Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Working both sides of the ontic street"

James Wood, writing about the invention of hell:
Paul etherealises Jesus’ Messianism. Paul also believed in an imminent Last Judgment, but for him resurrection would be not national but individual, and it would involve physical and spiritual immortality. We shall be resurrected as bodies, but as uncorrupted, renewed bodies, free of sinful flesh: spiritual bodies. This optimistic fudge – Paul working both sides of the ontic street – was not new; the Egyptians had practised mummification in order to keep the corpse from decaying, so that it could be reunited with its soul in the afterlife. Paul’s dark novelty was to argue backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus: we have been saved from death by Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection; therefore we must all have been cursed to death long before Jesus’ decisive intervention; therefore we have all been sinners from Adam: ‘For as in Adam all die, even in Christ shall all be made alive.’ As Casey argues, this bolting of the Saviour God onto the Messiah idea makes Christianity very different from Judaism or Islam.
If true this is a pretty fascinating bit of intellectual history. Wood's essay (or the book under review) has the virtue of taking the Pelagian heresy seriously, or at least of admitting the stakes. Personally I feel that most of what is worthwhile and interesting in Christianity derives from the Pauline-Augustinian-Calvinist belief in the basic and irredeemable depravity of humans; this has the effect, as Wood notes, of trivializing morality; but another way to construe this is that the Pauline account carries the implicit moral that Orwell saw in Lear:
"Give away your lands if you want to, but don't expect to gain happiness by doing so. Probably you won't gain happiness. If you live for others, you must live FOR OTHERS, and not as a roundabout way of getting an advantage for yourself." 
This is what Ronald Dworkin called the "austere view" in his recent NYRB essay on morality-informed ethics/ethics-informed morality, and I would be drawn to it even if he didn't call it that. (It is easy to persuade me to hold views advertised as "austere" or "bleak" or "comfortless.") By contrast the Pelagian view conduces far too well to the smug and self-righteous tendencies of most people. Wood uses the word "stolid," which is exactly right: it's a suburban right-wing sort of view, on which people can pat themselves on the back for paying their taxes and doing the right thing by their families and having normal-and-healthy emotions and preferences -- and judge others for their failure to match up.

This dispute has very little to do with religion: I often feel, arguing against the latest normative inference from evolutionary biology, that I'm rehashing Augustine vs. Pelagius. The majority opinion is obviously always going to be Pelagian, but I think the Pauline gloss -- in its fierce and possibly accidental egalitarianism -- is less separable from the other elements of left-wing tendency in Christianity than Wood is willing to acknowledge. Consider George Herbert's "Redemption":
knowing his great birth,
    Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
    In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
    Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
    Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

On the Pelagian account of Christianity this would be purely eccentric behavior: the deserving poor, yeah, why not, but thieves and murderers? Of course it doesn't follow from everyone deserving hellfire that anyone should actually suffer it.


Also in this LRB, and also gated, is this excellent passage by Steven Shapin on corpses:
The corpse begins its dissolution into evil-smelling liquids and gases soon after death, and depending on temperature, moisture and other conditions, the stench becomes inescapable within two or three days. (The ‘worms’ – as the schoolyard song has it – really do begin to ‘crawl in and out’, bacteria, bugs and their larvae aiding in decomposition.) The release of gases – including hydrogen sulphide, methane and ammonia – makes the corpse bloat, and the pressure build-up can cause liquid to ooze out of the body’s orifices. Before we’re dust, we’re a cheesy mud. Sometimes the mud blows up: ‘Gas pressure is capable of bursting the thoracic or abdominal cavities,’ Cantor writes. ‘Before embalming was common, sealed coffins sometimes exploded’ because of it. There is a story that the corpse of Elizabeth I – retained for more than a month before burial – blew up, shattering the wooden coffin and lead sarcophagus in which it was being kept.  

Shapin mentions the rather hilarious euphemism "cremains," which I think I had heard before but had forgotten.

No comments: