it seems?  To what extent is it suffused with illusion and myth, just as myth and legend may have a basis or origin in factual history, not to mention in symbolic truth?  To what extent are knowledge and imagination intertwined with one another? 

 “Stories,” states the narrator of “Eisenheim,” “like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams…”

Could that also be the case with religion?  To what extent do the “facts” of history become transformed into the mythic fears and aspirations of human dreams?  To what extent is life bound up with art, reality with illusion?  And to what extent does the blurring of these boundaries create anxiety and tension such as that which led to the inspector’s attempt to police those boundaries by arresting Eisenheim?  To what extent does our uncertainty over truth lead us to police those boundaries ourselves by insisting on reality over illusion if we are atheistic materialists or illusion over reality if we are religious supernaturalists?  And to what extent do such rigid boundaries result in the truth escaping us, just as Eisenheim himself disappeared.

Well, as often happens with rabbit holes, we may have wandered too far from the texts under discussion.  By coincidence, as I was working on this blog post I was also reading The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World ( by my friend Patrick Henry.  In the following passage Patrick is referencing the disorienting effect of theories in modern astrophysics:

“The more I read about cosmology…the more I am persuaded that Lewis Carroll is the most faithful guide to the world we live in.  As Alice remarks, things get “curiouser and curioser,” less and less commonsensical.  Every new discovery takes us down the hole to Wonderland once more.” 

In science, in religion, in life, in art, in reality, and in illusion, the rabbit hole may lead us where we least expect:  “All may not be as it seems.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Girl on the Train

A potboiler is a work created for entertainment primarily to make money, not for artistic purposes.  But, of course, even the cheapest forms of entertainment require some artistry and, I would argue, often embody or represent a serious purpose.  Popular works can tell us something about the public psyche at the time and may even raise serious social and/or philosophical issues.

The detective story, for example, came of age in the 19th century at a time when there was public anxiety and philosophical inquiry concerning human nature.  Are we primarily rational beings, or are we fundamentally irrational creatures with a thin veneer of rational appearance masking our underlying penchant for hostility, aggression, violence, sex, and power?  Gothic fiction of the 18th century could be viewed as an expression of social anxiety over, not only irrational human nature, but also destructive forces in the universe beyond our control.  The detective story serves to reassure us that the use of our rational powers can overcome those forces and restore order to our world.

Most detective stories begin with ordinary, familiar, seemingly innocent reality.  The crime, usually of a violent nature, usually murder (because death is our greatest anxiety), disrupts the rational order, creating a sense of chaos, confusion, and fear, not to mention mystery.  It takes the careful, methodical, reasoned calculation of the controlled and rational detective to solve the mystery and restore order.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins offers a variation on this pattern that undermines our faith in rationality as the means to truth and order, suggesting that the irrational can actually lead us to a restoration of rational order.

It begins, as the detective story (and gothic tale) usually does, with familiar reality.  What could be more ordinary than a young woman on a commuter train passing by the back side of suburban houses on her daily route?  As we get to know this young woman, however, with each layer that is peeled back, we discover less and less rationality and less and less order.  The sense of irrational disorder is well established before the crime occurs.

In this case the official police investigators of the crime, using their methods rational analysis are not very successful.  The successful “detective,” who solves the crime, is considered an “unreliable witness” by the police. 

Her involvement in solving the crime is motivated by her desire to recover her lost memory of something that occurred near the time and place of the crime, but also by her own personal obsessions, fantasies, and generally disordered psychology.

She solves the crime more or less by hit-or-miss accident based on her gradually emerging but hazy memories, rather than logical calculated analysis.

Most detective stories affirm reason and rationality, but this one seems to affirm the role of irrational processes; the official detectives in the case fail to solve the crime, while the irrational “unreliable witness” succeeds.

Most detective stories reassure us that the power of rational order can overcome the irrational, but in this case, we are left with no such reassurance; irrationality is pitted against irrationality and it is through confusion, fantasy, obsession, and disordered thinking/behavior that some semblance of rational order is restored.

Parallel to the detective story is a recovery narrative in which the “detective” moves from emotional instability to health during the process of solving the crime.  Recovery of her lost memories leads to recovery of her health as well as the solution to the crime.  And just as the process of solving the crime is messy, disorderly, and irrational, so is the process of recovery.

