Saturday, March 30, 2013

Of Crime and Sin -- and Mercy

Here is how the Pope spent Maundy Thursday:

Le pape François a lavé jeudi les pieds de douze détenus, dont deux jeunes filles, dans une prison de Rome. Un geste sans précédent.

The press made a big deal out of how some of the prisoners whose feet the Holy Father washed, were women -- as though everyone involved were Salafi.
In the section of readers’ comments, Christians ‘got it’, whereas a couple of baffled agnostics worried whether, by this action the Pope were being “soft on crime”.  (The fingers twitch, itching to add an editorial “[sic!]”:  but in fact, on reflection, there is a kind of truth in this view.   But it is not a truth of the marketplace, nor indeed of this world.)

The foot-washing ceremony is not really doctrinal:  it is exemplary and physical.  When Jesus did it, it prefigured that final physical act of grace, the sharing of the bread and wine, commemorated in Communion.

Crime, like war and pestilence, and all the other woes of this vale, are concerning;  yet Christ and his church are after bigger game :  Sin.   This distinction is signally illustrated that supreme scene of all our literature, in which Jean Valjean, having been hosted to dinner by the Bishop, makes off with the silver tableware;  is caught, and hauled back to the Bishop’s dwelling in custody.  “Ah, so glad to see you again, my friend!” cries the Bishop, to the amazement of the constables.  “You forgot the candletsticks!”
Only in the shallowest view  was the Bishop being ‘soft on crime’:  He had spotted in Jean Valjean something much worse than any crime:  a soul in peril.   On the usurer’s balance-pan, the Bishop’s act makes no sense;  but it had a transcendent sense -- it gave sense to a life that erst had lacked it.


All this leads us to the mystery of Mercy -- and thence, to the Merchant of Venice.

Some choice passages of Theodore Reik would here be in point, but the volume lies not to hand.  The upshot, if memory serves, was that, although Shakespeare wore very lightly  whatever religion he may have had, he grew up in an England steeped with Christian legend if not theology, and may have been influenced by it here;  and that we are to take the play (whether Shakespeare himself so intended it or not) as a serious confrontation between Judaism and Christianity.   Our only point in raising this here, is to angle back in on the mystical import of the Pope’s gesture (so strange to the unchurched).   In light of this, we are not really practicing textual criticism here, so much as suggesting a possible staging of the play.

The Merchant is of course  a painful puzzle for the modern metteur en scène:  No one wishes to appear anti-Semitic.   Do you downplay Shylock’s Jewishness?  Do you insert apologetic mumblings into the program notes?
The reading (or staging) that I suggest, confronts this question in a way that has nothing whatever to do with political correctness:  that of not playing down, but playing up Shylock’s Jewish faith and ancestry, playing it up to its full and mighty stature, whose long shadow has ever lain across the world.
That Shylock could be a money-lender, followed from well-known sociohistorical reasons;  the status neither shocks a modern audience, inured as we are to the world of promiscuous high finance, nor has it any theological significance:  it simply is perfect for the plot.  That Jews in the Middle Ages were the ones who must finance the follies of the Gentiles, is historically amusing, but does not go to the heart of Moses, nor of Abraham.   The covenant of Abraham, and the laws brought down by Moses, are the rock upon which all that was later solid  rests.   Shylock, as such, should not be edulcorated, and he needs no excuses.   He is (or, let us depict him as) a pillar of Old Testament rectitude.   In insisting upon the force and vigor of his bond with Antonio (for the Jews well know about bonds, as well as bondage), he is as righteous in his way, as the cadi ordering the amputation of thieving hands.   Basanio -- the feckless debtor whose follies set the whole thing in motion -- is callow by comparison.  (Were I to stage the play, he would be played by one of the Monty Pythons.) 

Shylock movingly depicts  the plight and trials of his long-oppressed people;  but when it comes to the case in point, he needs no lawyer’s rhetoric or tricks:  he has the law on his side.    Portia herself admits the literal justice of Shylock’s claim, by all the judicial reasonings of this world.

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