The Epic of Gilgamesh as Secular Archetype - Commentary
If the story of Noah is such a potent antidote to secularism, the Epic of Gilgamesh, by undermining the logical force of that story, stands as an archetype of the secular worldview. The epic replaces the reality of a Noahic cosmos with the standard secularistic ideal of an existing urban civilization without beginning and without end. The Noah figure Ziusudra is the ancestor of neither Gilgamesh nor anyone else. The hero Gilgamesh’s motivation owes as much to human pathos as to any divine principle of empowerment; his achievements are altogether cryptic; the story features a hoodwinked and debauched farm boy; the actual theme is the glorification of a city world without end; and the world of the epic is in control of politicians, prostitutes, and bullies.
The secret of corrupt power is the same principle that operates in polygenesis: anonymity of origin and vagueness of purpose. Christianity is a holy faith because, among other things, Christ’s origin is so firmly established and His purposes in life so clearly defined.(5)
[(5) The genealogies of Matthew 1 and Luke 3 speak for themselves. Typical of Christ’s candor in stating his purpose in life is John6:38-39, where He defines this purpose as introducing others to the resurrection of the just: concrete eternal life.]
Factual mysteries exist in Christianity but the historical and moral context is clearly established. In the secular city, nothing except the city itself possesses any clarity of definition. Characteristically, the prostitutes, pimps, and hoodlums have forgotten their parents and are known by their function rather than by morally coherent career goals. Although the Erech of the Epic of Gilgamesh is not quite criminal Chicago or London, its prototypical tendency toward “polygenetic” anonymity is quite apparent
After a few introductory remarks on the unnamed hero, the epic opens as a hymn of praise to the city itself:
“Of ramparted Uruk the wall he built,
Of hallowed Eanna, the pure sanctuary.
Behold its outer wall, whose cornice is like copper.
Peer at the inner wall, which none can equal”
(I, i, 11. 9-12).(6)
[(6) Passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh are from Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, First Princeton Paperback Edition, pp. 40-75.]
Noahic Mankind was certainly proud of architecture, with a pride intense enough to be featured in the climactic story of the Tower of Babel, as in the mighty pyramids of Egypt. Because of the overwhelming need to create civilization after the Flood, this pride was understandable and blameless in itself. The evil of it lay in what was missing: an historical context such as the one offered in Genesis 9-11.
In the absence of such a context, the city became a mythic absolute in abstraction from any sort of moral purpose. The opening section on the glory of Erech concludes with an exception that proves the rule, a note of contextual origin:
“Go up and walk on the walls of Uruk,
Inspect the base terrace, examine the brickwork:
ls not its brickwork of burnt brick?
Did not the Seven Sages lay its foundations?”
Instead of an explanation, the “Seven Sages” are a bit of allusive folklore. We cannot blame the author for depending on allusion, a common practice in literature. Nevertheless, allusion of this kind points up the interplay between ancient and modern secularism. Allusive folklore is the concrete substance of polygenesis, every culture claiming its own quaint traditions, none of which is supposed to possess international scope or historical authority. To the standard secularist, the “Seven Sages” are an ancient phrase and mental image, not seven anthropomorphic beings engaged in historical enterprise. The dainty alliteration of the English translation makes the point; the “Seven Sages” are no less decorative than the “cornice like copper.”
The next section of the epic, the urbanization of the wildman Enkidu, expresses an archetypal understanding of the difference between farm boys and city slickers, the one class in communion with nature, the other attached to the will of the city through union with its prostitutes. Gilgamesh instructs his agent, the “hunter,” to introduce Enkidu to a prostitute and thus subdue him to the urban way of life, reducing the threat he poses to the city:
“Go, my hunter, take with thee a harlot-lass.
When he waters the beasts at the watering-place,
She shall pull off her clothing, laying bare her ripeness.
As soon as he sees her, he will draw near to her.
Reject him will his beasts that grew up on his steppe!”
(I, iii, 11. 41-45).
The episode celebrates the transition from the Nomadic to the Imperial Age. Gilgamesh’s Eanna regime commenced some fifty years after the Tower of Babel and consolidated the urban and imperial ideal of Mesopotamia in the Erech-Aratta [Isfahan?, and/or Jiroft?] War. We have seen that the Sumerian King list refuses to acknowledge a nomadic age between the Flood and epoch of First Kish. The Enkidu episode reveals the spiritual climate surrounding this suppression of the nomadic heritage.
What sort of magic does prostitution exercise in creating and maintaining the secular city? If marriage is a metaphysical absolute, prostitutes are married to all of their patrons. Their careers are the physical embodiment of polygenesis. Every marriage, like that of Adam and Eve, is an origin; and the prostitute’s anonymous swarm of marriages embodies the polygenist’s vague swarm of origins. In Noahic times, prostitution represented a corrupt variation of polygamy. Noah’s polygamous goal was to generate a millennial plenitude of nations; his enemies managed to replace polygamy with prostitution and reduced the gentile world to a spiritual condition both “common and unclean.” Marriages, in particular, degenerated into sex in general; nations lost their status as explicit fractions of a universal community; and history lapsed from a single, purposeful intrigue into the casual rote variations of prostitutes’ memoirs.
The apocalyptic phrase “Harlot of Baby1on” is an ap characterization of a polygenetic world order governed by conflicting beliefs and agnostic science. The pride of Erech, the Eanna temple, was devoted to the goddess Inanna, Semitic Eshtar, whom the iconoclastic Hislop singled out as prototype of the Harlot of Babylon.