The effect is to suggest that the irrational has the power to lead us to truth and healing as much or more than the rational.

We tend to associate reason and rationality with truth and goodness, whereas we associate the irrational with our worst emotional excesses, destructive urges, and false beliefs about reality.  The Girl on the Train reminds us that human reason has its limits.  Not only is it subject to fallacies, it may not see far enough.  It may dismiss out of hand the positive power of emotional energy, imagination, hunches, even dreams, and thereby miss the whole story.

This is not to say that reason and emotion cannot work together but that one may not necessarily be superior to the other.

Philosophy and psychology aside, The Girl on the Train is a well-crafted, suspenseful page-turner with plenty of personal drama thrown in for good measure, just like a good potboiler should be.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Desert Places"

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

It’s amazing how you can read something multiple times, then come back to it and discover something new.  I’ve often read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” and admired it for the way it moves from an ordinary winter scene to the vastness of outer space to the familiarity of inner space.  Recently I studied it more closely and found more to appreciate. 

First, let’s note that this “nature” poem is not of the uplifting or sentimental variety.  Instead we get a stark image of human isolation and loneliness in the midst of a desolate scene in which nature is blank and expressionless.  It is striking that this northern winter image is compared to a southern “desert,” but this is but one in a series of striking contrasts.

We have white “snow” and dark “night,” both “falling fast”; “smooth” snow cover with “weeds and stubble” poking through; natural desolation and human “loneliness”; “blanker whiteness” and “benighted snow”; earthly isolation and the emptiness “between stars”; external and internal absence.  The contrasts create a psychic drama as the speaker realizes, not only his own insignificance in the vastness of nature, but also that of the human species on its lonely planet.

This existential image of human isolation is conveyed in Frost’s characteristically familiar style.  The predominately iambic meter, interlocking rhyme scheme, plain diction, sentence fragments, and use of dashes, all make the poem sound conversational, while the occasional irregularity of rhythm, reversal of word order and the use of words like “absent-spirited” and “benighted” offer a slight elevation of style.  The whole is rendered as an ordinary experience that is accompanied by an extra-ordinary shock of recognition.

The winter scene is personified as lonely in stanza two but realistically depicted in stanza three as inanimate, having “nothing to express.”  The emptiness “between planets” is associated with the emptiness of a “desert,” as both of those images, like the winter scene itself, serve as metaphors for psychic absence.  Ironically, this message of disconnection is belied by the speaker’s ability to identify with the external world and the reader’s ability to identify with the speaker. 

A poem about disconnection relies on connecting with disconnection.  The comparative devices of personification and metaphor are used to create a sense of isolation and contrast.  Earthly winter, the human individual, unearthly space, and the earthly desert are all connected by their shared disconnection.  At the heart of human experience is this unavoidable contradiction between alienation (absence) and interconnected relationship (presence).  We are connected in our isolation.

From a socio/political perspective the poem serves to elevate individualism over collectivism, yet it could be read as disrupting this false binary, suggesting that our ability to identify with and relate to what is external to us transcends our isolation and makes social relationships possible, indeed, perhaps redemptive.  As Bertrand Russell wrote, “In human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that” (Autobiography Vol 1, pp. 219-221).

Viewed from a mythic perspective, the poem may suggest the Fall, death, loss, even apocalypse, but again, as spring is foreshadowed in the winter solstice, so redemption, rebirth, recovery, and resurrection are foreshadowed in the mythic cycle of eternal return. 

All of this may seem to take us far afield from the original poem, but, as we connect with that poem about loneliness, we transcend our individualism; as we identify with human emptiness, we transcend our isolation.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Readings in Civil Disobedience

Having grown up during the Civil Rights movement; read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” as well as Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo in college; participated in the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era; and studied Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government for my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, I thought I knew something about civil disobedience. 

In recent years, however, I’ve witnessed a couple of protests that made me question what I understood about civil disobedience.  Most recently, I was led to conduct a little research and reread some of those classic works.

