“Primordial Bounds”

“Primordial Bounds”

Animating forces danced in the abyss
From cosmic clouds did Helios arise
Upon the sands of Gaia shining bright
Warming seas to hold her in embrace
Effervescent stirrings in the depths below
From whence primordial bounds emerged
Tendril seeds could then begin to grow
Entropic channels out of chaos born
Spreading far and wide, were favored so
The spark of life ignited, on it goes
Destined imperfections bringing forth
Beauty and a mass of creatures flow

Senses born, interpretations formed
Rosetta stone with energetic tone
Neuronal trees to carve the world of one
Integrated symphony, the source of all divinity
Then the eye began to gaze within
Branches twisted, turned, and formed the self
Archetypal images and dreams to undergo
Ego and unconsciousness, a battle for the soul
Psyches feeding culture with the food of all the gods
Imagination, future selves, to suffer and rejoice
Cogitation flowing, individuation growing
‘Til cybernetic unity subsumes the human story

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“Whispering of the Gods”

Here’s a poem I wrote expressing some of my more recent views as a self-ascribed religious atheist.

“Whispering of the Gods”

Does God exist? Well, that depends
If God be but the transcendent
An ideal mode of dasein
Futures gained through inhibition
Sacrificing now for later
That which we aspire to be
Selves not yet realized, held up high
If so, then yes, God does exist

Ever since we ate from the tree
Gaining knowledge of right and wrong
A sense of self that suffers true
Knowing that others feel it too
Grief and joy for one and for all
What hurts me can hurt another
So now we act accordingly
Behold our sense, morality

Good and evil, forces that be
Aiding our goals or hind’ring them
Powers of awe, of life and death
An impetus until the end
Love and hate, powerful pathos
Possessed by what’s beyond oneself
The gods of old encompass minds
Fractured selves and multiple drives

And what is the soul exactly?
Phenomenological truth!
Identity transcending time
Continuity of the self
Personified as if divine
The powers of the conscious mind
And feeling that free will is mine
Internal struggles unified

Karma is as real as can be
The positive building bridges
The negative burning them down
A self fulfilling prophecy
Circles of friends who lend a hand
Because you were benevolent
Circles of foes who cut you off
Because you were malevolent

Many religions and their myths
Have accumulated wisdom
Far from perfect, yet impressive
Nevertheless, containing truths
We ought to respect what has worked
And yet overcome what has not
We mustn’t throw the baby out
Despite with impure waters bathed

Heaven and hell, they do exist
Within our minds and in our lives
Existential predicament
The life you lead is infinite
Imagining a better world
And striving just to make it so
Integrate the psyche’s shadow
To slay the dragons, out and in

The Norse Gods as an Anthropomorphism

Although I’m fascinated with much of mythology, Scandinavian myths interest me in particular since they’re the only ones I’ve studied with any kind of depth.  Scandinavian mythology, like many other mythologies, is abound with a plethora of gods, each having their own share of attributes often encompassing both the lighter and darker sides of our human nature.  The Scandinavian (or Norse) gods are clearly motivated to behave in ways that are expedient for themselves, and in that sense, they could even be seen as inherently selfish or self-centered.  But in general, they should not be mistakenly characterized as moral or immoral, good or bad, or in any way possessing authentic human qualities or moral systems, as such a characterization would be overly simplistic and ignores their overarching modus operandi of expedience.

Nevertheless, we can plausibly recognize a number of human-like personality traits throughout the Eddas, i.e. The Poems of the Elder Edda (hereafter referred to as “PE”) and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (hereafter referred to as “Prose”), where the gods at least appear to possess some human qualities including bravery, cowardice, wisdom, stupidity, kindness, cruelty, jealousy, lust, and in some ways even possessing love or care for one another. I’d like to highlight some of these anthropomorphic characteristics as they appear to the reader by examining the interplay between the gods from a modern perspective (in terms of how they appear to behave) and also by examining the explicit claims of the gods themselves (how the gods describe one another using these human attributes and their respective nomenclature).  If you haven’t yet read the Eddas, then I recommend doing so before reading this post, as I’m going to be referencing these texts quite a bit.  On the other hand, if you have a general understanding of these myths, even without having read these texts in their entirety, then hopefully this post is up your alley.

The gods seem to have a somewhat dynamic relationship history (though actual timelines are generally incoherent in Scandinavian mythology) where they have experienced states of cooperation and opposition either within or between the two groups of gods (i.e. the Vanir and the Aesir). We mustn’t forget how the Aesir and the Vanir were once at war with one another, due to the fact that the Vanir wanted to secure for themselves equal rights of worship, which eventually resulted in a peaceful truce in order to avoid further losses from the power of Vanir magic (Prose, p. 100; PE, p. 2). This is a good example of the gods fighting one another, perhaps motivated by a form of jealousy over who is to be praised, but then is subsequently followed by reconciliation and cooperation which seems to hold true from that point forward (with a few exceptions to occur during Ragnarok).

Throughout Locasenna (PE, pp. 72-85), there are a number of instances of cruelty with an occasional instance of kindness between some of the gods. In particular, we have Loki, one of the Aesir, who insults fellow members of his tribe of gods, namely Eldir, Bragi, Idun, Gefjon, Odin, Frigg, Tyr, Byggvir, Heimdall, Skadi, Sif, Beyla, and Thor, and who also insults the Vanir gods, namely Freyja, Njord, and Frey. Throughout this “game of dozens”, as mutually insolent as it was, there were nevertheless a couple examples of apparent kindness and allusions to kind gestures of times past, for instance Loki reminding Odin that he once promised not to have any ale poured unless it was brought for both he and Loki (PE, p. 74). Shortly after this reference, Idun is insulted by Loki but rather than stooping to Loki’s level with a return of insults like that which most of the other gods take part in, she remains kind toward Loki and says that she will not speak spiteful words to him (PE, p. 75). Frigg also tries to keep the peace during this altercation by asking them both to forgive and forget (PE, p. 76). Lastly, we have Byggvir who said he was proud and happy to be where all of Hropt’s (Odin’s) sons all drink ale together – a final example in this story of perceived fellowship and mutual kindness between many of the gods during these feasts (PE, p. 79).

There are also a couple of other apparent acts of kindness in Thrymskvitha, where we hear about Thor trying to get his hammer (Mjollnir) back from the giant Thrym. One such example, indeed a quite simple gesture of kindness, is when Thor asks Freyja if she would lend her feather coat to Loki, so he could fly to help him find his hammer and she said she would gladly give it to him even if it were made of gold or silver (PE, p. 85). Then of course, throughout this adventure, Loki – however out of character he may seem – helps Thor in a number of ways so that he can achieve his goal, and he does this despite our knowing that he is certainly capable of refusing such a gesture given all of his previous shenanigans (PE, pp. 85-88).

Though relatively rare in these stories, there are also a couple of references to loving and caring for one another. For example, when the goddess Freyja is described as being married to Oth, it is also mentioned that she weeped for him when he went on his long journeys, implying that she must have loved and cared for her husband very much (Prose, p. 59). Another form of love stemming from the gods is that of their effects on others, for example the goddess Sjofn is described as being concerned with turning the minds of people towards love, and the goddess Lofn who serves to overrule otherwise prohibited marriages between men and women (Prose, p. 59). On the surface at least, these latter examples would appear to rely on both Sjofn and Lofn having a loving nature of their own.

A far better example, and perhaps the best example of love and caring can be found within the story concerning the death of Balder (Prose, pp. 81-82; PE, pp. 4 and 242). In this story we hear about Balder’s prophetic dream that he would be killed by some future threat, whereupon the gods assembled to find out more about Balder’s life threatening dreams and then Odin eventually goes to Hel to try and learn about this in more detail from a psychic sibyl. The gods appear to be worrying over this and thus display more than a mere semblance of care and love for Balder.

This is further confirmed when we read about the Aesir deciding to seek protection for Balder from any form of harm that they could imagine. Frigg is directly involved with this care for Balder, by exacting oaths from all manner of things that she thought could be used as potential weapons, such that they couldn’t be used to harm Balder. To amuse themselves, the Aesir tested Balder’s invulnerability by throwing all kinds of objects at him, with no harm coming to Balder as expected. Loki became annoyed that Balder was able to withstand being beaten, stoned, and shot at (which could be interpreted as an instance of jealousy), and so he disguised himself as a woman and found out from Frigg that she hadn’t exacted an oath from mistletoe (and therefore found a loophole in Balder’s protection). Then Loki gave the mistletoe to Hod and told him to join the others in the fun, and Balder was struck dead instantly (Prose, p. 81). The reaction from the Aesir was clearly one of dread and grief as they weeped for him, and likewise during Balder’s funeral, when his wife the goddess Nanna saw his dead body being carried onto the funeral ship and then died of a broken heart right there on the spot (Prose, p. 82).

Furthermore, when Hermod rode to Hel to try and give ransom for Balder’s return to Asgard, he talks about how much the gods were weeping over his death. Hel responded by requesting a sort of test, requiring that everyone and everything would weep for Balder, in order to see if Balder was really loved as much as people said he was. The only one who did not weep for Balder was the giantess Thokk (presumably Loki in disguise), thus illustrating just how ubiquitous love and care for Balder was (Prose, pp. 82-84). What could be a better example of love and care for another than weeping over another’s death let alone dying from such overwhelming grief (as in the case of Balder’s widow, Nanna)?

Although love and care are rare attributes to find described in these texts, we do see a few more instances of lust and infatuation (being “in love”) which is nevertheless another human quality. Odin himself, chief among the gods, tells us about his attempted exploits with “Billing’s daughter”, a giantess. Odin talks about how he sat around waiting for this fair woman that he loved beyond soul and body, and yet couldn’t have her (PE, p. 23). He watched her in bed, and felt joyless unless he could sleep with this woman he longed for (PE, p. 24). This giantess ended up deceiving Odin and his wish never came to fruition, and so it is worth mentioning that beyond the reference of love and infatuation, this appears to be an instance of stupidity as well. Not only was Odin deceived here, but he failed to consider using his powerful magic to overcome the barriers that were hindering him from achieving his goal (those guarding the giantess’s bed). It should come as no surprise however that his love-drunk infatuated state clouded his judgement for even Odin himself mentions that wise men are made into fools by the “lures of love” and that despite this, no sickness is worse for the wise man than nothing left to love (PE, p. 23).

Shortly after this tale, we hear about Odin sleeping with the giant Suttung’s daughter Gunnlod for three nights, where Odin mentions that if it weren’t for Gunnlod who laid in his arms for love, how he likely couldn’t have come back from the giant’s court (PE, p. 25; Prose, p. 102). Lastly, Odin makes several mentions of his exploits with women to Thor while disguised as the ferryman named Harbard, where he brags about his having made love to maidens in the land called All-Green, where he specifically mentions having slept with seven sisters (PE, p. 60).

There are mentions of the other gods having various sexual affairs as well, though the bulk of them are only mentioned through Loki’s long stream of insults in Lokasenna. Idun is first described as being the most lustful for men, having locked her “arms in love” around the one who killed her brother (PE, p. 75). Then Frigg is accused of being lustful for men, having slept with both of Odin’s brothers, Ve and Vili (PE, p. 76). Njord and Freyja are both accused of sleeping with their own siblings, and then Freyja is accused of sleeping with all of the elves and the Aesir present at the feast (PE, pp. 77-78). To top it all off, Loki mentions how he himself slept with Tyr’s wife, with the goddess Skadi, and even Thor’s wife Sif (PE, p. 79-81), with this latter affair also referenced by Odin in the Lay of Harbard (PE, p. 64). We also have a brief reference here to Frey’s relations with Gymir’s daughter, the giantess Gerd, which is described in much more detail in Skirnir’s Journey (PE, p. 50). Frey becomes love-sick over Gerd, says nobody has loved a maiden so much as he, and so sends Skirnir in his stead to woo her, eventually culminating in success with Gerd saying that she never believed she could be so fond of Frey (PE, pp. 51 and 56). These sexual affairs as well as the aforementioned exploits of Odin definitely serve to exemplify some of the more primal human attributes of lust and sexual dominance, and can be seen to be even more realistically human with the controversy and shame associated with their being referenced in the context of Loki’s spout of insults.

Another human attribute that is far more apparent in these texts is that of bravery. Although Tyr is mentioned by Snorri as being the boldest of the gods, and the one with the most courage (Prose, p. 53), not least because he was brave enough to put his hand in the mouth of the wolf, Fenrir, knowing it would be bitten off, Tyr himself says that Frey is the bravest as well as the best among the Aesir during the insolent exchange with Loki. In the same exchange, we also hear Frigg refer to Balder as brave (PE, pp. 77-78). Then we have the god Ali (a.k.a. Vali) who is described as being bold in battle (Prose, p. 55). In the Lay of Harbard, Odin (disguised as Harbard) tells Thor that he fought battles and performed many brave deeds while in the land called All-Green (PE, p. 60). When allusions are made to Ragnarok, we also hear that despite the fact that nothing on earth or in heaven will be free from fear (an example of universal cowardice, including that of the gods), the Aesir and all of Odin’s warriors in Valhalla (the “Einherjar”) will nevertheless arm themselves and fight to the death (Prose, p. 87). Likewise, Odin and his son Vidar are destined to go forth to fight Fenrir (with Odin dying in the process), and Frey to go on to battle Surt, the Lord of the fire-giants, all clear acts of bravery (PE, p.6).

It seems clear that, by far the most mentions of bravery are attributed to the supreme killer of giants, the one and only, Thor. Beyond the various mentions of his might and strength (Prose, p. 37, 73, 78; PE, p.69), Thor is mentioned in a number of feats of bravery. Snorri describes how Thor had cracked the skulls of many giants (Prose, p. 50), how he had gone to the east to fight trolls (Prose, p. 67), how he shivered the giant builder’s skull into fragments after the giant flew into a fit of rage (Prose, p. 68), and how Thor fought and killed the strongest of all the giants, Hrungnir (Prose, pp. 104-105; PE, p.82). In the Lay of Harbard, we hear of Thor’s defeating the courageous giant Thjazi, his fighting giant female Berserks, and his waging war with a large throng of giants; a throng so large that they would have killed all the men in Midgard had he not defeated them (PE, p. 60-62).

