Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Fire This Time

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. -James Baldwin

With the Trayvon Martin incident in Sanford, Florida making worldwide headlines, even provoking a statement from President Obama, Americans are once again confronted with the ugly reality of a racially polarized nation, leaving many of them to wonder when or if it will be any different.

Of course, conservatives will have us believe that all this was settled long ago and that we have put it behind us. They argue that it is the Liberal media that is always banging this particular drum and preventing our national wounds from properly healing.

While the black community, including many entertainers, has spoken out about the case in Florida, I find myself wondering what Tina Turner is thinking, since she has chosen to live in Switzerland since 1994. Turner certainly experienced enough racial discrimination in the 1960s, when she performed with her then husband Ike Turner. Evidently, the issue is so painful to her that, now she has found an escape from it in a place where the history of Africans in America is little known or understood, she refuses to answer questions on the subject in interviews.

But Turner wasn't the first African-American entertainer who found refuge in Europe. After success in Harlem's Cotton Club, Josephine Baker travelled to Paris in 1925 to appear in a show called "La Revue Nègre". Her appearance onstage wearing nothing but a skirt made of bananas and a smile made her a sensation with French audiences. She became an artists' model, a recording artist and a movie actress before finally becoming a French citizen in 1937. When she returned to New York in 1951, she was refused service at the famous Stork Club and charged its owner of racism.

Miles Davis also visited Paris in 1949. He was astonished by his reception and by the relative absence of color discrimination. "This was my first trip out of the country," Davis later wrote in his autobiography. "It changed the way I looked at things forever ... I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren't prejudiced." He wrote scores for French films, including the splendid Elevator to the Gallows and had a love affair with the French actress/chanteuse Juliette Gréco. However much he loved Paris, Davis knew that the center of his musical world was in America, and he reluctantly returned there, back to its segregated hotels and restaurants, where he and other black jazz artists could perform but never eat or sleep.

James Baldwin, author of Giovanni's Room, which caused a stir in 1950s America for its "homoerotic" content, first visited France in 1948. He saw that before every black person in America could realize their own personal identity, they were confronted with a racial identity imposed on them by their society. Baldwin's residency in France was his way of realizing himself, free from the tags "negro" or "negro writer".

Baldwin wrote an extended essay called "Down at the Cross" in 1963, consisting of two parts, "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation", which was a long letter to Baldwin's 14-year-old nephew, and "Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind." Published in The New Yorker, the essays were published in book form under the title The Fire Next Time. The title comes from an old hymn: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign,/ No more water, the fire next time!" The book's popularity spread and it eventually became a "Civil Rights manifesto" of sorts. Baldwin was unflinching in his rejection of both Christianity and Islam (the brand of Islam represented by the so-called "Nation of Islam"):

I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering - enough is certainly as good as a feast - but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth - and, indeed, no church - can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakeable.

I remember hearing Richard Pryor joke about justice in the South ("It means 'just us'") and how a policeman accused of shooting a black man ten times in the back says in his defense, "Your honor, the gun just fell out of my hand and went crazy!" in his funny imitation of a white man's voice. The judge says, "Not guilty!"

Forty years later and alot of people are asking, "How much longer do we have to wait for justice?" Evidently, we're not there yet by a long shot.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Soul of Wilde

Probably one of the last people I expected to be an apologist - of sorts - for Jesus is Oscar Wilde. The neurotic relationship that the Irish have had with Christ is evident in even its expats, like Shaw and Joyce.

Wilde returned to Christianity's awful symbolism in his late masterpiece "The Ballad of Reading Gaol": "Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek/The kiss of Caiaphas." "And bitter wine upon a sponge/Was the savour of Remorse." He knew too well that it was to Christ's Passion that artists returned again and again for their metaphors of suffering and pain. Near the close of his astonishing essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891), he wrote about Christianity's worship of suffering:

Christ made no attempt to reconstruct society, and
consequently the Individualism that he preached to man could be
realised only through pain or in solitude. The ideals that we owe
to Christ are the ideals of the man who abandons society entirely,
or of the man who resists society absolutely. But man is naturally
social. Even the Thebaid became peopled at last. And though the
cenobite realises his personality, it is often an impoverished
personality that he so realises. Upon the other hand, the terrible
truth that pain is a mode through which man may realise himself
exercises a wonderful fascination over the world. Shallow speakers
and shallow thinkers in pulpits and on platforms often talk about
the world's worship of pleasure, and whine against it. But it is
rarely in the world's history that its ideal has been one of joy
and beauty. The worship of pain has far more often dominated the
world. Mediaevalism, with its saints and martyrs, its love of
self-torture, its wild passion for wounding itself, its gashing
with knives, and its whipping with rods--Mediaevalism is real
Christianity, and the mediaeval Christ is the real Christ. When
the Renaissance dawned upon the world, and brought with it the new
ideals of the beauty of life and the joy of living, men could not
understand Christ. Even Art shows us that. The painters of the
Renaissance drew Christ as a little boy playing with another boy in
a palace or a garden, or lying back in his mother's arms, smiling
at her, or at a flower, or at a bright bird; or as a noble, stately
figure moving nobly through the world; or as a wonderful figure
rising in a sort of ecstasy from death to life. Even when they
drew him crucified they drew him as a beautiful God on whom evil
men had inflicted suffering. But he did not preoccupy them much.
What delighted them was to paint the men and women whom they
admired, and to show the loveliness of this lovely earth. They
painted many religious pictures--in fact, they painted far too
many, and the monotony of type and motive is wearisome, and was bad
for art. It was the result of the authority of the public in art-
matters, and is to be deplored. But their soul was not in the
subject. Raphael was a great artist when he painted his portrait
of the Pope. When he painted his Madonnas and infant Christs, he
is not a great artist at all. Christ had no message for the
Renaissance, which was wonderful because it brought an ideal at
variance with his, and to find the presentation of the real Christ
we must go to mediaeval art. There he is one maimed and marred;
one who is not comely to look on, because Beauty is a joy; one who
is not in fair raiment, because that may be a joy also: he is a
beggar who has a marvellous soul; he is a leper whose soul is
divine; he needs neither property nor health; he is a God realising
his perfection through pain.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

No Sanctuary

. . . .
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. . . .

-from Philip Larkin, "Church Going"

Last summer, I did something that would probably astonish some of my friends. I went to church for five consecutive Sundays. I didn't do it out of any resuscitated faith in God, and certainly not out of nostalgia. Try and persuade a former slave to put on his chains again, for old time's sake.

It was the first time I had set foot inside a church since I attended a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, 1996 with my mother, sister, and ex-wife. On that occasion, I was there at my mother's request, who was 78 years old.

Last summer I went with the woman who lives with me and her 9 year old daughter. I did it more out of boredom than out of a misplaced sense of duty to the fractured family that has lived with me these past few years - a family that has had to go, as so many poor families do, without a father ever since the deadbeat decided to abscond from his duties six years before.

I must admit that an ulterior motive was to save the little girl from the clutches of her born-again brother. I think that I needn't have worried and that the girl was sufficiently well-adjusted (unlike her brother) to decide for herself not to join such a group of obvious nincompoops.

That was my hope, since I gave up going to church on the fifth Sunday into my counter-reformation. My reasons for deciding to quit will be familiar to expats but perhaps a little surprising to everyone else. It was due to this incident that took place inside the church. The three of us arrived a short time before the start of the service and took our places in a pew a few rows from the door. An old woman sat down behind us and immediately started asking my companion alot of questions about me and about our living arrangements. I paid no attention to the conversation, conducted in the Visayan dialect, until I noticed that my companion was getting agitated in her responses to the old woman's questions. When the service commenced, the old woman went on chattering as we all stood up.

Without saying a word to me, my companion then walked to the outside aisle and walked out the back of the church. I stayed with her daughter, who began asking me where her mother had gone. I turned around to look at the old woman, and she just smiled dumbly at me. The mass proceeded and several minutes passed without my companion returning. Finally, with her little girl continuing to ask me where she had gone, I took her by the hand and headed straight out the door.