It is debated whether Socrates actually committed civil disobedience, that is, deliberately broke the law.  However, in the Apology he states that even if the charges against him were dropped he would continue to practice his philosophical teaching, acting as a kind of “gadfly” to the state. When offered the opportunity to reduce his sentence from death to a fine, he suggests such a paltry amount that the judges dismiss it and pronounce the death sentence.  When, in the Crito, he is offered a chance to escape prison, he rejects the offer and argues on behalf of respect for the laws and the courts.  Perhaps it is because he takes the position of accepting the ruling of the state, even though he believes he is innocent, that we associate him with civil disobedience.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “civil disobedience” (15th edition),  “…by submitting to punishment, the civil disobedient hopes to set a moral example that will provoke the majority or the government into effecting meaningful change.”

Perhaps, by accepting his punishment Socrates hopes to set that moral example that will expose the state’s unjust use of its power.  I can’t help but be reminded of A Lesson Before Dying (see July, 2014, blog post), in which Jefferson, who is unjustly convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, but who emerges as “the bravest man in the room” at his own execution.  By submitting to his unjust punishment with courage and dignity, Jefferson shames his white oppressors and confronts them with their own moral weakness.

Both Henry David Thoreau (see Oct.-Nov., 2010, blog posts) and Martin Luther King, Jr., make a distinction between a just law and an unjust law, appealing to a higher moral authority, individual conscience for Thoreau and God’s law for King.  They argue for the duty to disobey an unjust law.  In both cases, they advocated for going to jail rather than obeying an unjust law.  And in both cases they did go to jail, hoping to set a moral example for others. 

When Emerson visited Thoreau in jail, the story goes, he asked, “Henry, what are you doing in here?”  And Thoreau retorted, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?” The implication being that jail was the more moral place to be.  

And nowhere in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” does King argue that he should not have been jailed.  He argues for the use of non-violent direct action to challenge unjust laws by disobeying them.  By submitting to his punishment, he held the higher moral ground in the face of those who upheld the unjust laws.

Here we must make a distinction between direct and indirect civil disobedience.  In the former, as in the case of civil rights activists who deliberately broke the Jim Crow laws of segregation, disobeying those laws directly challenges their justice.  In the latter, as in the case of protesters who block traffic or break trespassing laws in order to march or demonstrate, disobeying those ancillary laws provides an opportunity to protest some injustice that is much greater than their own flouting of less important laws.

King and his followers used both methods, and suffered, not only jail, but also brutal attacks from law enforcement.  As shown in the contemporary film Selma, by using non-violence and submitting to the consequences of their actions, they held the higher moral ground and exposed their white oppressors’ total lack of moral credibility and standing.

King was inspired, not only by Thoreau, but also by Mahatma Ghandi, who developed the theory of “satyagraha,” literally meaning “devotion to truth,” but representing a method of political protest which invites suffering rather than inflicting it, thereby exposing the brutality and injustice of the dominant power.

As Gandhi himself stated, “I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.(

Other examples could be cited: the American suffragettes who were jailed and force fed for protesting the denial of women’s right to vote (see the film Iron Jawed Angels), Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid in South Africa (See the recent film Mandela), are just two examples.  (See more examples:

Though I’ve participated in protests, I’ve never had the moral courage to risk arrest or police brutality.  I have great admiration for those who have demonstrated such courage and passion for their cause.

But on two occasions in recent years, I’ve witnessed cases of so-called civil disobedience that have left me scratching my head.  In both cases, the protesters demanded that they not be arrested or charged.  In both cases, the protestors were warned that their actions were illegal and that they would be subject to arrest.  In both cases they knowingly broke the law.

Both cases were examples of indirect civil disobedience, though, I have to say, I’m not entirely clear if the protesters were arguing that the laws they broke (trespassing and protesting on private property) were unjust.  And, if that’s the case, I’m not clear if they would argue the laws were unjust in general or just in the case of their protest.  Perhaps they were demanding that law enforcement and the court system recognize the justice of their cause and give them a pass. 

This would seem to be a new strategy in the use of civil disobedience, a strategy of moral persuasion that calls for no serious sacrifice on the part of the protesters.  But it would seem to ask the state to apply the law selectively, that is, if the state agrees with your cause, then you will not be prosecuted, but if it doesn’t agree with your cause, you will be prosecuted?  Would those using this strategy approve if the state failed to prosecute others who were protesting on behalf of a cause they didn’t agree with?  Like I said, I’m scratching my head.