Perhaps the epitome of Thor’s bravery is that told in the Sayings of Hymir, where he goes fishing with the giant Hymir, and wanted to row farther out to sea, despite Hymir’s warnings of their possible encounter with the World Serpent (Prose, p. 79; PE, p. 68). Far out at sea, Thor managed to set the hook and pull up the World Serpent right on to the skiff and stared into its eyes, with Hymir turning pale with fear during this face-off and eventually cutting the line to release the Serpent (Prose, p. 79; PE, p. 69). This face-off also served as a beautiful foreshadowing of the final encounter between Thor and the Jormungand during Ragnarok, with Thor bravely defeating the Midgard Serpent before dying himself from the Serpent’s poisonous breath (Prose, p. 88; PE, p.6). Odin also exemplified a far more implicit form of bravery, beyond the mere explicit mentions of his brave deeds in the Lay of Harbard, or his battling during Ragnarok as mentioned earlier. For Odin had another human attribute, namely wisdom (which I’ll expand on in a moment), with this wisdom serving to remind him of his inevitable fate and the fate of the gods as a whole during Ragnarok. Aside from the feats of bravery accompanying any actual battles he fought in, it seems reasonable to suspect that quite a bit of courage was required for him to remain functional and motivated despite the frightening fore-knowledge he obtained from the sibyls pertaining to Ragnarok (PE, pp. xii, xviii, xxii, 38, and 44).

The importance of bravery as an element in these texts is also illustrated by its explicit negation, where a few gods are accused or shown to be cowardly in some way. In the story of the giant builder, we hear that Loki foolishly advised the giant to ask to marry Freyja in return for his building the gods a stronghold within a certain time frame, with this stronghold providing them protection from cliff giants and frost ogres. When it became apparent that the giant was going to complete the project on time, the gods became furious at Loki for his advice to the builder and so they began to torture him. Loki finally succumbed to this form of punishment and out of fear he pleaded for mercy, offering to find them a way out of this predicament no matter the cost (Prose, pp. 66-67). Loki’s involvement in the death of Balder and in preventing Balder’s return from Hel also angered the gods substantially and once again out of fear, we hear about Loki running away and hiding on a mountain in a place called the waterfall of Franang, where he took on the shape of salmon (Prose, p. 84).

In Locasenna, Loki turns the tables (so to speak) and ends up pointing the finger at a few gods for their own cowardice. He mentions how Bragi is the least brave of the gods (PE, p. 74), how Byggvir is a coward (PE, p. 80), and finally reminds Thor of an embarrassing incident when he had travelled eastward to Giantland and hid in the “thumb of a glove” (PE, p. 82). During this journey, also alluded to by Odin in the Lay of Harbard (PE, p. 61), Thor and his companions had felt a great earthquake and Thor had hid himself in a small room in the middle of what he believed to be a great hall. This room turned out to be the thumb of a giant mitten, belonging to a giant named Skrymir. In Thor’s defense, it should be mentioned that while Thor hid here, despite the fact that his companions had ventured further in ahead of him due to their being terrified, Thor sat in the doorway gripping Mollnir ready to defend himself. So one could perhaps defend Thor from Loki’s accusation of cowardice here, however there is more to the story that Loki doesn’t mention in Locasenna. Within the actual story we hear that the earthquake was really a result of the giant Skrymir’s snoring, and when the giant woke up, Thor was, for the first and perhaps the only time ever, too startled to throw his hammer (Prose, pp. 70-71). This latter incident seems to be far less defensible and is quite significant in the sense that it may be the only true example of Thor acting cowardly within the entirety of the Eddas.

The last attribute I’d like to discuss is that of wisdom, which I mentioned earlier while arguing that Odin was brave in his tolerating the foreknowledge of his own destruction and that of the gods. Wisdom is mentioned all over the Eddas in a number of different contexts. Snorri describes Odin standing on his high seat seeing over the whole world and understanding what he saw (Prose, p. 37), with Tyr described as being well-informed and Bragi and Vor described as being famous for wisdom (Prose, pp. 52 and 60). Odin is referred to as the god of knowledge, knowing the past, present and future, and sacrificing one of his eyes to gain such wisdom. Upon sacrificing himself to himself, hanging on a tree for nine days, Odin took up runes, gaining the secret lore and a wealth of wisdom in the process (PE, pp. xviii, xxii, and 31). Even the gods as a whole are ascribed as treasuring wisdom for wisdom’s sake (PE, p. xxii).

While wisdom is ascribed to these gods quite explicitly, there are also several long, drawn-out displays of wisdom in the Poems of the Elder Edda. The first and foremost is that seen in the Sayings of the High One, where Odin gives a plethora of aphorisms about trust, friendship, love, wisdom itself, and much more (PE, pp. 11-34). Next, we have the Lay of Vafthrudnir, where Odin has a battle of wits with the giant Vafthrudnir, displaying his vast knowledge of the world and Norse cosmogony (PE, pp. 37-44). The last extended display of wisdom, found in the Lay of Alvis, is perhaps the most surprising of them all. In this we hear of a dwarf named Alvis who is trying to marry Thor’s daughter, but Thor says he will only permit this if Alvis can correctly answer every question he is asked. Alvis proceeds to answer his questions, effectively amounting to an exhaustive list of the names given by giants, gods, elves, and dwarves, to describe the land, the sky, the moon, the sun, the clouds, the wind, the calm, the sea, the fire, the forests, the night, and the ale. At the end of this exchange, Thor outwits Alvis by having the clock run out (so to speak), for as soon as Thor asks his last question, the sun begins to rise and the sunlight kills the dwarf by turning him into stone (PE, pp. 90-95). This is quite strange because Thor is almost never described as being wise or clever in any way, but rather uses his strength and might to overcome whatever stands in his way. Never have we seen Thor so out of character, but wise he is implied to be nevertheless.

Although the gods in general shouldn’t be seen as having human qualities such as wisdom, kindness, bravery, cowardice, jealousy, and other moral virtues or vices, since expediency is ultimately their motivation, a superficial reading of the text nevertheless makes it apparent (most especially within a modern interpretation) that the gods do in fact display some of these qualities. While the examples I gave in this analysis are hardly exhaustive in terms of all apparent human attributes, I believe that they provide a fair representation of the breadth of these apparent qualities seen throughout the entirety of the Eddas. Moreover, I found it fascinating to survey the Eddas from this perspective, as it seemed to reduce the epistemic barriers and somewhat esoteric nature otherwise associated with these Scandinavian myths.

  1. Snorri, S., & Young, J. I. (1966). The prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Terry, P. (1990). Poems of the Elder Edda. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Book Review: Niles Schwartz’s “Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies”

Elijah Davidson begins his foreword to Niles Schwartz’s book titled Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies with a reference to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where he mentions how that book was, among other things, about God.  While it wasn’t a spiritual text in any traditional sense of the term, it nevertheless pointed to the finitude of human beings, to our heavy reliance on one another, and highlighted the fact that the natural world we live in is entirely indifferent to our needs and desires at best if not outright threatening to our imperative of self-preservation.  Davidson also points out another theme present in Moby Dick, the idea that people corrupt institutions rather than the other way around—a theme that we’ll soon see as relevant to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.  But beyond this human attribute of fallibility, and in some ways what reinforces its instantiation, is our incessant desire to find satisfaction in something greater than ourselves, often taken to be some kind of conception of God.  It is in this way that Davidson refers to Melville’s classic as “a spiritual treatise par excellence.”

When considering Mann’s films, which are often a cinematic dichotomous interplay of “cops and robbers” or “predator and prey,” they are, on a much more basic level, about “freedom and control.”  We also see his filmography as colored with a dejection of, or feeling of malaise with respect to, the modern world.  And here, Mann’s films can also be seen as spiritual in the sense that they make manifest a form of perspectivism centered around a denunciation of modernity, or at least a disdain for the many depersonalizing or externally imposed meta-narratives that it’s generated.  Schwartz explores this spiritual aspect of Mann’s work, most especially as it relates to PE, but also connecting it to the (more explicitly spiritual) works of directors like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, to name a few).  Schwartz proceeds to give us his own understanding of what Mann had accomplished in PE, and this is despite there being a problematic, irreconcilable set of interpretations as he himself admits: “Interpreting Public Enemies is troubling because it has theological and philosophical precepts that are rife with contradictions.”  This should be entirely expected however when PE is considered within the broader context of Michael Mann’s work generally, for Mann’s entire milieu is formulated on paradox:

“Michael Mann is a director of contradictions: aesthetic and didactive, abstract and concrete, phantasmagorical and brutally tactile, expressionistic and anthropological, heralding the individual and demanding social responsibility, bold experimenter and studio genre administrator, romantic and futurist, Dillinger freedom seeker and Hoover control freak, outsider and insider.”

Regardless of this paradoxical nature that is ubiquitous throughout Mann’s filmography, Schwartz provides a light to take us through a poetic journey of Mann’s work and his vision, most especially through a meticulous view of PE, and all within a rich and vividly structured context centered on the significance of, and relation between, freedom, control, and of course, the future.  His reference to “the future” in OTM is multi-dimensional to say the least, and the one I personally find the most interesting, cohesive, and salient.  Among other things, it’s referring to John Dillinger’s hyper-focused projection toward the future, where his identity is much more defined by where he wants to be (an abstract, utopian future that is “off the map,” or free from the world of control and surveillance) rather than defined by where he’s been (fueled by the obvious fact that he’s always on the run), and this is so even if he also seems to be stuck in the present, with Dillinger’s phenomenology as well as the film’s structure often traversing from one fleeting moment to the next.  But I think we can take Dillinger at his own word as he tells his true love, Billie Frechette, after whisking her away to dine in a high-class restaurant: “That’s ‘cuz they’re all about where people come from.  The only thing that’s important, is where somebody’s going.” 

This conception of “the future” is also referencing the transcendent quality of being human, where our identity is likewise defined in large part by the future, our life projects, and our striving to become a future version of ourselves, however idealized or mythologized that future-self conception may be (I think it’s fair to say Dillinger’s was, to a considerable degree).  The future is a reference to where our society is heading, how our society is becoming increasingly automated, taken over by a celeritously expanding cybernetic infrastructure of control, evolving and expanding in parallel with technology and our internet-catalyzed global interconnectedness.  Our lives are being built upon increasing layers of abstraction as our form of organized life continues to trudge along its chaotic arc of cultural evolution, and we’re losing more and more of our personal freedom as a result of evermore external influences, operating on a number of different levels (socially, politically, technologically), known and unknown, consciously and unconsciously.  In PE, the expanding influences were best exemplified by the media, the mass-surveillance, and of course Hoover’s Bureau and administration, along with the arms race taking place between Dillinger’s crew and the FBI (where the former gave the latter a run for their money).

As Schwartz explains about J. Edgar’s overreach of power: “Hoover’s Bureau is increasingly amoral as it reaches for a kind of Hobbesian, sovereign super control.”  Here of course we get our first glimpse of a noteworthy dualism, namely freedom and control, and the myriad of ways that people corrupt institutions (as Davidson explored in his foreword), though contrary to Davidson’s claim, it seems undeniable to surmise that once an institution has become corrupted by certain people, that institution is more likely to corrupt other individuals, both internally and externally (and thus, institutions do corrupt individuals, not merely the other way around).  If bad ideas are engineered into our government’s structure, our laws, our norms, our capitalist market, or any other societal system, they can seemingly take off on their own, reinforced by the structure itself and the automated information processing that’s inherent to bureaucracies, the media, our social networks, and even inherent to us as individuals who are so often submerged in a barrage of information.

Relating Hoover to the power and influence of the media, Schwartz not only mentions the fact that PE is undoubtedly “conscientious of how media semiotics affect and control people,” but he also mentions a piece of dialogue that stood out to me as well, where FBI Director Hoover (Billy Crudup) just got out of the Congressional Hearing Room, having been chastised by Senator McKellar (Ed Bruce), and he says to his deputy, Clyde Tolson (Chandler Williams): “If we will not contest him in his committee room, we will fight him on the front page,” showing us a glimpse of the present day where news (whether “fake” news or not), and the overall sensationalism of a story is shown to be incredibly powerful at manipulating the masses and profoundly altering our trajectory, one (believed) story at a time.  If you can get somebody to believe the story, whether based on truth or deception, the battle is half won already.  Even Dillinger himself, who’s own persona is wrapped in a cloud of mythology, built up by Hollywood and the media’s portrayal of his life and image, shows us in a very concrete way, just how far deception can get you.

For example, Schwartz reminds us of how Dillinger managed to escape through six doors of Crown Point jail with nothing other than a mock gun made of wood.  Well, nothing but a mock gun and a hell of a good performance, which is the key point here, since the gun was for all practical purposes real.  By the time Dillinger breaks into Warden Baker’s office to steal some Tommy guns before finishing his escape, Warden Baker (David Warshofsky) even says to him “That wasn’t real was it?,” which resonated with the idea of how powerful persuasion and illusion can be in our lives, and maybe indirectly showing us that what is real to us in the ways that matter most is defined by what’s salient to us in our raw experience and what we believe to be true since that’s all that affects our behavior anyway.  The guards believed Dillinger’s mock gun was real, and so it was real, just as a false political campaign promise is real, or a bluffed winning-hand in poker, or any other force, whether operating under the pretenses of honesty or deception, pushing us individually and collectively in one direction or another.

The future is also a reference to Michael Mann’s 2015 cyberthriller Blackhat—a movie that Mann had been building up to, and a grossly underappreciated one at that, with various degrees of its foreshadowing in PE.  This progression and relation between PE and Blackhat is in fact central to Schwartz’s principle aim in OTM:

“My aim in this book is to explore Public Enemies as an extraordinary accomplishment against a backdrop of other digital films, its meditations on the form precipitating Blackhat, Mann’s stunning and widely ignored cyberthriller that converts the movie-house celluloid of its predecessors into a beguiling labyrinth of code that’s colonized the heretofore tangible firmament right under our noses.”

And what an extraordinary accomplishment it is; and fortunately for us we’re in a better position to appreciate it after reading Schwartz’s highly perceptive analysis of such a phenomenal artist.  In PE, the future is essentially projected into the past, which is interesting to me in its own right, since this is also the case with human memory, where we reconstruct our memories upon recall in ways that are augmented by, and amalgamated with, our present knowledge, despite not having such knowledge when the memory itself was first formed.  So too in PE, we see a number of questions posed especially as it relates to the existentialist movement, which hadn’t been well-developed or nearly as influential until some time after the 1930s (especially after WWII, with the advent of existential philosophers including Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger), and as it relates to the critical theory stemming from the Frankfurt School of social research (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, et al.), neither of which being nearly as pertinent or socially and politically relevant then as they are now in the present day.  And this is where Blackhat becomes decidedly apropos.