Outside in the morning sunshine, there was no sign of my companion. Since we lived a few hundred yards away, I figured that she must've gone back home to use the "comfort room". So I walked the short distance and found her sitting alone on the porch outside of our house. As her daughter ran off to play, I approached her and asked her if she was okay. She was staring sadly at the ground and didn't answer me at first. I sat down next to her on a low wall. When she finally told me what had happened, I was shocked, as always when I learn something new about these poor people that I could never have imagined.

The old woman behind us in church had asked her what sort of "porriner" I was - a 'Cano, Australian, German, what? She then wanted to know where we were living. When she learned that I was renting a house in the barangay, she was surprised and wanted to know why I didn't just buy the house. (Poor people are terrified by monthly bills since their income from one month to the next is never certain.) My companion told her more than she needed - or had any right - to know, that as a matter of fact I can't afford to buy a house because I am in fact a poor foreigner.

The old woman was floored and wondered how a poor foreigner could have got himself all the way to the Philippines. Upon being assured that I was, by the standards of foreigners, indeed poor, the old woman wanted to know why on earth my companion was living with me, why she hadn't found a rich foreigner instead of me. At which point my companion told her to mind her own business - just as the mass was getting started. And the old woman chattered away in Visayan, casting scurrilous aspersions at my back.

When I heard all this, I decided to end my church going once and for all. Thanks to that old woman and her snobbery - the astonishing snobbery of a poor woman who looks down on anyone who is poorer than she - I will never darken another church door again. There's a scene in the movie The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (the Charles Laughton version) in which Esmeralda, the Gypsy girl whom Quasimodo loves, is about to be hanged for attempted murder. A gallows is constructed in front of the cathedral and, in the nick of time, Quasimodo swoops down on a bell-rope, frees Esmeralda and swings back to the cathedral with her, screaming "sanctuary! sanctuary!" as the crowd goes berserk.

That was in the Middle Ages, when a church was legally outside the jurisdiction of the law. Criminals could find "right of asylum" within a church, as long as the priests permitted him entry. And when foreigners in the Philippines might be forgiven for presuming to seek refuge from the prying queries of an old busybody.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What is a Libertarian?

Over the last few years, during which the two major American political parties failed to protect most Americans from the effects of the 2008 economic meltdown, some of my friends declared themselves "Libertarians". Not having the slightest idea what they meant, I visited the Libertarian website,, where I found their ideas laid out rather neatly:

“Libertarianism is, as the name implies, the belief in liberty. Libertarians strive for a free, peaceful, abundant world where each individual has the maximum opportunity to pursue his or her dreams and to realize his full potential.

"The core idea is simply stated, but profound and far-reaching in its implications. Libertarians believe that each person owns his own life and property, and has the right to make his own choices as to how he lives his life – as long as he simply respects the same right of others to do the same.

"Another way of saying this is that libertarians believe you should be free to do as you choose with your own life and property, as long as you don't harm the person and property of others.”

Well, the ideas are certainly “far-reaching”. But they are extremely non-specific, possibly by design, and while they sound less like a doctrine than a dream I had last night (so does the U.S. Constitution), they also sound alot like the ideas of the two main political parties in America, while leaning conspicuously to the right (the use of the word “property” is a giveaway). The word "Libertarianism" should also be distinguished from its European usage, since it was used in France as a synonym for anarchism. And there have also been "socialist libertarians".

Libertarianism in America arose in opposition to the Democrat-led government social reforms, which sought to provide greater equality but which also established huge institutions that were perceived to be a threat to the sovereignty of individual liberties. Opposition to the Vietnam War also introduced strong pacifist ideas into what became, in 1971, the U.S. Libertarian Party. The party has had a candidate in every presidential election since 1972.

As with all orthodoxies, I doubt that most people who call themselves Libertarian would ascribe to everything in the Libertarian manifesto - even if it reads to me like a grab-bag of ideas borrowed from some other orthodoxies. Basically, it sounds like Republican arguments against Big Government, a strong advocacy of free-market capitalism without government regulation, and emphasizes the importance of property ownership.

I think there are strong traditions for this sort of thinking in America. There has always been am anti-authority streak in American populist culture. It must ultimately derive from the various groups, like the Puritans, that saw America as a haven from the repressive institutions of Europe and sought escape in the new land. It was the same spirit that persuaded settlers to risk their lives by joining the wagon trains heading ever-Westward.

