But the storehouse, and the very life of memory, is the history of time; and a special charge have we, all along the Scriptures, to call upon men to look to that. For all our wisdom consisteing either in experience or memory – experience of our own, or memory of others, our days are so short that our experience can be but slender… - Lancelot Andrewes
In his great, skewed sermon on Lot’s Wife, preached before Queen Elizabeth, Lancelot Andrewes remarks there are only seven instances, in the Vulgate, when we are called upon to remember something – a memento is laid down, as he puts it:
“Seven several times we are called upon to do it: a. Memento dierum antiquorum, saith Moses. 2. Recordamini prioris Seculi – Esay. 3. State super vias antiques-Jermy. Investiga patrum memoriam-Job. 5. Exemplum sumite Prophetas-James. 6. Rememoramini dies priscos-Paul. 7. Remember Lot’s wife- Christ here; that is, to lay our actions to those we find there, and of like doings to look for like ends. So read stories past, as we make not ourselves matter for story to come.”
Of course, it isn’t hard to pick out an odd discrepancy here in the chain of taboos – for if Lot’s wife was cursed for looking back, what is Christ doing but asking us to look back to that act? In a sense, the reason to remember the story within the memento seems to contradict the command of the memento. Except: what is that command?
Which brings us closer to the fate of Lot’s wife and her pitiful story. LI is a great fan of this story.
It is the more pitiful in that the story ends with Lot’s wife appearing as a sort of footnote to the whole adventure. One is reminded of that great Brueghel painting - the subject of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" - of the fall of Icarus – the boy’s legs waving just above the encroaching waves, and the placid and roundabout ignorance of the event as life goes on: the herdsmen, the sailors, the laborers.
Briefly, this is what Genesis has to say:
Lot dwells in Sodom, with his wife, two daughters, and his sons in law. The Lord sends angels into the city to check it out – he is doing a survey, and if the angels can find a just man in the place, the Lord will spare it. But the Sodomites throng before Lot’s door, demanding to have sex with those angels. Lot offers his daughters in their place, but the Sodomites won’t have it. The angels then tell Lot to go, but:
“019:016 And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and
upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two
daughters; the LORD being merciful unto him: and they brought
him forth, and set him without the city.
And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad,
that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee,
neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain,
lest thou be consumed.
019:018 And Lot said
unto them, Oh, not so, my LORD:
019:019 Behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and
thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me
in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest
some evil take me, and I die:
019:020 Behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little
one: Oh, let me escape thither, (is it not a little one?) and
my soul shall live.
019:021 And he said unto him, See, I have accepted thee concerning
this thing also,
that I will not overthrow this city, for the
which thou hast spoken.
019:022 Haste thee, escape thither; for I cannot do anything till thou
be come thither. Therefore the name of the city was called
019:023 The sun was risen
upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar.
019:024 Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone
and fire from the LORD out of heaven;
019:025 And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the
inhabitants of the
cities, and that which grew upon the
019:026 But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a
pillar of salt.”
When Christ lays his memento on Lot’s wife, commanding us to remember her, he doesn't give her a name. Unlike Abram’s wife or Joseph's, we aren't given her first name in the story. As she figures, a diminuendo, at the end of the great destruction of the city, that diminuendo is made tinier still by the absence of a name, as though by degrees we were getting down to granules of her, flakes, a mere seasoning. By looking back and becoming a pillar of salt, she became one of the two great Western myths about looking back – the other being Orpheus’ backward glance at Eurydice as the two were coming out of the underworld. In Orpheus’ case, too, the taboo was that he could not look back. And in Orpheus’ case – just as in the case of the memento laid on Lot’s wife – the original taboo did not effect the chain of glances backwards to the moment of violation. The poem - the story - escapes the rule. Such a limit to the taboo implies that memory and the gaze backward are on two different planes…
But LI is not as concerned with this as with the career of Lot’s wife. Lancelot Andrewes’ sermon is constructed around the orthodox version of the story – Lot’s wife is an instance of faintheartedness. In one sense, of course, she links up with Eve, another woman who disobeys the Lord’s word. But in another sense, Lot’s wife has put up with everything. She left Ur, the wicked city, with Lot. She wandered with Lot for years. She put up with Lot offering to protect the angels of the Lord at the price of giving the men of Sodom her daughters. So her great sin was quailing at the last moment. It was frailty of the will.
