Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The prophet essayist

There are essayists who, as Virigina Woolf puts it, relate their “I” to the “rheumatism in your left shoulder”; and those who relate it to “the immortality of the soul”.

Myself, I see a textual and genealogical difference between the two groups. The first are discursive, associative, and move outward to a world of doubts and quasi-comic situations. For the latter, it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of a living god. They are prophetic, apophantic, revelatory, assertive. In the prophetic tradition, Nineveh is always wicked, and will always pay for it in keeping with the wrath of God. We are always in the valley of bones, asking if these bones will live.

The former group are in it, ultimately, for the sport, the play, the sentiment. For every assertion there is a counter-example, and this is not to be met with some tremendous overthrow but with a certain modesty of scope. Universals will be used, but not to talk of the soul – rather, to talk of, say, the best way to roast a pig. We Nineveh-ians would do better to break down our experience see just how wicked we really have been, and whether we might be a bit more merciful than god itself about our sins.

I’m of course making a division of ideal types. I chose Nineveh to represent this wicked world because Jonah, one of the most attractive of the prophets, chose it as the object of his objection. Or rather had it chosen for him by the Lord. In the book of Jonah God, for the first time, seens to break the code of austerity of the prophet – seems in fact to tease him. As we know, teasing a prophet leads to know good – viz the children who mocked Elijah and were eaten by bears. But what of teasing on the highest level.

In the book, the prophet, after the famous big fish incident, rails against Nineveh, calling upon the city to repent to escape the wrath of God. We know how this has gone – from Sodom to Jerusalem. But in a rare exception, the Nineveh-ians do repent. They put on sackcloth and ashes. And because God is merciful and kind, he doesn’t bring down the fire this time.

This, it turns out, doesn’t satisfy the prophet. He accuses the good Lord of being a softy – too good and kind. And he asks God to take his life. He seems to feel ashamed that Nineveh was not destroyed.

“Then, said the Lord, doest thou well to be angry?” Or in the more recent versions, is it right for you to be angry? [wayyihar]. As this is the good Lord, commentators usually view this phrase as a reproach. But the tone of this reproach is, I’d maintain, a teasing one. What the Lord is getting at, like a good psychoanalyst, is the prophet’s little secret: the prophet tends to grow all too fond of his anger. Indignation and outrage are not free from the usual circuits of the libido – they become deeply satisfying automatisms. Any old codger – me for instance – can tell you that.

The essayist-prophet is a type in all Western European literatures. English has Carlyle, Ruskin and Lawrence, to name a few – even Woolf, in her last essay, Three Guineas, tested her own prophetic instrument. I'd put, for good measure, John Berger in this group. The French have Pascal, Peguy, Bloy, and to an extent Sartre. The Germans Marx, Nietzsche, and Karl Kraus. Etc., etc.

And it is always a question with the prophet: if the word repented along the lines they have laid out, could they be satisfied? Which is why, so often, the prophet guards the anger through a nostalgia that speaks of absolute turns in history – we will never get back this innocence. Denunciation banks on the irrevocable.

Of course, Jonah’s anger does not negate Jonah’s prophecy, but it does hint at a different kind of prophetic attitude, one that turns inward, that gets behind the assertion to the doubt, and from the doubt, outward, softens the denunciation.

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