Today, with the wildernesses disappearing, Americans look back on the Wild West with a romantic nostalgia. (The irony is that romanticism was invented in the Dark Ages by people who were nostalgic for the order and civility of the Roman era!) Things like governments, laws, courts, jails, etc., became instruments of oppression bent on depriving citizens of their liberty. Men and women who defied these institutions often became folk heroes. And this same hero worship of outlaws can be seen to this day in things like the critically acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire, that explores the beginnings of organized crime in Atlantic City.

Meanwhile, the government identified by Abraham Lincoln as "of the people, by the people and for the people" seems to be as mistrusted by many Americans as a king or a dictator. "Freedom" is understood as a condition beyond a government's reach, and every encroachment on that freedom is seen as tyrannous.

It seems to me that one of the more significant reasons why so many Americans don't like and don't want a big government is because they are disenchanted with democracy. They may blame individuals like FDR or LBJ for the size of government, but they are really blaming the people who voted them into office and their freedom to express an ideology, a vision of what society should be, that is contrary to theirs. What they don't want to admit is that a big government in a democracy is put there by people who want a big government. The conservative/libertarian argument against the size and power of government is also a tacit argument against the democratic process of one man, one vote.

I am not the biggest fan of democracy myself. There is always danger it could turn into a dictatorship of the majority. And while there are big differences in educational levels among Americans, there is also a big difference between knowledge and wisdom. I am prepared to accept democracy as an ideal, however imperfectly it may work in practice. People who have convinced themselves that the government is the root of all evil and the sum of all fears are really, I think, expressing their mistrust of democracy, since living in a democracy requires that people of potentially radically different origin and sensibility accept one another's right to exist - and to vote.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Odd Man Out

An Irish theme for St. Patrick's Day. Sláinte!

By the time he produced and directed Odd Man Out in 1947, which inaugurated the great flourish of his talent that lasted until Our Man in Havana in 1959, Carol Reed had become the most highly regarded film director in England. He rose to prominence just as Hitchcock was answering the call of Hollywood, and made his mark with The Stars Look Down and The Way Ahead (1944).

Odd Man Out is a giant leap forward for Reed and has many fine points, especially in its use of exteriors that give it a powerful sense of place (Belfast, Northern Ireland), and it would be regarded as a masterpiece if it had been made by someone else. But Reed was just getting started.

Johnny McQueen (beautifully played by James Mason) belongs to an "organization" that is never named, but is the Irish Republican Army. The time of the film was "now", 1947, so the Republic of Ireland didn't yet exist (it was created two years later), so their struggle against the British was still a national one, even if the British Commonwealth would retain the six counties of the North. Johnny is the leader of a small group that rob a bank in broad daylight early in the film. Johnny, who has spent all his time indoors for weeks after his escape from jail, grows dizzy in the openness and sunshine of the morning of the robbery, gets into a scuffle with a bank employee while trying to escape and is shot in the shoulder. Johnny shoots dead the man who shot him, but when his compatriots try to escape in a car, he falls into the street. Wounded, he runs into a hiding place. The remainder of the film is about Johnny's flight from the police and from people who seek to betray him.

Forty years ago, Charles Thomas Samuels, who was an admirer Reed's work, accused the film of slipping into melodrama. The scenes of Johnny's dementia are visually inventive (like seeing faces in the bubbles of spilled beer), but dramatically unnecessary. They come to a climax in the scene in Lukey's (Robert Newton's) flat when Johnny, surrounded by Lukey's lurid paintings of saints and prophets, rises to his feet and spouts scripture:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-2)

The symbolism is certainly present, but Reed doesn't push it as much as John Ford did in the similar film, The Informer (1935), which pushes the religious symbolism of Gypo's betrayal of another IRA member to preposterous extremes. Johnny McQueen quotes Saint Paul, and certainly British audiences would never have bought into the equation of an IRA outlaw with Christ. What pushes the film into melodrama is the plodding and lugubrious music (by William Alwyn), which sets the tone of tragedy to which the film never gets close.