So what future world was foreshadowed in PE?  Schwartz describes the world in Blackhat as an utterly subliminal and cybernetic realm: “The world is pattern recognition and automatic information processing, the stuff of advertising.”  Though I would argue that our entire phenomenology is fundamentally based on pattern recognition where our perception, imagination, actions, and even desires are mediated by the models of the world’s causal structure that our brains create and infer through our experiences.  But this doesn’t mean that our general schema of pattern recognition hasn’t been influenced by modernity such that we’ve become noticeably more automated, and where many have seemingly lost their capacity for contemplative reflection and lost the historically less-hindered psychological channel between reason and emotion.  The Blackhat world Schwartz is describing here is one where the way information is being processed is relatively alien to the more traditional conceptions of what it means to be human.  And this cybernetic world is a world where cultural and technological evolution are accelerating far faster than our biological evolution ever could (though genetic engineering has the potential to re-synchronize the two if we dedicate ourselves to such an ambitious project), and this bio-cultural desynchronization has made us increasingly maladapted to the Digital Age we’ve now entered.  Furthermore, this new world has made us far more susceptible to subliminal, corporatocratic and sociopolitical influences, and it has driven us toward an increasing reliance on a cybernetically controlled way of life.

The social relevance of these conceptions makes Blackhat a much-needed lens for fully appreciating our current existential predicament, and as Schwartz says of Mann’s (perhaps unavoidably ironic) digital implementation of this somewhat polemical techno-thriller:

“Conversely, Mann’s embrace of the digital is a paradoxical realization of tactile historical and spatial phenomenology, lucidly picturing an end of identity, while leaping, as through faith, toward the possibility of individuation in nature, free from institutional conscriptions and the negative assignments of cybernetics.”

Schwartz illustrates that concomitant with identity, “… the film prompts us to ask where nature ends and the virtual begins,” though perhaps we could also infer that in Blackhat there’s somewhat of a dissolution of the boundary (or at least a feeling of arbitrariness regarding how the boundary is actually defined) between the real and the virtual, the natural and the artificial, the human and the transhuman.  And maybe each of these fuzzy boundaries implies how best to resolve the contradictions in Mann’s work that Schwartz describes in OTM, with this possible resolution coming about through a process of symbiotic fusion or some kind of memetic “speciation” transitionally connecting what seem to be distinct concepts through a brilliantly structured narrative.

And to take the speciation analogy even further, I think it can also be applied to the changes in filmmaking and culture (including the many changes that Schwartz covers in his tour de force), where many of the changes are happening so gradually that we simply fail to notice them, at least not until a threshold of change has occurred.  But there’s also a punctuated equilibrium form of speciation in filmmaking, where occasionally a filmmaker does something extraordinary in one fell swoop, setting the bar for a new genre of cinema, just as James Cameron arguably did with the heavily CGI-amalgamated world in Avatar (with his planet Pandora “doubling for the future of cinema [itself]…” as Schwartz mentions), and to a somewhat lesser technological extent, in Michael Mann’s PE, where even though the analog to digital leap had already been made by others, “Mann’s distinctly idiosyncratic use of HD cameras rattled viewers with its alien video-ness, explicating to viewers that they were perched on a separate filmic architecture that may require a new way of seeing.”

Similarly in Blackhat, Mann takes us through seamless transitions of multiple scales of both time and space, opening up a window that allows us to see how mechanized and deterministic our modern world is, from the highest cosmological scales, down to cities populated with an innumerable number of complex yet predictable humans, and finally down to the digital information processing schema at the micro and nanotechnological scales of transistors.  Within each perspective level, we fail to notice the causal influences operating at the levels above or below, and yet Mann seamlessly joins these together, showing us a kind of fractal recapitulation that we wouldn’t otherwise fully appreciate.  After reflecting on many of the references to freedom Schwartz posits in OTM, I’ve begun to more seriously ponder over the idea that human freedom is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, dependent on one’s awareness of what is being controlled by another, what is predictable and what isn’t, and one’s perception of what constitutes self-authored behavior or a causa sui formulation of free will.  Once we realize that, at the smallest scales, existence is governed by deterministic processes infused with quantum randomness, it is less surprising to see the same kind of organized, predictable causal structure at biological, sociological, and even cosmological scales.

Aside from Blackhat, Schwartz seamlessly ties together a number of Mann’s other films including Thief, Miami Vice, and my personal favorite, Heat.  There’s also a notable progression or at least an underlying and evolving conceptual structure connecting characters and ideas from one film to the next (above and beyond the transition from PE to Blackhat), as Schwartz eloquently points out, which I see as illustrating how various salient psychological and sociological forces and manifestations are so often reiterated in multiple contexts varying in time and space.  Clearly Mann is building off of his previous work, adapting previous ideas to new narratives, and doing so while continuously trying to use, as Schwartz puts it: “alchemic cinema tools to open a window and transform our perception,” thus giving us a new way to view the world and our own existential status.

An important dynamic that Schwartz mentions, not only as it pertains to Mann’s films, but of (especially well-crafted) films in general, is the notable interplay between the audience and the film or “the image.”  The image changes us, which in turn changes the image ad infinitum, establishing a feedback loop and a co-evolution between the viewer’s interpretation of the film as it relates to their own experiences, and the ongoing evolution of every new cinematic product.  There may be some indoctrinatory danger in this cycle if the movie you’re engaging with is a mass-produced product, since this product is, insofar as it’s mass-produced, deeply connected to “the system”, indeed the very same system trying to capture John Dillinger in PE.  And yet, even though the mass-produced product is a part of the system, and despite its being a cog in the wheel of what we might call a cybernetic infrastructure of control, Schwartz highlights an important potentiality in film viewing that is often taken for granted:

“…The staggering climax inside the Biograph beseeches us to aspire to the images conscientiously, reconciling the mass-produced product with our private histories and elevating the picture and our lives with the media.”

In other words, even in the case of mass-produced cinema, we as viewers stand to potentially gain a valuable experience, and possibly a spiritual or philosophical one at that by our forming a personal relationship with the film, synthesizing the external stimuli with our inner sense of self, coalescing with the characters and integrating them into our own relationships and to ourselves, thus expanding our set of perspectives by connecting to someone “off the map”.  On the other hand, Schwartz also mentions Herbert Marcuse’s views, which aptly describes the inherent problem of art insofar as it becomes a part of “the system”:

“…Herbert Marcuse writes that as long as art has become part of the system, it ceases in questioning it, and thus impedes social change.  Poetic language must transcend the “real” world of the society, and in order to transcend that world it must stand opposed to it, questioning it, quelling us out of it.”

But we need also realize that art will inevitably be influenced by the system, because there are simply too many subliminal or even explicit system-orchestrated ideas that the artist (and everyone else in society) has been instilled with, even if entirely unbeknownst to them.  It seems that the capacity for poetic language to transcend the real world of the society lies in its simply providing any new perspective at all, making use of allegory, metaphor, and the crossing of contextual boundaries, and it can do so even if this new perspective doesn’t necessarily or explicitly oppose some other (even mainstream) perspective.

This is most definitely not to in any way discount Marcuse’s overarching point of how art’s connection to the system is a factor that limits its efficacy in enacting social change and its ability to positively feed the public’s collective stream of consciousness, but merely to point out that art’s propensity for transcending the status quo isn’t entirely inhibited from its unavoidable connection to the system.  And to once again bring us back to the scene in PE where Dillinger is fully absorbing (or being fully absorbed by) his viewing of Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theater, Schwartz seems to describe the artistic value of a film as something at least partially dependent on whether or not it facilitates a personal and transcendent experience in any of the viewers:

“Cinema is elevated to a ceremony of transubstantiation where fixed bodies are resurrected through the mercurial alchemy of speed and light, contradicting the consumption we saw earlier during the newsreel.  Dillinger’s connection to cinema is a meditative and private one…”

I think it’s fair to say that, if there’s anything that can elevate our own experience of Mann’s work in particular, and film viewing more generally, Schwartz’s Off the Map is a great philosophical and spiritual primer to help get us there.  Both comprehensive and brilliantly written, Schwartz’s contribution to film scholarship should become required reading for anybody interested in cinema and film viewing.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 6: “The Flight From Laputa”)

In the last post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we looked at some of the Christian sources of existentialism within the Western Tradition, from the contributions of Christian authors like Tertullian, to the works of Christian theologians like Augustine and Pascal.  There are a lot of other writers as well, particularly a number of poets and novelists that existed during, and shortly after, the Age of Enlightenment, which all had a substantial impact on existentialism.  In this chapter, Barrett mentions several of these writers, many putting out a number of literary works throughout the period of Romanticism and also the two most prolific Russian authors, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who wrote their most influential works in the mid to late 19th century.

Barrett opens up this chapter with some brilliant commentary on Jonathan Swift’s most famous book, the English classic Gulliver’s Travels.  He brings our attention to a particular episode in that book, namely the unforgettable voyage to Laputa: a large island that hovers above the earth, floating and navigating in the sky through the use of an enormous magnet and earth’s own magnetic field.  Once Gulliver is shipwrecked and brought up to the island, he finds the people living there to be incredibly strange-looking and also behaving in some odd ways.  One particularly creepy detail is the fact that the people don’t ever focus on the eyes of the person they are speaking with; instead they have one eye turned upward toward the sky, as if in some kind of perpetual contemplation of the cosmos; and the other eye points inward as if in some kind of perpetual introverted state.  Their foods are cut into a variety of geometric shapes and their clothes are rather ill-fitting garments resulting from a tailoring process that relies exclusively on strict geometries, and they are decorated with shapes of the sun, moon, stars, and a plethora of musical instruments.

Swift’s intention here was to create an imaginary world that was a kind of manifestation of reason incarnate, where the inhabitants have completely structured their lives around reason and are lost in a perpetual state of mental abstraction and disconnectedness.  To further solidify the intended historically-relevant metaphor, we’re also told about the ordinary earth dwellers living below the Laputans, who also happen to be subject to the ruling of the Laputans living overhead.  And these ordinary earth-dwellers are described as being far happier than their Laputan rulers for a number of reasons.  The Laputans are unable to have a normal human conversation nor have the interpersonal emotional connection that may accompany such an interaction, because these absent-minded intellectuals have almost completely lost any sense of who’s around them at the moment, requiring constant reminders from servant-boys about when it is time to talk or to listen (as the case may be) lest they might slip away into some kind of philosophical speculation in mid-conversation.  So despite the Laputans standing on a pedestal of superiority, perhaps implied metaphorically by their floating on an island “above” everyone else (which may also be a metaphor for their lack of grounding in Being or in being fully human), they seem to be missing a core part of their humanity.

Clearly we are meant to be given a description of a world showing how reason is insufficient to fulfill many of our psychological needs as human beings; and its blatant lack of emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, and, for lack of a better word any “organic” form or structure at all, has been fueled by some kind of post-Enlightenment belief that reason can fix all of mankind’s problems.  We’re also meant to see how the resulting cultural sterilization brought on by reason (such as that within Laputa) has created an aversion to such a mode of living for many, such that some people begin to seek out passion any way that they can get it (for better or worse):

“The men and movements of which it does stand as a prediction will find themselves at times in the desperate quandary of the prime minister’s wife, ready to throw themselves into the arms of a drunken footman if that is the only way out of the sterile kingdom of reason.  In the search for the Dionysian, after all, one cannot always be expected to be bound by good taste.”

Here, I believe Barrett’s brief reference to the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to be paramount to understanding the historical-cultural impetus underlying the clash between reason and emotion, and ultimately between rationalism and existentialism.  By creating an imbalance in this dichotomy, for example by not giving enough resources or importance in finding a means of “Dionysian expression” in a society, a kind of tension begins to build up until the proverbial “bubble” bursts and the Dionysian portion of our being is over-expressed leading to another imbalance albeit one going the other way.  As much as one would hope to be able to prevent this kind of explosive feedback, it may be the case that we’re not able to sense an imbalance of this sort until it’s become so drastic that a violent outburst (or an overcompensation of some kind) is the only way to tip the scales back to equilibrium.

Then again, perhaps the signs of an imbalance are always there and we just need to look a bit more closely at how our culture is expressing itself (and not just at a superficial level).  We ought to look closer at the artists, the writers, and the changes occurring to how our identities are shaped compared to those of the preceding generations.  As an example, one sign of this imbalance in the post-Enlightenment Western world, furthering existential development, was exemplified very powerfully by the artistic works of the romantics, which Barrett explores in this chapter.

1.  The Romantics

“However we choose to characterize Romanticism-as a protest of the individual against the universal laws of classicism, or as the protest of feeling against reason, or again as the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of an industrial society-what is clear is that it is, in every case, a drive toward that fullness and naturalness of Being that the modern world threatens to let sink into oblivion.”

This characterization of romanticism reminds me of an important theme that I mentioned in my last post, and one that I think is absolutely worth reiterating here; namely, what I call the desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  This fact is, as I see it anyway, the simplest way of describing and explaining the psychological motivations for the advent of existentialism.  Industrialization, mass production, capitalism, and the maximization of efficiency have led to a world that is entirely alien to the one we evolved within.  And again, it would be entirely surprising if we found ourselves living in the modern world without these existential problems.

The fruits of modernity as well as the plethora of super-normal stimuli that have precipitated from our technology have in some sense fooled our brains over the course of many generations such that our evolutionarily-endowed strategies for survival have inadvertently led us to the psychologically inhospitable world we now live in.  Our situation is analogous to a group of people having made incredible strides in a field like chemistry such that they are now able to refine, purify, and concentrate chemicals like never before; but eventually a product like heroin is created which ends up consuming the lives of the people living in that world, drastically diminishing their happiness, and yet the attraction to the drug has already taken hold of their way of life, inclining them to make ever more powerful versions of these drugs eventually leading to their own self-destruction.