“Looking back might proceed of divers causes, so might this of hers, but that Christ's application directs us. The verse before saith, 'Somewhat in the house;' something left behind affected her, of which He giveth us warning. She grew weary of trouble, and of shifting so often. From Ur to Haran; thence to Canaan; thence to Egypt; thence to Canaan again; then to Sodom, and now to Zoar; and that, in her old days, when she would fainest have been at rest. Therefore, in this wearisome conceit of new trouble now to begin, and withal remembering the convenient seat she had in Sodom, she even desired to die by her flesh-pots, and to be buried in 'the graves of lusts;' wished them at Zoar that would, and herself at Sodom again, desiring rather to end her life [67/68] with ease in that stately city, than to remove, and be safe perhaps, and perhaps not in the desolate mountains. And this was the sin of restlessness of soul, which affected her eyes and knees, and was the cause of all the former. When men weary of a good cause which long they have holden, for a little ease or wealth, or I wot not what other secular respect fall away in the end; so losing the praise and fruit of their former perseverance, and relapsing into the danger and destruction from which they had so near escaped.
Behold, these were the sins of Lot's wife, a wavering of mind, slow steps, the convulsion of her neck: all these caused her weariness and fear of new trouble--she preferred Sodom's ease before Zoar's safety, 'Remember Lot's wife.”
In a great phrase, Andrewes later says that we are searched with her salt. This vivid picture of Lot’s wife is, in fact, why I am in absolute agreement with Kurt Vonnegut, who dedicated Slaughterhouse Five to her:
“Those were vile people in both those cities, as is well known. The world was better off without them.
And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because
it was so human.
So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.”
Oddly enough, Vonnegut’s interpretation imputes to Lot’s wife feelings that are not often interpreted to her in the afterlife of her story. A more common interpretation is that Lot’s wife was drawn by the sensation of the destruction. That the taboo was a taboo on enjoying violence. Just as in the story in Plato, where Leontius was so drawn and at the same time repulsed by the bodies that lay on the execution field outside of Athens that he rushed to one and addressed his eyes, saying, there, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle. Myself, though, my instinct is that Andrewes notion of a certain sloth, a certain nostalgia, a certain weariness, a desire to, at last, to “die by her flesh-pots, and to be buried in 'the graves of lusts’” rather than continue on this unending quest with her husband, in the service of a dangerous god, in the hands of an inhuman justice, can be combined with Vonnegut’s notion of a certain instinctive human compassion to give us a sense of the meaning of remembering Lot’s wife. To LI’s mind, Lot’s wife is the genius of our reactionary instincts. It is where we are reactionary – politically, socially, emotionally.
Although Lot’s wife is a strong figure, the only figure in the New Testament, as Andrewes points out, who has a memento laid on her by Christ, she is not the subject of a lot of poetry. But Anna Akhmatova wrote one poem for her. Here it is:
And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.
All of which brings us back to that death sentence. If one reading of the punishment - that Lot's wife is punished for feasting her eyes on a scene of destruction - is wrong, what, then, are we to make of this taboo? In LI's opinion, we here strike upon an odd topic: the embarrassment of power. Yes, the catastrophic crimes committed by the powerful need some cover, some secrecy, so that they do not arouse such indignation in subject populations that Jehovah will be strung from a lamppost. But it isn't the case that power is simply and completely structured by rationality. Perhaps - LI hypothesizes, don't hold me to this in court! - perhaps Jehovah is embarrassed. Perhaps the reactive feelings that turn Lot's wife's head - reactive feelings that, remember, have caused Lot himself to linger and complain - are not unknown to the Lord of Hosts, or the Fuhrer, or the POTUS, or the infinite bureaucratic systems with their infinite lists that make possible the slaughter of cattle and people in equal measure, with more wastage per pound on the homo sapiens. Joseph K., you will remember, is hidden in the tavern to spy upon one of the Castle's minor officials, but a great demonic power in the village itself. There is a shame in power, in its exercise, its structure, that must be revenged upon its victims. An embarrassment even where power is most rampant and insolent.