But Odd Man Out's place in Reed's development is important, as a dress rehearsal for The Third Man (1949). Reed's cinematographer, the great Robert Krasker (Henry V, Brief Encounter, et al) worked on both Odd Man Out and The Third Man, and the streets scenes of Belfast at night are highly suggestive of similar scenes in bombed-out, partitioned Vienna. The plots are similar - a man on the run from the police, his long-suffering girlfriend, a final gun-battle in which he is killed. Even the titles are similar.

Odd Man Out won the BAFTA for Best British Film of 1948. Reed was nominated for a Golden Lion at Venice. He followed it with his first collaboration with Graham Greene, The Fallen Idol (1948). Then came The Third Man, and Outcast of the Islands (1951). Reed's rise to artistry was gradual but steady, and his best years were brief. His graduation to superproductions in the 1960s mirrored that of his British contemporary, David Lean. Lean had his moments (Oliver Twist, Lawrence of Arabia), but Reed was the finer artist.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The American

I think George Clooney is trying to tell us something. In the last two films of his that I've seen, Up in the Air (2009) and The American (2010), he plays middle aged men who suddenly discover how lonely they are and make desperate efforts to change their lives. Both films are variations on what Vernon Young trenchantly called "the saddest subject there is: illumination glimpsed too late."

Based on the 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth, The American follows a contract killer (Clooney) who must go into hiding when he realizes that someone is out to kill him. One of the reasons is his - unsuccessful - attempt to retire. He's had enough of killing for cash and wants a quite, normal life like everyone else. The plot can be traced at least as far back as Henry King's 1950 Western The Gunfighter in which Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) tries to escape from his reputation as the fastest draw in the West, but no one will let him. Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967) broadened the scope of "hit man angst" theme, as Alain Delon stylishly proceeded from one unfulfilling murder to another. The Patrick McGoohan movie The Hard Way (1979) had the same tone of ennui. And the theme turns up again in the comedy Analyze This and the hit HBO series The Sopranos, with gangsters seeking psychoanalytic help. A recent example of the genre, In Bruges (2008), is about two hapless Irish assassins (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) who find themselves stuck in a jewel-like Belgian city waiting for instructions from their boss.

In the same vein, The American is a slow, quiet film with very little real action. Clooney chooses the Italian town of Castel del Monte in the Abruzzo in which to "lay low" (the jargon has entered everyday speech). But there are certain things that we have come to expect from a suspense thriller - like suspense and thrills - in which The American is conspicuously lacking.

I happen to enjoy this kind of movie as long as it isn't too pretentious. One of my favorites is Stephen Frears' The Hit (1984), with John Hurt and Terence Stamp. Jim Jarmusch has set the bar with two of the stupidest examples of the genre, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009).

Anton Corbijn, the director of The American, is a successful photographer and director of music videos. I saw some of the videos he made for U2 twenty years ago that were hard to evaluate since the music he was "conceptualizing" was, er, unimpressive. In The American we shift from set up to set up with little sense of movement except perhaps laterally. Longueurs abound (it is a film for which the word "longueur" was invented) that, while capturing Clooney's boredom, result in our boredom as well.

Castel del Monte is certainly picturesque (see below). So was Aquila before the earthquake. One gets the feeling that nothing short of an earthquake could stir Castel del Monte. Corbijn was clearly relying on Clooney's likeability. But he could have been made lovable if only he'd been given something to do other than pull-ups. His tattoos tell us more about him than his actions or speeches. Clooney's virility (at 48) is validated by the undressing of a few ell-chosen young women. And his heart-throb image is given a boost by the insertion of a romance with Violante Placido (what a name!).

The movie did teach me the difference between a suppressor and a silencer. (A suppressor disperses the sound of the gunshot so no one can tell from which direction it came.) I'll remember that the next time I have to assassinate someone. You never know.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Considering what sort of memorial I could offer to the spirit of the Japanese people a year after the earthquake and tsunami, I thought I might devote a post to a film that explores the mysteries of life and death more beautifully than Hirokazu Koreeda's Maborosi (1995).