Similarly, we’ve gained a lot of amenities and a vast power of manipulating our environment through the use of reason.  It has allowed us to discover more facts about the world than ever before, in turn enabling us to make technological gains at an exponential rate, perhaps leading to our getting lost in the novelty and the positive changes made to our standards of living.  But once this genie was let out of the bottle, a runaway situation occurred where the benefits we were paying attention to distracted us from the fact that it was also generating and exacerbating a psychological imbalance.

I believe our best chance of resolving this problem is going to rely on a combination of genetically engineering our species to feel better-adapted to our ever-changing culture and by restructuring the world in ways that better resonate with our evolutionary environmental niche, and yet still do so in ways that are technologically innovative so as to not take a huge step backward in the amenities that modernity has provided us.

In looking at some of the poets that had a distaste for much of modernization, Barrett mentions the poet William Blake:

“Blake is recognized easily enough as the poet against the industrial revolution…”The atoms of Democritus, And Newton’s particles of light, Are sands upon the Red sea shore, Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.”

This excerpt is from Blake’s Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau”, a poem written by Blake that appears to be more or less a defense of his religious views against those of science generally, rather than a protest against the industrial revolution specifically.  In this poem, he seems to suggest that any mockery of faith and religion such as that originating from Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau is somewhat of an exercise of futility as the society is largely unwilling to accept their ideas anyway.  And the mechanistic ideas espoused by brilliant scientific thinkers such as Democritus and Newton are small and insignificant compared to the breadth and power of religion and the belief in God, let alone the belief in God as the Creator that subsumes any paltry discoveries that man might make.

Another way to interpret this poem is to say that Blake is simply emphasizing the importance of using imagination along with reason, and he may be pointing out that human beings seek mythological constructs and grand designs of their world alongside the numerous facts that are discoverable through science.  If creative imagination is integral to being human, and if this integral component inevitably results in religious myth-making, then we should be careful in how we assess the apparent collision between reason and religion.

It seems to me that it is the failure to accept various facts about the world that has many proponents of reason opposed to religion, including many existing during the Age of Enlightenment.  The conflict however has largely been a tug of war over what I believe is a false dichotomy: choosing either reason or religion as exclusive modes of living or being.  Just as the religious don’t entirely discount reason (because they have to use it in much of their day-to-day lives, many who do so willingly), similarly the champions of reason shouldn’t entirely discount all that is involved in or accomplished with religion.  I think that human beings need an outlet for their creative imagination and emotional expression and they can and ought to produce mythological constructs and other allegorical narratives in stories, poetry, novels, cinema, and music, in order to serve as outlets for this creativity.

I for one want people to be able to express themselves, even if this is done through creative myth-making such as that found within religion; but the difficulty arises when the myths are actually believed as true and then this can interfere with accepting actual facts about the world which can subsequently impair one’s moral decision making.  Unfortunately, the myths that have been produced for millennia have most often been treated as truths and facts within those cultures rather than simply intuitive stories trying to make an important point through allegory and metaphor.  Perhaps we can have the latter without requiring the former; finding a way to appeal to our intuitions, emotions, and imagination, yet without having to sacrifice a reliable epistemology in the process.  This may allow reason to more harmoniously coexist with the deeper roots of our humanity.

Early on, Barrett also mentions some specifics concerning why Blake was opposed to industrialization:

“Mills and furnaces are evil, to Blake, because they are the external manifestations of the abstract and mechanical mind which means the death of man.”

Similarly, I can see how he would have been opposed to other means of mass production such as the assembly line, the distribution of labor in general, and processes involved in mass chemical synthesis such as distillation; all of which that can be seen as externalizations of the hyper-use of reason, logic, and reductionism.  Even ignoring the textile industry’s role in producing a person’s clothing, an explicit artifact of this kind of externalization would be recognized whenever a person living in Blake’s own time pulled out their pocket watch; a purely mechanical device that also illustrates the degree of precision and efficiency in an industrialized world that rations every minute of a person’s life as it sees fit.  No longer are we informed of the progression of our day by noting the whereabouts of the sun in the sky, as our ancestors once did and just as the rest of nature is apt to do; instead our time has become far too precious in maintaining our busy schedules than to conform to a more natural account of our time and existence.  We’ve each become an “Alice” in a wonderland of abstraction with no time to simply breath; instead we’re inclined to follow the example of the March Hare, chasing him down the rabbit hole of modernity as he shouts “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

I suppose we could say that we’ve been cut off from nature insofar as we’re no longer like other animals living in the present moment; instead, we seem to be forever living in the future, where even our own existence and identity have become an abstraction centered around the relatively meaningless goals that we’ve been indoctrinated to value.  Now this shouldn’t be taken to mean that our consideration of the future isn’t also an important part of our being human, for it is, and in fact a vision of the future of human possibilities is a central driving force within Romanticism as well even if it seems more heavily inclined toward a return to the past.  But in our modern world, we’re pressured into the idea of being defined by what society wants us to become, in large part based on expectations that are not conducive to a fulfilling life.  Some of these expectations have included directing our attention away from a more natural way of life and towards a life that glorifies artificial metrics of success that have no intrinsic value to us as human beings.

It is apparent and obvious that something has happened to modernity’s connection to nature; which is easily recognized by looking at all of our artificial environments, functions, and modern concerns.  And Barrett actually mentions the concept of Being as implied in the poet William Wordsworth’s works, as one relying on a deep connection to nature.  Wordsworth unsurprisingly criticizes the intellect as something that severs us from this connection in his poem “The Tables Turned” :

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.

Rather than simply being in nature and receiving what she has to offer by effortlessly taking in one’s surroundings as a whole, humans (most especially modern humans) often distance themselves from their raw experiences by analyzing them and breaking them down into very abstract concepts.  And we learn many of the abstract concepts used in this kind of analysis not from our own experience per se but from books and other derivative sources of information, thus further distancing ourselves from the original felt experience.  So it should come as no surprise to hear that Wordsworth was partial to the idea that learning directly from nature is far more effective than traditional learning from books and so forth, even though (perhaps ironically) he still wanted people to read his writings and he continued to make use of books himself.  But I think the driving point here is that even though books are important for a lot of reasons and even though we shouldn’t dispense of them nor should we dispense with analyzing our experience from time to time, we ought to spend more time living in the moment and not parsing everything out into abstractions that take away from the holistic attributes of the experience.

Whereas Wordsworth was grieving over the disconnection from nature that he saw taking place with regards to many of his contemporaries, he didn’t feel this way about himself.  It is here that Barrett turns to some of the works of Coleridge, for he commented on the same predicament but he was also writing about his own feelings, where he found himself no longer finding any happiness in nature.  Coleridge was perhaps the first poet to explore some of these existential feelings from his own perspective; encountering the void itself and all the anxiety it brings along with it:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear–

This excerpt from Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” was a personal confession of his having lost his sense of feeling, even wishing for a violent storm to erupt at one point in this poem such that he could feel something.  He describes his experience in some vivid detail and points to the fact that the degeneration of his feelings has a correlation with a degradation of his own imagination.  And he alludes to there being an inherent separation between man’s feelings and the forms found in nature; where the feelings have to be created from within rather than given to us from our simply being in nature.

One interesting trait within Coleridge’s work, and which may help to explain some sentiments in the poem referenced above, is the fact that he makes use of imaginative flights where he leaves the present time and place and substitutes them for a setting that’s entirely manufactured from his own creativity.  And this quality of Coleridge contrasts a bit with the sentiments of Wordsworth, where the former often makes use of separating himself from the nature around him in its present state and the latter emphasizes the importance of taking in nature as it is in the here-and-now.  Both strategies maintain a connection to nature in one way or another but one uses imagination to augment it potentially into a surreal experience whereas the other is more of an experiential realist that simply “receives” nature directly.

Barrett compares Coleridge’s melancholy to that of Faust in Goethe’s poetic drama:

“Both are in or near the condition of breakdown, trapped in a paralysis of feeling in which everything has turned to dust and ashes, including the meddling intellect that has tyrannized over both.”

Even though Goethe set out to distance himself from Romanticism later in his life, Faust represents Goethe at his most romantic.  And it is in Faust-Goethe that we see a strong tie to humanity as a collective being with an essential yearning to both live and grow, even if this is only accomplished by an amalgamation of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy; a fusion of stability and chaos; a marriage between self-restraint and personal freedom.

Freedom is a concept that Barrett also touches on with respect to Goethe’s interest in alchemy, where he ties the concept to “the dark halo of magic around him,” which served as a kind of sign of man’s lust to transcend his own limitations.  And what better place to incorporate the problem of free will, than with the desire to harness magical power in order to manipulate anything at your command.  Most people haven’t pondered over the free will conundrum in any philosophical way, for example, by considering the logical contradiction between causation or randomness and a human freedom that is self-caused or causa sui.  But the fact of the matter is, the only way for people to have a libertarian form of free will would be by some kind of magic, where the logically impossible is made possible, and so it seems to be no coincidence that the figure of the magician is, as Barrett puts it: “…the primitive image of human freedom.”  He also reminds us of the fact that magic and alchemy are recurring elements throughout the history of Romanticism where they betray our personal aspirations of becoming something more than we are.

Tying all of this together, Barrett reveals a more profound quality or role of the poet:

“Poetry is no longer an art merely of making verses, but a magical means of arriving at some truer and more real sphere of Being.  Poetry becomes a substitute for a religion.”

And this may be true in the sense that poetry allows one to open the channel between reason and emotion, or between reality and imagination.  In any case, whether one is drawn toward a form of expression offered through poetry or religion, it is the search for a way of transcending humanity or at the very least in overcoming our estrangement to Being itself, that drives us into these modes of living.

2. The Russians: Dostoevski and Tolstoy (realist fiction)

One prominent theme within Russian literature is the contrasting of the intellectual class with the rest of humanity, and Barrett points out a relation between the two:

“Intellectuals as a class suffer to the degree that they are cut off from the rest of mankind.  But intellectuals are the embodiment of reason, and reason itself if cut off from the concrete life of ordinary mankind is bound to decay.”

This is an interesting conclusion that the intellectuals in Russia were in a unique position to see, for they had a physical and cultural separation from the primary beneficiaries of the Enlightenment: namely, the West.  Even though they could examine this period in history as intellectuals, they did so with the desire to establish or maintain their own identity, allowing them to see what was happening in their society from a different perspective than the intellectual classes in Europe and the U.S.  The fact that Russia had a more conservative culture than the West also inhibited the cultural diffusion that would have otherwise further fused Western culture with that of Russia.

There were historical contingencies as well that facilitated a burst of philosophical contemplation, some of which Barrett mentions as relating to a disruption in the stability of society:

“A society that is going through a process of dislocation and upheaval, or of revolution, is bound to cause suffering to individuals, but this suffering itself can bring one closer to one’s own existence.  Habit and routine are great veils over our existence.  As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit.  When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly thrust outside, away from the habits and norms he once accepted automatically.  There, on the outside, his questioning begins.”

You may notice the mention of habit and routine here, a recurring theme from the last post (on chapter 5), which included Pascal’s mention of our escaping from a close consideration of the human condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.” 

In the case of Russia, the social fabric had been disrupted by the influx of ideas stemming from the Enlightenment, thus causing a more pressing need for many to question the old traditions and religious belief systems that had, up to this period in Russian history, withstood the tests of time.  And it was in the greatest intellectual writers of Russia, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, that we see a fresh perspective on the effects of the intellectual class on their society and in terms of an essential view of man.  Since Russia hadn’t developed any kind of philosophical tradition, the ideas that were pouring in from the West began to permeate the general populace, thus causing a less stable (more passionate, less objective) processing of these ideas.  And Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, two of the most prominent intellectuals within that populace, provided plenty of philosophical insight on their own, without the need for any philosophical professorship or the like.

Admittedly I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Tolstoy yet, but I have read all of Dostoyevsky’s major works; and one recurring theme in many of his novels is the exploration of the mind of a criminal.  He was inspired by his time in a Siberian prison camp where he spent a great deal of time with a number of criminals, gaining some insight in terms of their psychology and which led him to make some conclusions about human nature in general.  Barrett explains:

“What Dostoevski saw in the criminals he lived with is what he came finally to see at the center of man’s nature: contradiction, ambivalence, irrationality.  There was a childishness and innocence about these criminals, along with a brutality and cruelty, altogether unlike the murderous innocence of a child…In them Dostoevski was face to face with the demoniacal in human nature: perhaps man is not the rational but the demoniacal animal.”

I’m certainly sympathetic to this view, for humans not only have an intelligence that is often applied in a pre-meditated, Machiavellian fashion, but we also have our crimes of passion which seem to be derived from the irrational portion of our psyche combined with our instincts as a social animal trying to move upward within a dominance hierarchy.  We often use violence and cruelty as a means to move up the social ladder which can manifest itself in our day-to-day behavior or, if we’re privileged enough to avoid such behavior even most of the time, then a dose of poverty, a little bad luck, or simply a moment of desperation, will often bring this cruel monster hiding inside each of us out into full view.  In the end, we have to recognize what Hume said long ago: that reason is but a slave of the passions.

Hume’s point can be made clear in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment where the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, feeling alienated from the masses around him, uses reason during his bout of despair to arrive at a pre-Nietzschean theory with an imperative to rise above any ordinary moral code.  But after succumbing to this line of reasoning and putting it into practice, killing the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, and her sister Lizaveta, he is overcome with guilt and suffers a mental and physical breakdown.  His passions clearly got the better of him and he is unable to reconcile his actions with his own conscience and thus unable to subdue the emotional roller-coaster that ensues.

Barrett describes the situation in terms of a failure of repression:

“Raskolnikov’s theory has not reckoned with his own self, and the guilt over his crime brings on a breakdown.  Precisely the feelings that had been repressed in this intellectual-the ordinary human horror at the taking of life-erupt and take their revenge.”

The problem as I see it is not Raskolnikov’s use of reason in his moral theorizing, but the fact that he didn’t incorporate his likely emotional reactions into the moral theory and plan of action that he devised for himself.  He took many of his emotions and feelings entirely for granted, which are the ultimate drives in directing one’s behavior, and which are therefore the primary underlying impetus in determining what we feel we ought to do.

All moral systems that can have any claim to being true and which are sufficiently motivating to follow will ultimately break down to hypothetical imperatives: if you want X above all else, then you ought to do Y above all else; and X is going to be a subjective criterion based on what maximizes personal satisfaction and fulfillment in one’s life.  Since human beings have certain psychological and sociological characteristics given the species that we are, there are a limited number of behaviors that are conducive to maximizing psychological health and well-being; and this means that we have to take these facts about ourselves into account in devising any moral theory that will actually work for us.  And given our differences as individuals, there are additional facts to take into account in making a moral theory that will work most effectively for any particular individual given their psychological idiosyncrasies, even if there are still some set of universal morals that apply to all psychologically healthy human beings.

Deciding to kill other people simply because one has discovered some good reasons for doing so is not likely, given our psychology, to work all that well; since it’s likely to have a negative effect on how we see ourselves as a person.  If all the reasons are taken into account, or at least a particular set of reasons that includes our emotional predispositions or our subjective experience generally, then reason can be used and ought to be used for constructing a viable moral theory.  But Raskolnikov didn’t do this, and so we can see the limits of reason here as well when the facts pertaining to our subjective experience are not given their due consideration.  If our most basic emotional tendencies are inhibited for too long or beyond a certain threshold, it’s only a matter of time before our psyche cracks under the pressure.

Barrett points out the negative role that reason plays in a number of Dostoyevsky’s literary themes:

“These destructive and even criminal possibilities of reason were the philosophic themes on which Dostoevski played his most persistent variations…In ‘The Possessed’ (Demons) a group of political intellectuals are shown as being possessed by devils, ready to scheme, lie, even kill for the abstract ideals of Progress, reason, socialism.”

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame reason itself for any of the morally reprehensible behaviors that Dostoyevsky saw with the criminals around him, with his fictional characters, or even with human beings in general.  Instead, I think the lesson should be that reason can be used to fuel immorality, but only in cases where one isn’t considering all the facts (or at least isn’t considering enough of the facts) pertaining to one’s own psychology and that of the people around them, or isn’t thinking rationally about those facts.  On the other hand, with emotion or irrationality, there doesn’t even need to be a reason to act immorally and instead it may just precipitate in a kind of Dionysian, impulsive, and instinctive way.  What’s most important here, I think, is to acknowledge that reason can’t be used on its own, nor can emotion or subjectivity, when it comes to devising any effective (let alone sustainable) moral theory; both are integral and indispensable for informing us about what will maximize moral behavior and thus human happiness as well.

And if we deny ourselves the chaotic spontaneity or unpredictability that we often find adding a valuable kind of novelty in our lives, then we have another problem as well:

“In a rational utopia, he cries, man might die of boredom, or out of the violent need to escape this boredom start sticking pins in his neighbor-for no reason at all, just to assert his freedom…If science could comprehend all phenomena so that eventually in a thoroughly rational society human beings became as predictable as cogs in a machine, then man, driven by this need to know and assert his freedom, would rise up and smash the machine.”

This is reminiscent of the trip to Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels that we heard near the beginning of this chapter, where Barrett mentioned the inevitable search for the Dionysian in an attempt to avoid the sterile kingdom of reason.  Predictability and the concept of free will are also very salient here, for the intuition that leads us to believe we have a kind of libertarian free will, despite its logical impossibility, is in part an artifact of our inability to predict the future beyond a certain threshold.  More importantly, it’s the fact that we can’t predict our own behavior, or the causes of our own behavior (including those within our unconscious mind) with a high enough degree of accuracy, that causes us to feel that we are the sole authors of our actions rather than being intimately connected within a deterministic causal chain.

And even though our knowledge is limited in fundamental ways, for example by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (stemming from the quantum mechanical properties of our universe), we still have access to enough knowledge (in principle at least) whereby if we actually obtained it, our happiness and overall psychological health would suffer immensely.  Why might this be?  Well, if we consider the fact that our species evolved to thrive in a world where we didn’t have any pragmatic access to this kind of knowledge, then we might better appreciate the fact that our human psychology isn’t adapted to value such predictive power.  The irony here is that our brain operates on a fundamental principle of making more and more accurate predictions, where it wants to continuously decrease its own prediction error by updating its models of the world or behaving in ways that make those predictions come true; but it also wants to seek out new information about the world, and so in a way it’s also attracted to uncertainty, always looking to uncover more of the world’s mysteries in order to solve them.

Unfortunately, with the advent of science, formal logic, and the explicit processes of reason and the technological progress that’s we’ve gained from the use of such cognitive tools, we’re beginning to reach a level of knowledge that’s encroaching on our intuitive sense of our own freedom of the will.  This is something we should have been thinking very seriously about ever since we entered the information age.  We should have been thinking about how we ought to structure the direction of our technological progress, putting in some design constraints so as to preserve our psychological well-being given the kinds of knowledge that we’re destined to uncover and given what we don’t want to uncover.

There’s a tricky balance we have to respect and which is all too often taken for granted, where we want to continue making strides in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, such that we can inform our moral system of more and more relevant information about ourselves to further maximize our happiness; but we also want to make sure not to detract from this moral goal and so we need to continue learning what kinds of information we ought not have immediate access to.  As long as we begin to take this balancing act seriously, we can continue to make advancements in knowledge while not working against our primary objectives as human beings.

Aside from the problem of knowledge we face, we also must face the fact that as our lives are built around increasing levels of abstraction, we begin to resent it:

“What the reformers of the Enlightenment, dreaming of a perfect organization of society, had overlooked, Dostoevski saw all too plainly with the novelist’s eye: Namely, that as modern society becomes more organized and hence more bureaucratized it piles up at its joints petty figures like that of the Underground Man, who beneath their nondescript surface are monsters of frustration and resentment.”

As Nietzsche had explored in his On the Genealogy of Morality, resentment or ressentiment can serve as a creative force for change; a kind of catalyst to create a new system of morals (for better or worse), but it is often done to justify one’s own weaknesses and to divert attention away from one’s own responsibility for their lives by blaming a scapegoat instead.  So while resentment may lead to personal growth if the conditions are just right, it more often leads to a feeling of hostility towards those perceived as the cause of one’s frustrations.  If this resentment is bottled up and left to fester for too long, it may lead people to take out their anger on anyone and everyone around them; to lash out irrationally in a fit of violence.  And who could blame them for this, after perceiving that they’re inevitably trapped in a life with so many things that are out of their control?

Even in the face of resentment however, one can see the value of life when push comes to shove and one comes face to face with death itself.  The time that once seemed to flow on by, with each minute as meaningless as the one before or after it, now becomes as precious as ever as if each infinitesimal moment now stretches on through an eternity.  Dostoyevsky mentions the life changing power of such an experience in his novel The Idiot, where the character Prince Myshkin retells the story of an unidentified man (presumably representing Dostoyevsky himself):

“This man had once been led out with the others to the scaffold and a sentence of death was read over him….Twenty minutes later a reprieve was read to them, and they were condemned to another punishment instead.  Yet the interval between those two sentences, twenty minutes or at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes….The priest went to each in turn with a cross.  He had only five minutes more to live.  He told me that those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth….But he said that nothing was so dreadful at that time as the continual thought, “What if I were not to die!  What if I could go back to life–what eternity!  And it would all be mine!  I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one!”  He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly.”

Of course, the main lesson to learn here is that in the face of one’s own death, life takes on an absolute value and as Barrett says “The meaning of death is precisely its revelation of this value.”  And there will certainly be more to say about this when we get to the chapter on Heidegger and explore his concept of Being-towards-death.

As we move from Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, we find a fairly different view of man; and this difference is in some ways like that between night and day.  Whereas the former had a more morbid or pathological view of man, the latter is more akin to expressing the better angels of our human nature.  But both men brought to light the knowledge of the Dionysian aspects of our being.  It’s useful to look at a passage from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where her husband, the very rational and intellectually-minded Alexey Karenin, slips into a fit of jealousy over his wife:

“He felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be done.  Alexey Alexandrovitch was standing face to face with life, with the possibility of his wife’s loving someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very irrational and incomprehensible because it was life itself.  All his life Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived and worked in official spheres, having to do with the reflection of life.  And every time he had stumbled against life itself he had shrunk away from it.  Now he experienced a feeling akin to that of a man who, while calmly crossing a bridge over a precipice, should suddenly discover that the bridge is broken, and that there is a chasm below.  That chasm was life itself, the bridge that artificial life in which Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived.  For the first time the question presented itself to him of the possibility of his wife’s loving someone else, and he was horrified at it.”

And this was Tolstoy’s goal ultimately as a novelist: the standing face to face with life, with truth, and with the way the world and our existence within it really is.  The trouble arises if we fail to accept life and instead hide ourselves from it, and what Tolstoy saw was that our own powers of intellect can be the cause of this concealment; by giving us only a reflection of what life is, through abstractions, social conventions and the comforts brought to us through our daily use of routine.

And what kind of truth did the characters in Tolstoy’s novels end up finding?  Rather than some kind of intellectual truth consisting of propositions that could be spelled out here, it was an existential truth and so a truth that’s inherently difficult to put into words.  The truth was more or less a kind of openness to Being, where one finally faced the true possibilities that may unfold in their lives, even with that inevitable “possibility of the impossibility of existence” (as Heidegger put it): death itself.  And the natural unfolding of life as seen in Tolstoy’s novels, with a predominantly organic milieu, is meant to illustrate the necessary search for truth in one’s life and the truth about life itself.

To return to a previous theme mentioned earlier (in part 5, on Christian sources), Barrett says:

“The meaning of life, if there is one, says Tolstoy, must be found in these ordinary souls and not in the great intellects of the race.  Whatever ultimate meaning there is is vital and not rational.  The peasantry are wiser in their ignorance than the savants of St. Petersburg in their learning.”

And here again, I think this highlights the importance of subjectivity and our overall feeling of contentment; something that can’t be overcome or superseded by rationality nor by the rationalizations borne out of our intellect.  The meaning of life is ultimately derived from feeling and emotion, forces that lie in the deepest parts of our being.  And while the meaning of life may still be discovered by some of the great intellects in any period of history, Tolstoy’s point is still well taken; for the intellectual class has all too often overestimated the reach of the intellect and simultaneously undervalued or entirely devalued the fundamental role of “the vital”.  In the next post in this series, I’ll be starting a survey of part 3, “The Existentialists”, beginning with chapter 7, on Kierkegaard.

The Book of Acts as Historical Fiction

Previously, I wrote a series of posts that mentioned several elements from Richard Carrier’s historical/literary analysis of the Gospels in the New Testament (showing that they are not historically reliable, but are rather allegorical fictions), as discussed in his book On the Historicity of Jesus.  I decided to write a complementary post which mentions various elements from Carrier’s analysis of the Acts of the Apostles, since it is believed to have been written by the same author as The Gospel According to Luke.  Let’s begin.

Although it is implied in the preface of the book of Acts that it is supposed to be some kind of historical account, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, Acts has been thoroughly discredited as nothing more than a work of apologetic historical fiction, and the scholarship of Richard Pervo conclusively demonstrates this to be the case.  Regarding any historical sources that Luke may have used for Acts, the only one that has been confirmed with any probability was that of Josephus (a person who never wrote about Jesus Christ nor Christianity, yet was likely used by Luke for background material), and although there may have been more historical sources than Josephus, we simply don’t have any evidence preserved from those other possible historians to make a case one way or the other.  All of the other sources that we can discern within Acts are literary sources, not historical ones.  Included in these literary sources is what may possibly have been a (now-lost) hagiographical fabrication, and basically a rewrite of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in some of the Old Testament (OT) texts of Kings, although placing Paul and Jesus in the main roles instead, which obviously would have been a literary source of historical fiction (not any kind of historical account).

The scholar Thomas Brodie has argued that this evident reworking of the Kings narrative starts in Luke’s Gospel and continues on until Acts chapter 15, thus indicating that Luke either integrated this literary creation into his story or he used an underlying source text, such as some previous Gospel that not only covered the acts of Jesus but also the acts of the apostles.  So it appears that Luke either used this source text or his own literary idea and then inserted more stories into it, effectively expanding the whole story into two books, while also utilizing some material from Mark and Matthew during the process (and potentially other now-lost Gospels) and some material from the epistles of Paul.  In any case, the unnamed source text mentioned thus far is a hypothetical one that can only be inferred to have existed from the evidence of what’s written in Acts.  Luckily, the remaining literary sources that scholars can discern Luke used are indeed sources we actually have and thus can directly compare to and analyze.

As an example, the scholar Dennis MacDonald has shown that Luke also reworked fictional tales written by Homer, replacing the characters and some of the outcomes as needed to suit his literary purposes.  MacDonald informs us in his The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul (New Testament Studies, 45, pp. 88-107) that:

The shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or angel assuring safety, the riding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god, and the sending of him on his way [in a new ship].

Paul actually tells us himself that he was shipwrecked three times, and that at least one time he spent a day and night adrift (2 Cor. 11.25).  It’s possible that Luke was inspired by this detail given by Paul and used it to invent a story that expanded on it, while borrowing other ideas and details from famous shipwreck narratives including those found in Jonah, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid.  In fact, Acts rewrites Homer a number of other times.  Paul’s resurrection of the fallen Eutychus was based on the fallen Elpenor.  The visions of Cornelius and Peter were constructed from a similar narrative that was written about Agamemnon.  Paul’s farewell at Miletus was made from Hector’s farewell to Andromache.  The lottery of Matthias we hear about was built off of the lottery of Ajax.  Even Peter’s escape from prison was lifted from Priam’s escape from Achilles.  There are other literary sources besides Homer that the author of Acts used as well.  For example, the prison breaks in Acts share several themes with the famously miraculous prison breaks found in the Bacchae of Euripedes such as the miraculous unlocking of chains and being able to escape due to an earthquake (compare Acts 12.6-7 and 16.26 to Bacchae pp. 440-49, 585-94).

However, the source that Acts seems to employ more than any other is the Septuagint.  While MacDonald has shown that the overall structure of the Peter and Cornelius story is based on writings from Homer, the scholar Randel Helms has shown that other elements were in fact borrowed from the book of Ezekiel in the OT, thus merging both story models into a single one.  For example, both Peter and Ezekiel see the heavens open up (Acts 10.11; Ezek. 1.1), both of them are commanded to eat something in their vision (Acts 10.13; Ezek. 2.9), both respond to God twice by saying “By no means, Lord!” using the exact same Greek phrase (Acts 10.14, 11.8; Ezek. 4.14, 20.49), both are asked to eat unclean food, and finally both protest saying that they have never eaten anything unclean before (Acts 10.14; Ezek. 4.14).  Clearly, the author of Acts isn’t recording anything from historical memory, but rather is assembling a fictional story using literary structures and motifs that don’t have much if anything to do with what happened to Peter or Paul.  The author appears to be inventing this “history” in order to convince his readers of how the previously-required Torah-observance was abandoned in early Christianity, and to convince his readers that this abandonment of Torah-observance was even approved by Peter all along, and confirmed to be approved of through divine revelation.  Yet, we know this to be a lie because Paul even tells us himself (in Gal. 2) that he was for a long time the only advocate for a Torah-free version of Christianity, and it was merely tolerated by Torah observers like Peter (and often contentiously so).  Similarly, in Acts 15.7-11, we can see that it is basically just Paul’s speech from Gal. 2.14-21 put into Peter’s mouth, which is the exact opposite of what Paul told us actually happened.

In fact, all the other stories in Acts are just like this, where they are a fictional product created from prior literary sources that had no relevance to any actual Christian history, just so Luke could make a point that he thought was important.  There may have been some actual authentic sources behind some of the events we read about throughout Acts, but there is simply no evidence for them, nor any way to discern what those historical elements could even be since if any exist, they are embedded in what looks to be a literary invention as opposed to any kind of real history.  It seems that Luke was writing this to sell some particular idea of how the church began and later evolved in its early years.  Just as Luke had done in his Gospel, Acts tries to portray the Torah-observant and Gentile sects of Christianity as having been continuous and harmonized, it tries to stress the close relationship between Paul and the other apostles, and also the unity of the first believers.  In doing so, the author of Acts had to undermine the Epistles of Paul, most especially Galatians.

One example that shows us the historical revisionism seen throughout Acts is the fact that Paul tells us himself that he “was unknown by face to the churches of Judea ” until a number of years after his conversion (Gal. 1.22-23), he tells us that after his conversion he went away to Arabia before eventually returning to Damascus, and he tells us that he didn’t go to Jerusalem for at least three years (Gal. 1.15-18).  Yet, in Acts 7-9, the author tells us that Paul was known to and interacting with the Jerusalem church non-stop from the beginning (even before his conversion), and rather than going to Arabia immediately after his conversion, in Acts we are told that he went immediately to Damascus and then back to Jerusalem but a few weeks later, never ever spending so much as a minute in Arabia.  So Acts is filled with confirmed instances of historical revisionism, rather than any actual historical accounts.

Another more obvious example of Luke’s inventiveness in Acts is when he expands Jesus’ post-resurrection time on earth to an entire span of forty days, with Jesus hanging out (in secret) with his disciples and dozens upon dozens of other believers.  During this time, he has Jesus teaching them even more than he did while he was alive, before having Jesus fly up to outer space to reside with angels (Acts 1.3-12).  This is a clear-cut example of myth in the making.

The scholar Burton Mack has given other examples of how Luke’s version of the history of early Christianity in Acts is entirely unrealistic.  He tells us:

Luke says that the standard sermon was preached to the Jews on the day of the Pentecost and often thereafter, whereupon hundreds converted and the whole world became the church’s parish overnight…[but this is] a story that does not make sense as history by any standard.

Not only is this nonsensical in terms of the ridiculously hyperbolized growth rate, but also in the most general sense of how people would have really behaved.  As Mack says:

No Jew worth his salt would have converted when being told that he was guilty of killing the messiah.  No Greek would have been persuaded by the dismal logic of the argumentation of the sermons.  The scene would not have made sense as history to anyone during the first century with first-hand knowledge of Christians, Jews, and the date of the temple in Jerusalem.  So what do we have on our hands?  An imaginary reconstruction in the interest of aggrandizing an amalgam view of Christianity early in the second century.  Luke did this by painting over the messy history of conflictual movements throughout the first century and in his own time.  He cleverly depicted Peter and Paul as preachers of an identical gospel…That is mythmaking in the genre of epic.  There is not the slightest reason to take it seriously as history.

To summarize Mack’s conclusion, the narrative we see in Acts is so incredible and unrealistic, it couldn’t possibly have been based on historical events.  Rather, it is what Luke wanted to have happened and/or what he wants his readers to believe happened.  This sentiment applies throughout the entire book of Acts.  In terms of background information, this conclusion comes as no surprise since all other “Acts” literature written by Christians was entirely fabricated as well, for example the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Thomas, and all of these Christian fabrications look quite similar to the Acts that we find in the NT.  There simply isn’t any reason to trust the Acts found in the NT anymore than these other Christian fabrications, especially after having demonstrated that it is riddled with hyperbole and historical fiction.

Adding to this is the large number of literary coincidences (just as we saw in the earlier post-series concerning the four Gospels in the NT), which aren’t at all believable as history.  As the scholar Robert Price observed:

Peter and Paul are paralleled, each raising someone from the dead (Acts 9.36-40, 20.9-12), each healing a paralytic (3.1-8, 14.8-10), each healing by extraordinary, magical means (5.15, 19.11-12), each besting a sorcerer (8.18-23, 13.6-11), each miraculously escaping prison (12.6-10, 16.25-26).

Likewise, just as Peter was sent by God to save Cornelius after he sends for Peter following a vision (Acts 10), Paul is also sent by God to save the Macedonians “when a certain Macedonian man ” sends for him in a vision (Acts 6.9-10).  Luke also made Paul’s story parallel that of Christ’s, where, as Price tells us “both undertake peripatetic preaching journeys, culminating in a last long journey to Jerusalem, where each is arrested in connection with a disturbance in the temple “, and then “each is acquitted by a Herodian monarch, as well as acquitted by Roman procurators “.  Furthermore, both are interrogated by “the chief prests and the whole Sanhedrin” (Acts 22.30; Luke 22.66; cross-referencing Mark 14.55, 15.1), and finally both know that their death is pre-ordained and they both make predictions about what will happen afterward, not long before they die (Luke 21.5-28; Acts 20.22-38; cross-referencing 21.4).

Notably however, Paul does almost everything at a larger scale than Jesus.  Paul’s journeys traverse a much larger region of the world, almost the entire northeastern Mediterranean in fact.  Paul also travels on and around a significantly larger sea than Jesus did (Mediterranean vs. Sea of Galilee).  Even during the one particular journey by sea where Paul faces death from a perilous storm, and is saved by faith, on Paul’s occasion his ship is actually destroyed thus dramatically exceeding the level of peril that Jesus had faced during the storm he encountered.  We also hear that Paul’s trial spanned several years rather than merely a single night as was the case for Jesus.  Unlike Jesus, we hear that there were actual armies plotting to assassinate Paul, and also unlike Jesus, we hear that Paul had actual armies come to rescue him (Acts 23.20-24).  Whereas Jesus was said to stir up violence against himself by his reading scripture in a synagogue (Luke 4.16-30), Paul actually stirs up violence against himself by his reading scripture in two synagogues (Acts 13.14-52, 17.1-5).  Though Paul and Jesus both die and are resurrected from the dead, Paul alone marches right back in the city unharmed and continues to preach the gospel in public throughout the region (as if entirely unimpeded), winning many more disciples for Jesus as a result (Acts 14.19-21), whereas Jesus didn’t win any new disciples after his resurrection and didn’t even attempt to do so.  Even at the end, unlike Jesus, Paul is eventually sent to meet none other than the emperor of Rome himself — another example of something that Jesus was never said to have accomplished.  So despite all the coincidental parallels between Paul and Jesus, by Luke’s account in Acts, Paul has been colored as someone who was not only far more famous and more successful than Jesus was, but also one who faced more dangers and at larger scales.

All of these parallels found between Peter and Paul, and between Paul and Jesus, are simply wholly improbable as history.  Another parallel (or set of parallels) worthy of mention concerns the account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9.1-20), which looks like nothing more than a rewrite of the Emmaus narrative found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24.13-35), which is another demonstrably fictional story.  Both stories involve a journey on a road from Jerusalem to another city (Emmaus: Luke 24.13; Damascus: Acts 9.1-3).  Both stories feature a revelation of Jesus Christ; in Luke the revelation came as “they drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “they were going (poreuein) ” (Luke 24.28), whereas in Acts the revelation came as Paul “drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “he was going (poreuein) ” (Acts 9.3).  In both stories we read that Jesus appears and rebukes the unbeliever and then gives them instruction, and accordingly they become believers and then continue on their way to preach what they’ve now come to believe.  Both stories involve at least three men on the road together and yet only one of those men is actually named (Paul [as Saul] in Acts, and Cleopas in Luke 24.18).  In both stories “the chief priests” of Jerusalem are portrayed as the enemies of the church (Luke 24.20; Acts 9.1, 14).  In Luke’s Gospel we hear that God said Jesus had to suffer whereas in Acts we hear that God said that Paul had to suffer (Luke 24.26; Acts 9.16).  Both stories feature some form of blindness, where Paul is blinded by the divine light of his vision in (Acts 9.8), and Cleopas and his friend are unable to see that their fellow traveler is Jesus (Luke 24.16).  Both stories also end with this blindness reversed (Acts 9.17-18; Luke 24.31).  In Luke’s Emmaus narrative, the visitation occurs on the third day (Luke 24.21), and in Acts the visitation is followed by a blindness that lasts for three days (Acts 9.9).  Finally, in Luke, the blindness is cured after a meal begins (Luke 24.30-31), where in Acts, a meal begins after the blindness is lifted (Acts 9.18-19).

As we can see, in order for Acts to be any kind of history, one would have to assume that all of these parallels are merely historical coincidences which is orders of magnitude less probable than that they are simply inventions that were intentionally created to reflect one another.  It’s certainly possible for a couple of these coincidences to be historical, but it is nigh impossible for all of them to be historical.  Either way, there isn’t any way to weed out any of the possible historical details from within this plethora of fictional constructions.  Overall, Acts just shares far too many features with popular adventure novels that were written during the same period, in order to lend it any trust as history.  Here’s an overview of those features:

1) They all promote a particular god or religion.
2) They are all travel narratives.
3) They all involve miraculous or amazing events.
4) They all include encounters with fabulous or exotic people.
5) They often incorporate a theme of chaste couples that are separated and then reunited.
6) They all feature exciting narratives of captivities and escapes.
7) They often include themes of persecution.
8) They often include episodes involving excited crowds.
9) They often involve divine rescues from danger.
10) They often have divine revelations which are integral to the plot

Since Acts shares all of these features and thus looks exactly like an ancient novel of the period, there is simply no good reason to assume that all of the parallels it has with other literary sources are merely historical coincidences.  Rather, we should conclude that they are in fact what they have been shown to be: literary constructs and other elements of fiction.

Luke, Acts & The Historicity of Jesus

Clearly Luke constructed tales that were meant to affirm the historicity of Jesus, that Jesus was resurrected from the dead (resulting in a conspicuously empty tomb), that he was touched by his disciples, that he slept and dined with them during a forty-day “retreat” that was held in secret behind closed doors, and that he then flew off into outer space while they all watched (Luke 24 and Acts 1).  It goes without saying that all of this is ridiculous and obviously not historical.  There aren’t any witnesses to these events other than fanatical followers, and so not a single disinterested person ever verified any of it.  It isn’t until Acts 2 that we first hear about the public history of the Christian mission where Christians start publicly announcing their gospel.

However, something rather strange occurs at this point.  Throughout Acts‘ supposed history of the movement, from the time it goes public in the city of Jerusalem, at no point in the story (not in any of the 28 chapters) do we hear about either the Romans or the Jews ever showing any knowledge of there being a missing body.  Likewise, we never hear about them taking any action to investigate what could only be to them a crime of tomb robbery and desecration of the dead, which were both quite severe offenses punishable by death.  Matthew’s Gospel even claims that the Jewish authorities accused the Christians of such crimes before Pilate himself (Matt. 27.62-66; 28.4, 11-15), and although this too is certainly fiction, it does illustrate what could not have failed to happen, if a body actually went missing.

Due to the fact that Christians were trying to use the missing body as evidence for a risen Jesus, they certainly would have been the first suspects of such a tomb robbery, if it had indeed occurred.  At best, they would have been secondary suspects, if indeed Joseph of Arimathea was the last person known to have custody of the body (Mark 15.43-46; Matt. 27.57-60; Luke 23.51-56; John 19.38-42).  So he would have been the first person hauled in for questioning, and yet, conspicuously he is nowhere mentioned in this history of the church, as if nobody knew anything about him (or as if he didn’t exist).  If he hadn’t been hauled in for questioning (whether he existed or not), the Christians would have been next in line to be hauled in for questioning for such an offense.  Yet, we never hear a single event in Acts where Christians were accused by Romans or Jews of grave robbery, which implies that there wasn’t any missing body to investigate, and thus no empty tomb known to the Roman or Jewish authorities.  This means that Christians couldn’t have been pointing to an empty tomb as evidence, for they would have been questioned about it, and possibly convicted whether they were involved or not with the disappearance of the body.  Acts is conspicuously silent on this matter and suggests that there were never any disputes whatsoever regarding the body, there weren’t even any false accusations of theft mentioned, nor were there any questions about it at all.

More importantly, the Romans would have had a larger problem to deal with here other than simply grave robbery, for the Christians were said to have been preaching that Jesus had escaped his execution (whether described as a supernatural event or not), that he was seen congregating with his followers, and that he disappeared.  It is doubtful that Pilate or the Sanhedrin would have believed any claims that Jesus had risen from the dead (nor is there any evidence that they did believe this), but if the tomb was empty and Jesus’ followers had been reporting that he had continued to preach to them and thus was still a fugitive, Pilate would have been inclined if not obligated to haul in every Christian for questioning and undergo a massive manhunt for such a threatening escaped convict.  Furthermore, the Sanhedrin would have also been obligated to find and kill Jesus as per their initial plan.  However, we don’t hear any of this happening in Acts.  Nobody asked where Jesus was hiding at, nor who helped him to escape.  This is more than enough to prove that Acts‘ account of the events here is fiction, let alone completely unrealistic.  There was no missing body, no empty tomb, and thus no criminal that was on the run from the law, for if the Roman or Jewish authorities had heard any of this being publicly preached as claimed in Acts, we would no doubt have heard about the expected repercussions, including the likely persecution of Christians by the Roman and Jewish authorities that would have been interrogating them.

