Tuesday 17 June 2014

Handing them over to Satan: two cautionary tales

Theologically I am committed to a pretty deep pessimism about human nature. Original sin and all that. The belief that history is not headed anywhere and does not mean anything; that things do not generally improve; that the real problems of life are intractable and almost completely resistant to our flimsy toys of reason, education, therapy, and whatnot; that the only thing really worth hoping for is the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Temperamentally, though, I am an outrageous optimist. I won't be lying if I tell you that I have probably felt optimistic about every human being I ever met. I once knew a mad and rather menacing individual who told me with a scary gleam in his eye that he had been investigated for several murders – and all I could think was that I liked his roguish sense of humour. I was once mugged by a ruthless fellow who threatened me and took a fifty dollar bill right out of my hand – and the whole time I just kept thinking to myself: he is probably doing it to buy his child a birthday present. I have shaken hands with professors of French philosophy, and have been quite willing to believe that even they are not altogether devoid of some residual spark of human goodness.

I say this only to make it perfectly clear that I am not easily angered or disillusioned with my fellow man. He does not disappoint me, because I expect so little of human nature to begin with; he does not disgust me, because I assume the best of him and am always willing to give him another chance. Nobody is beyond redemption, and nobody is above the need for it. My boundless confidence in these two truths makes me, as a rule, quite agreeable.

And yet. There is a chilling scene in the New Testament where St Paul casually mentions that he has handed a couple of his associates over to Satan (1 Tim 1.20). He instructs the Corinthians to hand a certain troublesome parishioner over to Satan too (1 Cor 5.5). That's at least three people who were entrusted to Satan's diabolical care. It's a serious business to deliver a fellow human being into the welcoming arms of the Prince of Darkness. I myself have done it on occasion – on two occasions, to be precise – and it's no laughing matter, believe me. It kind of enervates the spirit, even though when the moment strikes there's no avoiding it.

The first time I ever had to do it was some years ago. A Christian minister, an acquaintance of mine, was preaching a sermon against family values. I cannot recall exactly what he disliked about families, but the gist of it was that he admired them about as much as kidney stones. I guess the family was one of those things that had to be squeezed out before this preacher's Marxiose-revolutionist-liberationary dreams could all come true. To explain the problem with families, the preacher embarked on a very entertaining satirical description of a certain conservative middle-class suburb. He was rather funny, pouring scorn on all the spiritual emptiness and hypocrisy of suburban life. He pronounced the name of the suburb with a kind of sneer that got funnier every time he did it. He had the congregation rolling, positively LOLing, with merriment. He persuaded everybody that this particular suburb was a spectacle worthy of all imaginable ridicule.

The only trouble, reader, was that it was my suburb. I take my shoes off there every night. My dog takes his walks there. My children serve their school detentions there. Some of my dearest neighbours live there. They knock on my door when they need to borrow milk or eggs. They feed the fish when we are away. To the preacher it looked like a funny old-fashioned conservative-voting suburb, but to me it is a community. To me it is people, and I'm pretty fond of them too. If the preacher had spent fifteen hilarious minutes making fun of me, I would have laughed with everyone else and forgotten all about it. But he made fun of my neighbourhood. 

I knew what I had to do. Silently I turned the light of my countenance away from him. Solemnly I consigned him to a spiritual darkness. I handed him over to Satan, hoping that one day he would repent and I would be able to look at him once more.

The second time it happened was even worse. I cannot call the incident to mind without feeling deeply shaken. Even now I can scarcely bring myself to speak of it. It all began innocently enough. A conversation with a learned gentleman about the theatre. Not just any learned gentleman either but a real scholar, an author of books, and not just any books either, but big ones. We exchanged pleasantries about the history of theatre. We chatted about the Greeks. We were enjoying ourselves. Inevitably the conversation turned to Shakespeare. I professed a particular devotion to The Tempest, explaining that I admire the way that play lays bare the essential machinery of the theatre. It is like the Eiffel Tower, I said, a building that exposes to plain view all the engineering that other buildings try to conceal. The Tempest is the quintessential play about plays; it is not so much a play as the blueprint of all drama, the pure Platonic form of Shakespearean comedy, history, and tragedy.

Believe me, reader, I had more to say on this subject of the The Tempest. I was only getting started. Comparisons to eternal forms are only the beginning. You should hear me when I really get going. But at exactly this moment the learned gentleman did a curious thing. He wrinkled his nose. He kind of sniffed in a sniffy sort of way, if you know what I mean. He said, with an air of infinite detachment and world-weariness, "Shakespeare? Ah but have you read the Arabic dramatists? Not to mention the German dramatists. And how much, tell me, how much do you know about the Chinese theatre? Not just the contemporary stuff but the history of it, the history I say. Ah, Chinese drama! Now there's something worth knowing about! You see, my dear fellow," he continued, regarding me with the profoundest boredom in the world, "you see, Shakespeare can't possibly mean anything until you've read everything else. You need to see him in his proper context. Otherwise there's no point saying you love Shakespeare. It's nothing but British imperialism, that's what it is. It's nothing more than –" he cleared his throat in a decisive, disgusted sort of way – "ignorant prejudice."

Very carefully I located the parts of myself from the floor and gingerly began piecing them back together. I wanted to get to the door as quickly as possible but I also had to tread very carefully in case the earth opened up underneath us. I remember the time, as a boy, when I had first experimented with swearing. I whispered the four-letter words reverentially and waited for lightning to strike or for angels to appear in the sky or for the world to collapse in on itself. I felt the same way now, more or less. A fellow human being, made in God's own image, had just described the love of Shakespeare as – it pains me to have to repeat the words – imperialism; ignorance; prejudice.

Now personally I don't mind being insulted. I am as imperial and as ignorant and as prejudicial as the next person. Insult me as much as you like, I deserve every syllable! But my learned interlocutor had not wanted to insult me; that was clear. It was against Shakespeare – which is to say, against Humanity – that his scorn was directed.

If there had been dust on my feet I would have shaken it off. I wanted nothing more to do with this man. I had nothing else to say to him. I had no good news to tell him. He wanted to see Shakespeare "in context": well, let him keep his context, and I will keep Shakespeare! He wanted to peer down his aristocratic nose at the entire human race: well, let him keep his higher vantage point, but I will stick with the human race! Though I loved this person, though I had always respected him, though I admired his learning in the non-Shakespearean departments, I resolved that I would never speak to him again. I would do nothing else for him except to pray for his soul. In a nutshell, I handed him over to Satan so that he might learn not to blaspheme.

Now I know what the moralists out there are thinking. That I should stop handing people over to Satan. That I should forgive and forget. Shake hands and make a fresh start and all that. Leave Beelzebub out of it. Hear me, you moralisers! Listen to me! If you insult me, slander me, criticise my haircut and spit in my eye, I will forgive you quick as a flash. If you pounce on me out of the shadows and take my fifty dollar bill, I will never give it a second thought. If you tell me you might possibly have murdered a few people I will still go on believing the best of you. But don't come to me with malicious words about my neighbourhood! Don't bring me your "contexts" for understanding Shakespeare! For when you do these things, you set yourself above the common human lot. And then you force my hand: for I am all on the side of humanity. If the gods themselves took your side, I would still be unmoved. I would stand right here – with Shakespeare; with humanity; with my neighbours – against all gods.

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