I devoted a post last year to an overview of Koreeda. I will only reiterate here that, when looking at his filmography, it isn't the least surprising that his first films were politically engaged documentaries like But - In the Time of Government Aid Cuts (1991), I Wanted to be a Japanese... (1992) (about a Korean man who passed himself off for Japanese for twenty years), and two documentaries profiling a man living with AIDS. Maboroshi no Hikari, an idiomatic expression akin to our "Will-o-the-Wisp", was Koreeda's first fiction film, and it is an astonishing debut.

The story (it can hardly be called a plot) is transparently simple: a young couple, Yumiko and Ikuo, live in Osaka with their baby son. On his way home from work, Ikuo is run over by a train. His death may have been accident or a suicide. Yumiko is left to bring up their son, and a few years later agrees to an arranged marriage with a man in Noto, a rural community on the west coast. She settles into a happy but very different life, despite troubling memories.

Near the film's close, after some of the most spectacularly brooding landscape imagery every captured on film, Yumiko cries out to her new husband, "I just don't understand. Why did he kill himself? Why was he walking along the tracks? It just goes around and around in my head. Why do you think he did it?"

"The sea has the power to beguile," he tells her. "Back when dad was still fishing he once saw a "maborosi", a strange light, far out to sea. Something in it was beckoning to him, he said. It happens to all of us."

So many of Koreeda's film are about making sense of things, the strange events of some people's lives, and their sometimes even stranger deaths. After Life (whose original title is Wonderful Life) explores a concept of death that is charmingly realistic and intellectually challenging: what if when we die we are given chance to choose from among our lifetime of memories the one in which we can spend eternity? In Distance, which has never been shown theatrically in the U.S., Koreeda explores the lives of some people who belonged to a religious cult that carried out a terror attack similar to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

At the time of Maborosi's release, Koreeda said, "for my generation there is a feeling of a lack of certainty about anything - a universal undefined feeling of loss. . . . I really don't think it's bad for people to be attracted to the idea of death or loss, or to portray it, or to approach it or to measure one's distance from it. I feel that by doing so you rethink the ideas of life and living. You can reaffirm life every time you think about death and loss."

We never find out how or why Ikuo died, if it was an accident or if it was suicide. People keep secrets from us even unto death. Last week I watched an amateur video shot by a survivor of one of the tornadoes in the American Midwest. In the video, in which a funnel cloud is forming very close by, a woman's voice is praying frantically to "Jesus" that the tornado should not come down. So the tornado came down elsewhere and killed someone else. Faith in a god that capricious is baffling to me.

The most popular TV shows in America are CSI and NCIS - crime scene investigations night after night. There is something therapeutic, I suppose, in having life's mysteries solved and explicated so neatly and expeditiously. But it also conditions people to expect that mysteries can always be solved, that every question has a ready-made answer.

With so many people dead and still missing one year after the catastrophes in Japan, Koreeda told a reporter recently that if he were granted one wish it would be that his country should "recover everything" that was lost a year ago.

"In our daily lives there are important things that we sometimes forget, that we miss and do not realise their importance. In March the earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused many people to lose these things. My wish is that we could recover everything we lost in March."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Likelier Story

More than a year ago on this blog, I commented on a recent film, The Valley of Elah, that used the David and Goliath story to underpin its narrative of the murder of an American soldier after his return from the war in Iraq. I wrote of how the metaphor might've been a more accurate account of our misadventure in Iraq if the U.S. Army had been cast as Goliath: "The film allows us to infer the identity of its David and its Goliath. But as America's wars dwindle towards their close, I am left to wonder that maybe Goliath has slain David this time, and that the Philistine is us."

As we all know by now, the Hebrew account of that contest has David, the shepherd boy, prevailing over the giant Goliath. It is such a memorable story simply because of the unlikeliness of the outcome - the opposite would've been far likelier. Little did I know but from the trenches of the Great War, Robert Graves anticipated my reversal of fortune by nearly a century.

Goliath and David

(for D.C.T., killed at Fricourt, March 1916)

Yet once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from the brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
That he's killed lions, he's killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But . . . the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.

Striding within javelin range,
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of length:
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then . . . but there comes a brazen clink,
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath's shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David's last.
Scorn blazes in the Giant's eye,
Towering unhurt six cubits high.
Says foolish David, "Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I'll not yield."
He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that's broke
The skull of many a wolf and Jesse's flocks.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout; but David, calm and brave,
Holds hid ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for beauty's overthrow!
(God's eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre-cut
"I'm hit! I'm killed!" young David cries,
Throws blindly forward,
chokes . . . and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

from Fairies and Fusiliers, 1918

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Last Error

Of all the great mysteries to be found in the Gospels, one of the most extraordinary - and timely in the Lenten season - has never, to my knowledge, been seriously addressed: what became of the body of Jesus?

The four gospels contained in The New Testament address the topic with surprising brevity: Matthew covers the discovery of the empty tomb in just twenty verses (chapter 28); Mark in twenty (chapter 16); Luke in fifty-three (chapter 24); John in fifty-six (chapters 20 and 21). The narratives also have glaring variations in detail. What they agree on is who claimed the body when Jesus was discovered to have expired on the cross, and who first ventured into the tomb after the burial. All four gospels identify a man named Joseph of Aramathea, "an honorable counsellor" (Mark 15:43), and himself a clandestine disciple of Jesus, who "begged the body of Jesus" (Matt 27:58/Luke23:52), "craved the body of Jesus" (Mark 15:43), or "besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus" (John 19:38). This Joseph was given the body, which he then "wrapped ... in a clean linen cloth/And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed." (Matt 27:59-60).

On the day of the foretold resurrection, Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" (in Matthew) go to the sepulchre where "there was a great earthquake" caused by "the angel of the Lord" which "descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it." The angel tells the women that Jesus is no longer inside, that they should see for themselves "the place where the Lord lay" and go and "tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead." The women depart "with fear and great joy".

In Mark "Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James," and someone named "Salome" go to the sepulchre, but there is neither earthquake nor angel there. Only "a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment" is within, who tells them that "he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him" and to go and tell his disciples the news.

In Luke, it's "Mary Magdalene, and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and other women that were with them" who find the "stone rolled away from the sepulchre". They went inside and "found not the body of the Lord Jesus," but instead "two men in shining garments".

In John, Mary Magdalene, evidently alone, finds the sepulchre empty and runs to Simon Peter and an unidentified "other disciple". Peter and the other disciple returned to the sepulchre and "saw the linen clothes lying". They enter and see "the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself". These details of John's are interesting because of their strangeness and their total absence from the other accounts. And because finally John identifies himself as "the other disciple ... which testifieth of these things". John, then, is the only disciple of the four who was there in the sepulchre.

After Peter and the other disciple depart, Mary Magdalene stays. Looking into the sepulchre, she sees "two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain". Then the language of John gets confusing, since Mary "turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus". She thinks it must be "the gardener" until he speaks her name, and she recognizes him and calls him "Master".

Matthew's account of the burial of Jesus is hopelessly complicated by the absurd lengths to which he goes to incriminate the Jews. Matthew reports that, after Joseph of Aramathea takes the body of Jesus to the sepulchre, "the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate,/Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again./Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first./Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make [it] as sure as ye can./So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch."

Once Mary Magdalene and the others discover the tomb empty and go to tell his disciples the news, "behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done./And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers,/Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him [away] while we slept./And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you./So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day."

All this begs many questions, one of which is if the men who stood watch over the tomb did not witness the disciples or someone else robbing Jesus's body, what exactly did they see? So what became of the body of Jesus?

The great Egyptologist John Romer related a story: "I once worked with a bloke who once excavated on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. He said, 'We were working on a cemetery of the first century, mainly crucified people, it was fascinating.' I said, 'Oh, yeah? You must've learned a lot about crucifixion, eh?' 'Yeah,' he said, 'funny thing . . . . We found a coffin, and on the lid it said "Jesus bar Joseph" — Jesus son of Joseph.' 'Good lord, that must've been interesting,' I said; 'Did you publish it?' 'No,' he said, 'we found hundreds and hundreds of graves, we just gave a general description of the site.' I said, 'But you couldn't have found that many of Jesus bar Joseph — I mean, blimey, it could've been the Jesus!' And he looked at me and said, 'Naw, it couldn't have been the Jesus, he went to Heaven.'"