If we are to grant that the original Christians believed any of the events in Acts as historical, then the absence of all of these pertinent details and expected events (regarding the missing body), at best, supports the theory that the original Christians were actually preaching that Jesus rose in an entirely new body (a spiritual resurrection) as opposed to the old one that he discarded and left in the grave.  In line with this theory is what Paul wrote, that the body that dies “is not the body that is to come “, but instead this buried body is left to be destroyed, while an even better “replacement ” body is already stored up in heaven waiting for each of us (1 Cor. 15.35-50; 2 Cor. 5.1-4).  At worst, and more likely than any other theory that has been proposed, is that Acts is entirely a fabrication, and there was in fact no historical Jesus, and the earliest Christians instead believed in a celestial Jesus (where he was effectively an archangel) whom communicated to them exclusively through revelation and through hidden messages in scripture, which is a theory that is supported by the material found in Paul’s epistles (the earliest and most reliable Christian sources we have in the NT).

In closing, we can see that Acts, just like the Gospels in the NT, is not at all reliable in terms of having any historical merit.  There are numerous parallels found throughout suggesting that there were many literary sources used for its contents, and Luke was inventing the material contained within, while adding some historical peripheral details (demonstrably obtained from Josephus) to add local color to the stories he was writing as most authors of fiction are known to do.  Other than those less relevant peripheral details, the actual events described within it are entirely unrealistic, not corroborated by any independent evidence, and are exactly what we’d expect to find in an ancient novel of the period in question.  Again, for those interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, as I have only mentioned a fraction of that which is contained in his overall analysis, and it is very important that one reads all of the background knowledge and evidence to fully understand just how weak the case for historicity really is.  You will not be disappointed.

The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part 4 of 4: John

The final post in this series will mention a few elements from Richard Carrier’s analysis of the Gospels as found in his book On the Historicity of Jesus, specifically pertaining to The Gospel according to John.  As with the previous three Gospels, John also appears to have written a religious novel filled with allegorical myth and fiction, and doesn’t appear to be interested in reporting any factual historical accounts.  Likewise, just as was the case with Luke and Matthew, John quite evidently had knowledge of the previous Gospels and used them as sources.  Though some scholars have maintained that John was writing independent of the other Gospels, there is simply no evidence to support that independence.  Rather, there is abundant evidence that John did in fact know about those Gospels and used them as (at least some of the) sources for his own, with the main difference being that John simply redacted them much more freely than Luke or Matthew did with their sources.

One example of John’s apparent knowledge of Mark’s Gospel, for instance, is the fact that John copies Mark’s pairing of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” miracle with the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, in exactly the same sequence (So John 6 was likely derived from Mark 6.31-52).  However, as we saw in the analysis regarding Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s specific choice of pairing and sequencing of various miracles were intentionally placed as they were for the purpose of producing a particular literary structure.  Additionally, the paired events themselves are obviously ridiculous and historically implausible, so the most likely reason John shared the pairing that Mark employed is that he in fact borrowed it all from Mark.  Adding to this likelihood is the sheer number of details that they both have in common, including the details that “five thousand” people were fed, exactly “twelve baskets” of crumbs remained, that Jesus performed this miracle starting with exactly “five loaves and two fishes”, and that the amount of food needed to feed the crowd would have cost “two hundred denarii”.

In John’s Gospel, we also find the same literary structure for the narrative regarding Peter’s denial of Christ that Mark originally wrote in his Gospel (compare John 18.15-27 with Mark 14.53-72).  John also mentions the story of Jesus curing a blind man with spit that we first heard about in Mark, although in John, we can see that he freely changed some of the details.  Whereas in Mark, Jesus only uses spit for the magic spell, in John, Jesus uses spit mixed with dirt to make mud which he applies to the blind man’s face.  John also changes the additional magic that Jesus had to use in order to get the spell to work.  In John, after Jesus applied spit, he told the blind man to go “wash in the Pool of Siloam” to get the spell to work, whereas in Mark, the blind man was “half cured” from the spit (as we infer when he tells Jesus that although he could see now, the people he saw looked “like trees walking around”), then Jesus simply touched his face once more and then the spell worked successfully (compare John 9.6-7 with Mark 8.23-25).

John also has numerous similarities with material in Luke and Matthew as well (especially Luke).  Only in John and Luke’s Gospels do we hear about the new character, Martha, the sister of Mary (Luke 10.38-42; John 11.1-12.2).  Only in them do we hear about the miraculous scene where Jesus produces an extremely large catch of fish (Luke 5.1-11; John 21.1-4).  Only in them do we hear the claim that there was in fact a second Judas among the twelve disciples (Luke 6.16; John 14.22).  We also only hear in these two Gospels that Judas Iscariot was possessed by Satan (Luke 22.3; John 13.16-27).  In them alone, we hear specifically that the disciples chopped off the right ear of the high priest’s slave (Luke 22.50; John 18.10).  Both alone mention that Pilate declared Jesus innocent thrice (Luke 23.4, 16, 23; John 18.38, 19.4, 6).  Both alone claim that Jesus had been buried “where no man had yet been laid” (Luke 23.53; John 19.41).  Only in these two Gospels do we hear that there were two angels seen outside of Jesus’ empty tomb (Luke 24.4; John 20.12).  Both alone say that the resurrected Jesus visited the disciples in Jerusalem (not Galilee as in Matthew and Mark) and inside a room (rather than outdoors as in the other Gospels) as well as having Jesus show his wounds and even share a meal with them (Luke 24.33-43; John 20.18-29, 21.12-13).  To be sure, John modifies and adds to many of the contents he’s borrowing from Luke, but either way, the number of similarities and coincidences between the two is far too great to conclude that John isn’t using Luke as a source (even if he is doing so rather creatively).

After we concede to the fact that John is using the other Gospels as sources, we can take notice of the fact that John intended on rebutting a particular theme that those previous Gospels all had in common, that “no sign shall be given” that Jesus is the Messiah (e.g. Mark 8.11-12), which was in line with what Paul said when he mentioned that no signs were given to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor. 1.22-24).  So in Mark for example, even though he invents miracles to put in his stories as allegories, he is careful to make sure that only the disciples (no independent witnesses) are the ones that ever notice, mention, or understand those miracles.  The only thing remotely close to an exception to this in Mark is at the end of his Gospel, when the three women saw that the tomb was empty and heard from a man sitting inside that Jesus had risen (which wasn’t really a miracle that they witnessed, but they were surprised nevertheless), and yet even with this ending we are told that the women simply ran away in fear and never told anyone what they had seen (Mark 16.8).

Matthew had already added to this material in Mark, “correcting” it by instead having Jesus say that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign” and therefore “there shall no sign be given except the sign of Jonah“, meaning the resurrection of Jesus on the third day (Matt. 12.39, 16.4).  Thus we can see that Matthew took what Mark wrote and went one step further, by allowing that one sign, and narrating the story so that the Jews “know” about it (hence his reason for writing Matt. 28.11-15).  So Matthew invented new evidence that we never saw in Mark.  Luke merely reinforced what Matthew had written (Luke 11.29), yet added to it with his invention of the parable of Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) as well as the public announcement that was made to the Jews (Acts 2), thus illustrating the previous Gospels’ “no sign shall be given” theme.

John rebuts this entire theme by packing his Gospel full of “signs” and by taking Luke’s parable of Lazarus and turning it into an actual tale of Lazarus (John 11-12).  We even read in John 2.11 that “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him“, thus implying that it was because of these signs that his disciples believed in him (something we don’t hear about in any other Gospel).  We read just a few verses later in John 2.17-18 that when Jesus was asked for a sign, he simply says that his resurrection will be a sign.  Notably however, John doesn’t say here that this will be the only sign.  Quite the contrary, for in John 2.23 we hear that “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing“, and later we read that “a great multitude followed him because they beheld the signs he did ” (John 6.2), followed by John telling us that when people “see the sign he did“, they declared that Jesus was a true prophet (John 6.14).  In John 3.2, we read that a Pharisee named Nicodemus said to Jesus “no one can do these signs that you do, unless God be with him“, and even in John 4.48-54 we read that Jesus said “You will in no way believe unless you see signs and wonders” and then he provides them with a miracle to see.  We are even explicitly told that these signs were indeed the evidence that showed that Jesus is the Christ (John 7.31, 9.16, 10.41-42), and there are several other references to the signs that Jesus gave, including John telling us that there were even more than those mentioned in his Gospel (John 20.30).  So John clearly attempted to rebut this theme present in the other Gospels, and made it blatantly obvious that he was doing so.

Adding to this rebuttal seen throughout John’s Gospel is his resurrection narrative that was the most ridiculous of all — the “Doubting Thomas” narrative (John 20.24-29), where the resurrected Jesus asks Thomas to stick his finger and hands in his open wounds so that he would believe.  So we have multiple examples of the author of John (or authors, as scholars actually believe there were multiple authors that contributed to the extant manuscripts of the Gospel we now have) creating proof, and insisting that all this new evidence justifies belief that Jesus is the Christ.  This is also why John alone invented an eyewitness “source” for his Gospel (never heard of before in the others), whom he referred to as the “Beloved Disciple” (although it is implied that this unnamed person was Lazarus), and said that he got all of his information from him.  In any case, the incredibly propagandistic style and contents in his Gospel make it thoroughly untrustworthy (more than any of the other Gospels in fact) in terms of historical accuracy.

Beyond this obvious propaganda, John is also filled with several long, implausible speeches (that we’ve never heard of before his Gospel) of Jesus, and yet conspicuously absent from these speeches are the Sermon on the Mount, as well as any appreciable amount of moral instruction.  We also see many new characters (such as Lazarus and Nicodemus) and new events that the other Gospel writers seemed entirely unaware of.  John also scrambles the order of many events, for example, moving the episode of Jesus clearing the temple from the end of his ministry to the beginning of it.  John also expands Jesus’ ministry from one to three years, having Jesus go on multiple trips to Judea and Jerusalem rather than only once.  John even moved the date (and thus also the year) of Jesus’ execution in order to make Jesus’ death correlate with the exact day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered, likely in order to make a different theological point with regard to viewing Jesus as the Passover lamb.  Thus John appears to be the worst of all the Gospels in terms of him most freely redacting what the previous Gospel authors wrote, adding and inventing whatever he wanted.  Thus, if John is trying to convince his readers that what he wrote is factual history, then by modern standards, John is clearly lying (just as Luke was).

One of the biggest problems that scholars have faced when trying to analyze John’s Gospel is the fact that we don’t have what John originally wrote.  Scholars are aware that somebody later on rearranged the Gospel, adding and removing content and ultimately scrambling the order of many scenes.  One can see quite clearly that his Gospel has been altered just by noting that it finishes with two different endings, where each ending was written completely unaware of the other (John 20.30-31 and 21.24-25), with each serving as conclusions to two different resurrection appearance narratives (with John 21.1 added as a hasty attempt to stitch the two together).  This “multiple ending” problem had actually happened in Mark’s Gospel as well, where there are at least five different known endings.  Even the famous story of the adulteress (John 7.53-8.11) with the famous line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” wasn’t present in the original text as scholars know that this was added by a later editor.  There is plenty of evidence in fact that suggests that there are corruptions throughout the entire text.

We can see in John 5, for example, that Jesus goes to Judea (specifically Jerusalem; 5.1), and yet in John 6 Jesus is not in Judea but rather “went off to the other side of the sea of Galilee”.  This is a problem because the sea of Galilee is nowhere near Jerusalem, let alone in Judea.  Evidently, in the original text, preceding John 6.1, Jesus was in Galilee at some location on the opposite end of the sea of Galilee (and not in Jerusalem), so the order of events became jumbled due to various alterations over time.  We’re also told in John 2 (13, 23) that Jesus was in Jerusalem and then we’re told that he entered Judea (3.22), but obviously if he was in Jerusalem (a city in Judea) then he was already in Judea, so it seems that some part of the text was deleted here that would have mentioned Jesus returning to Galilee prior to him re-entering Judea a second time.  There are other examples like this which I’m not going to mention here because there are more interesting materials in John that I’d like to get to now.

As with the other Gospels, John also has several literary structures of his own.  One of the most brilliantly crafted is the sequence where Jesus is traveling from Cana to Cana (something we’ve not yet heard of until John).  This role of Cana is a literary construct that John likely invented to illustrate different degrees of faith and how to obtain those levels of faith.  The story takes place over several days and the literary sequence starts with a miracle at Cana “on the third day” (turning water into wine) and ends with another miracle at Cana on another “third day” (“resurrecting” a father’s son), which is also combined with other notable references as an obvious metaphor and allusion to Jesus’ future resurrection.  Here is what this quite elegant literary structure looks like:

Traditional Context (features a woman as a mother)

–   John 2.1-12: A wedding completed at Cana.

–        – Featuring a mother and her son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a traditional Jewish context.

–        – Story ends at Capernaum (2.12).

I.  Traditional Context (ends with a man)

–                    A. John 2.13-22: Clearing of the Temple.

–                          – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (2.18).

–                          – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (2.19 = 2.20).

–                          – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (2.20).

–                          – A metaphor (of resurrection) is misunderstood (2.19-22).

–                          – The temple Jews have no faith.

–                     B. John 3.1-21: Nicodemus the Pharisee.

–                           – Jesus is believed because of his miracles (3.1-2).

–                           – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (3.3 = 3.4).

–                           – A question is thus voiced as doubt (3.4).

–                           – A metaphor (of rebirth) is misunderstood (3.3-4).

–                           – A “teacher of the Jews” (3.10) has partial faith.

–                      C. John 3.22-36: John the Baptist.

–                            – Jesus is believed because of his word (3.27-34).

–                            – Jesus’ words are explained; Jesus is the savior (3.35-36).

–                            – John has complete faith.

II. Marginal Context (begins with a woman)

–                       A. John 4.1-15: The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well

–                             – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (4.15).

–                             – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.10, 13-14 = 4.11-12, 15).

–                             – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (4.11-12; 4.15 is sarcasm).

–                             – A metaphor (of living water) is misunderstood.

–                             – The woman has no faith.

–                        B. John 4.16-38: The Samaritan woman reconsiders.

–                              – Jesus is believed because of his miracle (4.16-19).

–                              – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.16 = 4.17).

–                              – A question is then voiced as doubt (4.29).

–                              – A metaphor (of spiritual messiah) is misunderstood (4.21-25).

–                              – The Samaritan woman has partial faith.

–                         C. John 4.39-42: The Samaritans of Sychar.

