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Friday, July 20, 2007

search me with this salt

- Lot's wife, Anselm Kiefer

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.


Anonymous said...
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Roger Gathmann said...

The above was an annoying spamad

Anonymous said...

Your last few sentences encapsulate why I have trouble accepting the Chritian God as worthy of worship. I cannot fully accept the apolgetics behind the story of Jonah, either. "es a right bastard, no?

Arkady said...

Brian, if it's any comfort, I have it on the best authority that the Christian God has a lot of problems with the whole worship concept, not to mention considerable dismay at the people who offer it. He was last seen hiking off to another dimension, robes pulled up around his knees, muttering about "rent-to-own salvation".

Anonymous said...

You cannot fully make sense of the story of Lot's departure from the cities of the plain without reviewing the antiparallel story towards the end of the Book of Judges, in which a servant girl is accepted as just such a substitute. Of particular significance is that this is one of a number of episodes with the refrain "in those days there was no King in Israel", allegorically representing the absence of any legitimate outward - and by extension, inward - authority; thus a distancing from God or state of sin is shown as having ramifications.

Roger Gathmann said...

Brian, my wimpy answer is that I'm interested in the unfolding story of Yahweh and his interactions with his people, but as for believing in the Christian God - well, I believe in the Way, I guess you'd say. The Dao. That might lead some to the Christian god, and others to Krishna, and others to ... various incarnations of Aphrodite.

However, that power suffers embarrassment - that God felt shame in the instant that Lot's wife turned back - that doesn't seem to be a common interpretation of the story. Still, I think it is in the story, there to be pulled out.

Mr. Lawrence, you are referring to that proto-Silence of the Lambs story in Judges 19, no? But I have a question: are you saying that the story in Genesis consciously references the story in Judges, or that the one in Judges uses Lot's wife as a model?

northanger said...

Hey Roger! story of the 10 lepers before "remember Lot's wife" & unjust judge after. "turn" appears, in some sense, in each case. root word for chera, "widow" (who harries unjust judge) is chasma. Lot's wife named Adith or Irith (Avestan). Adith, Hadith? (Hazor-Hadattah (Hazor also an important location of a battle in Judges) / Adithaim / Ornament; AS 501 = LUCIFTIAN (Enochian Key 7 & 30) = ATRAPOI).

ok! now i'm off to buy Harry Potter #7.

Roger Gathmann said...

North, you celestial exegete! I do hope you read that Tim Powers book I mentioned, Last Call. The more I read it, the more I realize it was meant for you. Or perhaps you wrote it under an assumed name! Only you could understand dialogue like this, between the wise magician poker player and the adapted son in danger poker player:

"Ozzie frowned at him. 'Well... the Jack of Hearts is in exile, and the Hearts kingdom has sold itself out to the Swords; if the Jack's going back, he better do it disguised.And every water card I saw was bracketed by Hearts, meaning the water is tamed by the King and Queen. Since we're headed for Las Vegas, that means we should be leery of tamed water, which sounds to me like Lake Mead."

northanger said...

hearts are cups are water.


Genesis 13:8-9 And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand {08040}, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left {08041}. note: first time both words appear.

HEB-371 = ShMAL (Sinistrum) = ATRAPOI.

i've got HP7! :)

northanger said...

Genesis 13:9 Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand {08040}, then I will go to the right {03231}; or if thou depart to the right hand {03225}, then I will go to the left {08041}.

should've checked all 'em. all first timers. Abram & Lot are facing east; north=left & south=right. Lot went East.

northanger said...

Lot's wife is an interesting plot twist. with her "removal" you get Moab, Ruth & the bloodline of Christ. don't know what salt has to do with all this.

Roger Gathmann said...

Well, for the salt, check out that Lancelot Andrewes sermon! It is seasoned with salt and plays with salt throughout the scriptures with high abandon.

northanger said...

very salty. is qui cecidit, adjiciat ut resurgat from Jeremiah 51:64? & Qui stat, videat ne cadat from 1 Corinthians 10:12? cecidit? i've always wondered why the west is identified with Babylon & not Corinth. speaking of Aristophanes, And what of the Corinthian whores? If a poor man offers them proposals, they do not listen; but if it be a rich one, instantly they turn their arses to him. but then, what about the merchants of Carthage?

northanger said...

more Aristophanes from Corinth: The First City of Greece (Richard M. Rothaus): "Libanious describes Aristophanes (Or. 14.41): He went to the remains of the temple, bringing no incense, no sacrifice, no fire, no libation, for that was not allowed, but grief, a mournful voice, and weeping. He broke forth in tears, eyes cast not to the risky sky, but to the ground..." [+].

hope i'm not giving anything away, but guess which book begins with a quote from Aeschylus' The Libation Bearers?

memento et fuge & memento et fac. parable of the pharisee & the publican? appears right after the unjust judge. interesting, city list where Hazor-Hadattah appears, verse 33 Zoreah means "hornet" & comes from root word meaning leper/leprous. Joshua 15:33 And in the valley, Eshtaol ("entreaty"), and Zoreah, and Ashnah ("I will cause change", probably from Y@shanah from yashan from yashen meaning "to be festering (of leprosy)".

HEB 210 = YMN-YMYN = ADHR (Vide #607) = [[ENO 210 = XOR]]
HEB-607 = {111th Prime} = ADM HRAShVN = ThRHB (white spots (on the skin) — a symptom of pro-forma "leprosy")
ENO 67 = YMN = PIDIAI (Enochian Ninth Key :: A Mighty Guard Of Fire With Two-edged Swords Flaming, Which Have Vials :8: Of Wrath For Two Times And A Half, Whose Wings Are Wormwood And The Marrow Of Salt...)

Roger Gathmann said...

North, sometimes I can keep up with you, and sometimes you go into hyperdrive and leave me in the dust... and salt!
I didn't totally understand the Corinth thing. But hey, speaking of west, for the Cherokees, West was black - death. Hence, the march west on the trail of tears was symbolically resonant as well as physically exterminating.

Anonymous said...

"you are referring to that proto-Silence of the Lambs story in Judges 19, no?"

No - that too is an instance of taking things in isolation. I am thinking of the story that begins there, but continues through all its various repercussions that come out in the later chapters. If you only read that chapter you miss all the comapartive stuff I was pointing at.

"But I have a question: are you saying that the story in Genesis consciously references the story in Judges, or that the one in Judges uses Lot's wife as a model?"

Neither, on this occasion, though both happen to be correct. That is, the editorial processes that took place both in framing what was and was not canonical, and in phrasing and presenting stories when they were given written form, had both sets of stories in front of them. So it was possible to emphasise each in the light of the other, with parallels and antiparallels.

However, it was also possible to derive common themes of deeper significance, ones which could not be apparent by giving either story primacy. I was suggesting that you could derive those meanings if you worked from both accounts, over and above particular themes relating to the Lot story per se.