In any case, traditionally civil disobedients have derived their moral credibility from their willingness to put the law to the test, risk arrest or worse, suffer the consequences, and thereby challenge the justice of the state from a high moral ground.   Which leads me to ask from where the protesters who demand that they not be charged derive their moral credibility.  Is it enough to assert the justice of their cause?  Would they consider it enough if a group they disagreed with simply asserted the justice of their cause?

Let’s say a group of anti-abortion protesters deliberately violates the buffer zone outside an abortion clinic and invades the personal space of a client.  Would it be enough for them to assert the justice of their cause in claiming they should not be arrested?  If so, would those same protesters support the pro-choice protesters who make the same claim while deliberately trespassing or blocking traffic?

Perhaps the idea of suffering on behalf of your cause is out of date.  Perhaps in our modern “first world,” it is too much to expect civil disobedients to accept the legal consequences of their actions.  Perhaps there is a new, more modern theory of civil disobedience that now supersedes those of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King.  How do civil disobedients who demand that they not be charged justify their demand?  How do they establish their moral standing?

I’m genuinely confused here, folks.  Help me out.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Winter's Tale

Winter came early to Minnesota in 2014.  November was as cold as January and February usually are.  I found my thoughts drifting to Shakespeare’s romance, with its theme of human failure and wrongdoing balanced with that of redemptive promise, just as the death of nature in winter is offset by the return of the sun to our northern hemisphere at the time of the solstice.

The play reminds us that we are in mythic territory with its title.  This is a “tale,” an old-fashioned story of wondrous events, not a realistic narrative.  By the time of Act V, bystanders characterize the events that have unfolded as “so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” and yet it is all “true.”  And when, like Pygmalion’s statue, Hermione returns to life, we are reminded how art and love can foil nature and death and preserve truth. 

The Winter’s Tale is not for the literal-minded or the hard-hearted.  It requires appreciation for the truth of imagination and for the power of human love.

Paradoxically, however, at the beginning of the play it is the dark side of imagination and love that rears its ugly head.  King Leontes’ love for Hermione is polluted by jealousy as, on the flimsiest of evidence, his imagination feeds his fear that she has been unfaithful to him with his best friend, King Polixenes.  The words “affection” and “infection” recur to suggest how the heart’s affection can be contaminated.  He plots to have his friend murdered and, interpreting Polixenes’ escape as an admission of guilt, he accuses his pregnant wife of carrying his friend’s child.  When the child is born Leontes orders that she be taken away and abandoned to die. 

An oracle brings news that Hermione is innocent, but Leontes is so sick with infection that he refuses to believe it and condemns her to prison.  The contagion spreads as their son, Mamillius (who seems to foreshadow his own death when he states, “A sad tale’s best for winter.”), dies of a disease brought on by the false accusations against his mother, and then Hermione’s death from grief is reported.  These tragic losses finally bring Leontes to his senses and he vows to spend the rest of his life in penance. 

Meanwhile, the child, Perdita (meaning “lost”) is abandoned on the coast of Polixenes’ country.  The servant wants to save her, but a storm wrecks his ship; then he is chased and killed by a bear.  Having arrived at the nadir of tragedy, like the darkest night of the year, we reach a turning point, just as we do at the winter solstice.  Fortune shines and Perdita is rescued by a shepherd, who takes her home to raise as his own.

Sixteen years later Polixenes’ son has fallen in love with Perdita and, in a spring pastoral scene, the two are about to be betrothed.  The plot nearly turns tragic again, as Polixenes, watching in disguise with the servant who had helped him escape Leontes’ murder plot, suddenly reveals himself, threatens Perdita and her adopted father and orders his son, Florizel, never to see her again.  Once more the servant Camillo intervenes, helping Florizel and Perdita, along with her adopted father and brother, to escape.  They arrive in Leontes’ country, where they are welcomed by the King, who is still in mourning.  Polixenes and Camillo arrive soon after, true identities are revealed, forgiveness is asked for and received, father and daughter are reunited, and friends are reconciled. 

In the final scene of redemption, Leontes, Polixenes, Florizel, Perdita, and Camillo go to the home of Hermione’s servant, Paulina, to view a statue of Hermione.  Leontes is upset to see it, but then the statue comes to life; Hermione steps down; husband, wife, and daughter are reunited in forgiveness and love; Perdita and Florizel are finally betrothed; and everyone celebrates the miraculous happy ending. 