–                               – Jesus is believed because of his word (e.g. 4.41).

–                               – Jesus’ words are understood; Jesus is the savior (4.42).

–                               – The Samaritans have complete faith.

Marginal Context (features a man as a father)

–   John 4.43-53: A funeral averted at Cana.

–        – Featuring a father and his son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a marginal Jewish context.

–        – Story began at Capernaum (4.46).

John clearly invented this material to make a point, and it looks like he designed it all to fit into a particular pattern of metaphors and parables: two miracles that parallel and invert one another occurring at Cana, and nestled in between two sequences of three conversational narratives, with the first of those triads paralleling the second in terms of the developing faith in each example (no faith, partial faith, and finally complete faith).  We can also see that the first triad is in a traditional Jewish context, and then the second one repeats the same themes in a relatively marginal context, with John alternating the roles of men and women (something we also saw Mark do in his Gospel).  Note also how the two events that ensconce this overall structure both involve an announced problem of some kind (running out of wine in the first event, and an official son’s illness in the last event).  Both involve a request to fix the problem, both involve a rebuke where Jesus says something ornery to the person making the request.  Both also involve a reaction where the requester then puts complete faith in Jesus, followed by a successful solution to the problem (where what they believed Jesus could do, he successfully accomplishes).  John also repeats the same literary components in traditionally Jewish and in marginally Jewish contexts (so we have two sets of each); first a traditional Jewish context (a Jewish wedding) followed by another traditional context (temple Jews and John the Baptist), followed by a marginally Jewish context (Samaria) finally followed by another marginal context (helping a Herodian official).

So we can see that John, just like the other Gospel writers, has created literary structures (a triadic ring structure in the case above) filled with metaphor and allegorical messages (in this example regarding different levels of faith and their respective effects, as well as allusions to the crucifixion and resurrection which I’ll mention more in a moment), as opposed to John reporting any kind of historical events as he claims in his preface.  Once again, it is simply very implausible for historical events to occur in such an order and with such coincidental patterns, and this is compounded by the number of historical implausibilities that are all entirely expected elements to find within fiction.  These implausibly coincidental sequences as well as the types of events and behaviors are not something we ever expect to occur in real life.  John is in fact writing a religious novel here, and is inventing material and arranging it in very specific ways to serve his own literary and theological purposes.

Like the other Gospel writers, John also borrows texts from the Old Testament (OT) and rewrites them or adapts certain ideas in his narratives.  For example, the first miracle at Cana, which is John’s only “new” miracle not present in the other Gospels, illustrates this fact.  This story exemplifies the Word of God in the book of Exodus, where we hear that Aaron “did the signs in the sight of the people, and the people believed” (Exodus 4.30-31), which is the basic model that John employs for his entire Gospel.  In the story found in Exodus, we read that God told Moses that he would give him three signs to perform such that if they didn’t believe after the first two signs he gave, they would definitely believe after the last one was given, with the latter point seen in the following verse:

“If they will not believe even after these two signs, nor listen to you, then you shall take some water that you took from the river, and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you took out of the river shall become blood upon the ground.” (Exodus 4.9)

As we can see, the last miracle Moses was going to perform was turning water into blood, which closely parallels John’s first miracle of having Jesus turn water into wine, thus John appears to be starting where Moses left off and transforming “the last” into “the first”.  One may recall that toward the end of John’s Gospel, at the crucifixion, we read that Jesus spews both water and blood from his body (John 19.34), and so Jesus’ ministry appears to have ended with a reminder of the miracle that it began with.  This is something that Jesus even alludes to in John 2.4 where two references to John’s crucifixion scene are mentioned (Jesus references the hour of his death, and references the fact that he would no longer be his mother’s son).  This demonstrates that John rewrote the crucifixion scene (including the spewing of water and blood from Jesus, which is unique to John’s Gospel alone) as he had these parallels in mind when he matched it with his scene at Cana.  In accord with this intentional matching is the fact that the crucifixion is an anti-type of the scene at Cana: at Cana his mother gives a command to Jesus, and at the crucifixion Jesus gives a command to his mother; at Cana we hear his mother saying to do whatever Jesus says, and at the crucifixion Jesus tells Mary what to do; whereas at Cana Jesus’ mother asks him to make wine from water, at the crucifixion Jesus gives them blood with water; at Cana we hear Jesus asking what he has to do with her, and at the crucifixion he says that he has nothing to do with her (due to a transformation of kinship); at Cana Jesus says that his hour has not yet come, and at the crucifixion his hour had indeed come.  John even repeats the same Exodus theme where he says that the miracle of the water and blood coming from Jesus happened “so that you may believe” (John 19.35), just as God had told Moses what would happen after performing his turning water into blood.  So there is strong evidence here that John is simply replicating the last miracle that Moses performed.  There is also evidence that John borrowed and adapted some of his details from a similar miraculous tale told of Elijah in 1 Kings 17.8-24.  In that story, we read another tale involving a woman and her son, although in that particular story they expected to die soon because they were starving to death (1 Kings 17.12).  The woman’s son is approaching death from illness and Elijah is called upon to heal him (1 Kings 17.24), similar to what we hear happen in John when Jesus later saves a man’s son from deadly illness (his second miracle at Cana).

Related to this is the odd fact that Jesus seems quite rude to his mother when he says “Woman, what have I to do with you?“, which upon further analysis doesn’t appear to be any kind of historical report, but is rather an anti-type of Elijah, when in the tale with Elijah, the woman in need of food says to him “What have I to do with you?” (and the exact Greek is used in both the story with Jesus and that of Elijah in the Septuagint translation of 1 Kings).  In both stories the prophet involved tells those needing food to take empty pitchers and remove from them the required provision, which then miraculously appears before them.  Thus, rather than John being concerned with any kind of factual history, this is just another example of a literary construct John invented, and that he carefully integrated into his revised account of the crucifixion and the entire Cana-to-Cana structure.  John is simply lying and passing it off as history, as the evidence illustrates more and more upon closer analysis.

One good demonstration of John’s overall inventiveness is when he creates an eyewitness, the “Beloved Disciple” (John 21.24, 19.35, 19.25-27, 20.2-8), who is inserted into the same story told by the previous Gospels, and yet this person is conspicuously absent from those previous Gospels.  Unlike in John, there aren’t any male disciples at the cross in any of the other Gospels, nor is anyone resting on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper.  John clearly inserted this character into the stories that he borrowed and redacted from the other Gospels, and then dishonestly claimed that this person was his “source” for the contents in his Gospel.  This is further confirmed by the fact that John makes considerable effort to imply that the “Beloved Disciple” was in fact Lazarus, a character that was not among the list of twelve disciples mentioned in the previous three Gospels. In fact, Lazarus wasn’t ever mentioned in any of the other Gospels except in Luke’s Gospel when he was only mentioned as a deceased character in Jesus’ fictional parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man”.  How do we know that John made considerable effort to imply that this never-before-heard-of witness was Lazarus?   There are many reasons, for example, the fact that only one character in his Gospel is described several times as “the one whom Jesus loved”, and that was indeed Lazarus (John 11.3, 5, 36).  Also, right after Lazarus was introduced and described as Jesus’ beloved, we hear that he is reclining with Jesus at supper the very next day (12.1-2, 9-11).  So when we later hear that “the one whom Jesus loved” is also reclining with Jesus at the Last Supper, it is quite obvious that this is supposed to be Lazarus once again.  This should also be the case for every other instance when we hear a reference to “the one whom Jesus loved“, such as at the crucifixion, at the empty tomb, and finally at the resurrection (John 19.26-27, 35, 20.2-8, 21.7, 20).

The final giveaway that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus is the fact that we hear in John 21.21-24 that a rumor had spread around the community that the Beloved Disciple would not die, and there simply isn’t any reason for this speculative rumor to have arisen other than the fact that in John’s Gospel, Lazarus had been resurrected from the dead by Jesus. So clearly people were wondering if Lazarus would ever die a second time, hence the rumor that began to circulate.  We also hear that the Beloved Disciple was the first person to see the burial cloths that Jesus had cast off and left in his then empty tomb, and earlier in John we were told that Lazarus had been wrapped in burial cloths which he also cast off at his resurrection.  Accordingly, Lazarus is the first person to believe that Jesus had risen since he had experienced a similar resurrection himself and could relate to it firsthand (John 20.8).  However, there are even more similarities worth noting.  In both Jesus’ and Lazarus’ resurrection accounts, we hear the peculiar detail of the soudarion (a small cloth covering the face of the deceased), and in both stories this cloth is clearly distinguished from the burial wrappings.  In both, we hear references to being bound or unbound by these wrappings, as some metaphor for becoming unbound or liberated from death.  Additionally, in both accounts we are also given a colorful and detailed description of these burial wrappings, their placement, etc.  So the many parallels make it quite obvious that the “Beloved Disciple” is in fact Lazarus.

All the details that John gives us about the Beloved Disciple being Lazarus merely exposes that John is lying throughout his Gospel, because there is no corroboratory evidence that Lazarus ever existed, not even from the demonstrably untrustworthy Gospels that John himself used as sources.  Nobody else knows anything about this Lazarus character (let alone his most extravagant resurrection story, in fact the most incredible resurrection story told in any of the Gospels) and we simply don’t hear anything about him except in John’s Gospel.  Thus, a non-existent Lazarus couldn’t have witnessed anything, despite John telling us that he did.  This absence from the other Gospels implies that this is a definite fabrication.  Adding to the exposure of this lie, is the fact that John assigns a high level of importance to the whole Lazarus resurrection event.  The event is so integral to the plot that John tells us that it was because of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and thus gaining so many newly convinced followers, that the Jewish elite then plotted to kill Jesus (John 11.53).  Yet, we don’t hear anything about this integral reason for the plot against Jesus in any of the other Gospels.  So the fact that John made this “Lazarus resurrection” story integral to his Gospel, just further illustrates that his Gospel is a fabrication, where he is just rewriting “history” (or more accurately he is rewriting the pseudo-historical accounts given in the other Gospels) as he pleases, likely to suit his own purpose of re-emphasizing the many “signs” that were said to be proof that Jesus was the messiah.

Lastly, John appears to have invented this Lazarus tale in order to reverse and thus to rebut or refute the Parable of Lazarus as found in Luke.  The bottom line here is that whenever we find instances of imaginary people in earlier stories being turned into real people in later stories (i.e. Luke’s Lazarus versus John’s Lazarus), what we are seeing is in fact a major marker for myth-making, and one that was quite common in antiquity.  Furthermore, the fact that John turns Luke’s imaginary Lazarus into a real person isn’t the only indication that he is trying to refute Luke.  There are several other indicators of this in fact.  In Luke’s parable, we hear about a rich man that ends up burning in hell and he sees up in heaven a dead beggar named Lazarus that he once knew, and he sees this Lazarus resting on the “bosom of Abraham”, so he begs Abraham to resurrect Lazarus from the dead so that he may warn his still-living brothers in order to avoid the same torturous fate.  The parable ends with Abraham refusing to resurrect Lazarus because “if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16.31), thus further repeating the point mentioned in the synoptic Gospels that Jesus would not be performing signs since they won’t persuade anyone.  One coincidence worth noting here is the mention of Luke’s Lazarus resting on the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16.22-23), thus ever more confirming that John’s “Beloved Disciple” who we hear was reclining “on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13.23) was in fact Lazarus.  More importantly, we can see that in Luke’s parable, Lazarus does not rise from the dead, whereas John completely reverses this as well in his Gospel, and not only does Lazarus rise from the dead, but his resurrection actually convinces many people to turn their favor toward Jesus and be saved, which goes completely against what Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel (as well as what the other Gospels were saying).

Not only is John’s Lazarus sited as convincing others through his being resurrected, but John also sites Lazarus as a witness to the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and to Jesus’ resurrection (and as the source for John’s entire Gospel), thus illustrating that the overall purpose of John inventing Lazarus was to convince people (despite this going against what Jesus had said wouldn’t work in Luke).  So it is clear that John’s invention of Lazarus was to be a refutation for Luke, and this only further reduces any chances that John is ever accurately reporting history in his Gospel, for he’s freely redacting the Gospels he used as sources, and not at all interested in preserving what they had to say (if he assumed they were accurate histories, which even if he thought so, we can see that they are not), nor is he receiving this from any kind of witness.  As it has been made quite clear by now, what we are seeing in John’s Gospel is allegorical myth and fiction, with these stories created to serve specific literary aims even beyond the creation of literary structures that we saw an example of early on in this post.  As such, just as with the other Gospels, John’s Gospel can’t be trusted as any kind of reliable historical sources.  Rather we are seeing numerous examples in the Gospels of employing well-known ancient literary methods of writing fiction and allegory (most especially students of literary Greek, which the Gospels were written in).

It should also be noted as I near the conclusion of this post, that the common historical methodological criteria that scholars have tried to use to sift out possible historical details of Jesus that are buried in a sea of myth have been proven to be either fallacious and/or unreliable, and this has been demonstrated by the fact that when scholars apply these same criteria to the exact same evidence under consideration, they get different results (which proves the methods are unreliable).  Since fiction often contains peripheral details that are historical and since fiction is written in all manner of genres, due to the principle of contamination we are unable to establish if there are any details in any of the Gospels that can support the historicity of Jesus.  The best method proposed thus far, and one that has been proven reliable mathematically and proven to be logically sound is the application of Baye’s Theorem.  So for those that wish to refute Carrier’s arguments or his conclusions, one must do so by refuting the prior and consequent probabilities that Carrier defends, and one must support their own proposed probabilities with evidence and logically sound argumentation.

This concludes this particular series of posts.  As mentioned in the previous post, regarding The Gospel According to Luke, I may eventually make a fifth post to complement that one, and discuss Luke’s book of Acts to illustrate how it too is quite obviously fiction, and looks very much like a typical ancient novel with all the goodies one would expect to find therein.  For those interested in the most recent scholarship regarding the historicity of Jesus Christ, I highly recommend reading Richard Carrier’s book, as it is the most comprehensive analysis regarding the historicity of Jesus I’ve ever read or heard of, and is very well documented and well researched (featuring a nice 40-page bibliography with everything well referenced regarding extensive work from numerous top scholars in the field).  I only provided readers of this post-series with a small fraction of what Carrier researched and wrote in his book, but I hope that for those interested, it was informative and fascinating!