There are hints in the text that Paulina has kept Hermione in hiding all this time, but some prefer to read it as the supernatural event of an “old tale,” just as ancient people found something supernatural in the return of the sun at the winter solstice.

In either case, some have read the play as a Christian allegory of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and salvation, whereas others have viewed it in more universal mythic terms of death and rebirth.  And in fact, the text makes more pagan than Christian references.

It is well to note, though, that the death of Mamillius remains unredeemed.  Miracles, salvation, and rebith, it seems, have their limits; nature and human nature retain their imperfection; death and human wrongdoing endure.

Another theme of the play is that of nature vs. art.  While nature, including human nature, is “fallen,” human art has the power of redemption.  Most obviously, Hermione appears at the end of the play as a “statue” inside a chapel that is also an art gallery.  Even if we don’t read this literally, it is Paulina’s artfulness that has kept Hermione in hiding until the appropriate time, and it is her report of Hermione’s death that serves as the final blow that brings Leontes to a sense of his guilt and to his self-imposed penance, itself a form of human art.

The forgoing traditional reading of the play is to be expected from an “old tale,” but contemporary literary theory would look for its historical or political significance.  It can be found in the way that structural social power is wielded, and the way it is reinforced by the text. 

Leontes’ human folly is, perhaps, no worse than the average man, but, because he is king, it has much worse consequences: the death of his son, the abandonment and near death of his daughter, and what amounts to a kind of exile of his wife (assuming a non-supernatural reading).  Similarly, because Polixenes is king and head of his household, he can threaten a shepherd’s family and overrule his son’s marriage choice. 

Perhaps also because Leontes, as king, can wreck more havoc than the average man, he must suffer more punishment and undergo a longer penance.  However, in the end the social structure seems to be redeemed along with the personal lives of the characters.  Leontes has paid a price, but he is still king and structurally capable of wrecking more havoc, though one hopes he has grown in maturity and wisdom.  Likewise, while Florizel finally receives the blessing of his father in his choice of a shepherd’s daughter as his wife, it turns out that “daughter” is a king’s daughter after all.  The social structure remains intact.

One way in which the play undermines aristocratic superiority is found in the characters of the servants, Camillo and Paulina, both of who surpass their masters in wisdom and integrity.  Perhaps there is more ambiguity regarding social class than is immediately apparent.

While modern readers may reject the reinforcement of aristocratic social arrangement that does exist in the play, one hopes our own imaginative artfulness and human sympathy can enable us to transcend history and politics long enough to appreciate the universal message of both human weakness and human capacity for redemption.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Devil in Massachusetts

Marion Starkey’s 1949 study of the Salem witchcraft trials bears revisiting in light of the recent public hysteria over Ebola.

We like to flatter ourselves that we have progressed beyond the kind of mass delusion based on superstition, fantasy, and fear that resulted in the deaths of twenty innocent people in 1692.  And, indeed, it is hard to imagine a repeat of those events occurring in 21st century America.  However, Arthur Miller, in The Crucible, found them a salient analogy to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, and we could cite any number of examples in recent history of persecution based on fears surrounding race, religion, gender, and homosexuality.

The Ebola scare, originating in West Africa, obviously has a racial component.  Would it be so scary, would we react the same if it had originated in Northern Europe?

In 1692 there were those who claimed the devil was attacking the spread of Christianity into the so-called “New World” by unleashing bands of witches on the God-loving people of Salem.  Irrational fears of the native “heathens,” not to mention the “voodoo” practices of the slave, Tituba, from Barbados, fed this religious fantasy.

In addition to documenting the seeds of the Salem events in the Parris household and the spread of hysteria through the village and into the courtroom, Starkey uses modern psychological theory to argue that the good people of Salem suffered from a kind of mass projection of guilt over their own “sins” onto certain individuals who were feared or disliked. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, in “Young Goodman Brown” and The Scarlet Letter (see post 10/24/12), had earlier dramatized the same phenomenon without the aid of modern psychology.

In the current Ebola scare, we project our fear and sense of vulnerability, not only onto the victims of the disease, but also onto anyone who had contact with them or who even looks like them.  We almost perversely ignore the medical and scientific facts of how the disease is spread in favor of our worst fears.

This contemporary scapegoating suggests that the 322 years between 1692 and 2014 may be shorter than we like to think.