One of Hislop’s chief insights concerning the Inanna-Eshtar-Astartefigure is that she was a goddess of urbanization
, the mythic source of walled cities:
“These testimonies in regard to Astarte, or the Syrian goddess, being, in one aspect, Semiramis, are quite decisive. The name Astarte, as applied to her, has reference to her as being Rhea or Cybele, the tower-bearing goddess, the first, as Ovid says, that ‘made towers in cities’; for we find from Layard that in the Syrian temple of Hierapolis, ‘she was represented standing on a lion crowned with towers.’ ”
[(7 Hislop, The Two Babylons, p. 307.]
Unlike Hislop, we have interpreted Inanna as a very great and legitimate power in Noah’s original order. Her divine son was not, in fact, Nimrod but the great god Marduk, the Messianic heir Salah, Lugalbanda of Erech, father of Gilgamesh and of the next heir Eber, Meskiaggasher, founder of Erech. As granddaughter of Shem and mother of the Messianic line below her father Arphaxad-I, Inannabelongs to sacred history as well as profane. In dealing with her reputation as a prostitute, we must consider the possibility of calumny or obscure political allegory. In her, as in her mighty son Salah, apocalyptic streams of good and evil meet at the source.
[(8) Typical of the idealistic side of the Inanna cult are the seven hymns to the goddess translated in Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth (New York:Harper and Row, 1983), pp. 93-110.]
The Epic of Gilgamesh
boldly asserts Inanna’s reputation as a strumpet at the foundation of the Gutanu/Gutanna/Bull/(heavenly) or “Bull of Heaven” episode. We have suggested that the heroic slayings of Huwawa and Gutanu/Gutanna/Bull/(heavenly) symbolized the two campaigns of the Mesopotamian-Iranianwar,
a bizarre affair in which Sumerian legend identified Inanna as the chief goddess of both antagonistic powers, Mesopotamian Erechand Iranian Aratta [Isfahan?, and/or Jiroft?].
The epic captures the same ambivalence, picturing Inanna, goddess of the temple of Erech, as creator of the Gutanu/Gutanna/Bull/(heavenly),” one of the enemy factions of Iran.
Beyond all this, we have identified Inanna with the Celtic war goddess Medb, comprehensive ruler of the Iranian order constructed by Noah’s family around her birthplace at Aratta [Isfahan, and/or Jiroft]. In accusing Inanna of prostitution, the Sumerian epic serves to discredit the Iranian cause in much the same way that the Babylonian epic discredits the same cause through its portrait of the Red Matriarch as Tiamat, goddess of chaos.
If prostitution lies at the cornerstone of the secularization of Noahic Mankind, the Gutanu/Gutanna/Bull/(heavenly) episode is a key to the spiritual destiny of the gentiles. At the outset of Tablet VI, Inanna invites Gilgamesh to become her husband:
“Thou shalt be my husband and I will be thy wife.
I will harness for thee a chariot of lapis and gold,
Whose wheels are gold and whose horns are brass.”
Because chariot wheels dominate the imagery of the Medb panel, Inanna’s offer is tantamount to the possession of Iran, a land destined to bear Gilgamesh’s Hebrew name Elam. The epic apparently means that Inanna’s influence over Iran remained great enough to have appeased the Iranian forces through a royal marriage to Gilgamesh.
In a fit of monogamous indignation, the hero rejects the offer by questioning the goddess’ value as a loyal wife in view of six former husbands, all of whom she has ruined: “Tammuz, the lover of thy youth,” “the dappled shepherd-bird,” “a lion,” “a stallion,” “the keeper of the herd,” and “Ishullanu, thy father’s gardener” (11.46-64). Because of its combined zoomorphic and anthropomorphic membership, the list reads like a variation of one of the Gundestrup interior panels. The details match none of the panels; but the totalof six suggests the six points of Inanna’s own Medb panel, the Iranian empire at issue.
What is not so clear is the justice of Gilgamesh’s case against Inanna’s polygamous [‘polyandrous
’] career. If the four female survivors of the Flood practiced systematic polyandry in order to generate nations, how did Inanna’s career differ from theirs? According to the letter of the epic, she was unable to dispute the charges against her. She complains to the god Anu, not that Gilgamesh’s claims are false, but that he has offended her by naming them:
“My father, Gilgamesh has heaped insults on me!
Gilgamesh has recounted my stinking deeds,
My stench and my foulness”
Neither she nor Anu disputes that her deeds are, in fact, “stinking.” The answer to our question lies in the polygenetic spirit of the whole work. Inanna’s polyandry can find no excuse in the duty of generating nations because, in Sumerian tradition, neither gods, demigods, kings, nor ordinary men generate nations. The true polygenist cannot conceptualize the origin of anything; that is, he prefers not to and, therefore, does not. As far as the epic is concerned, Inanna’s amours remain fruitless; and her cultic status as mistress of “pleasure-lasses and temple-harlots” remains unexplained, a traditional given. We are still faced with the question of how an acceptable principle of polygamy had degenerated into harlotry.
?[(9) Epic of Gilgamesh, VI, 1. 93.]
In the light of Kramer’s The Sacred Marriage Rite, the issue of Inanna’s morality seems irrelevant because she represents an idealization of sexual power among a people innocently preoccupied with physical wealth: “grain-laden fields, vegetable-rich gardens, bulging stalls and sheepfolds, milk, cream, and cheese in profusion
[(10) Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1969), pp. 56-57.
From our fundamentalist understanding of the universal Flood and the need to regenerate the human race, the Sumerian obsession with procreation and productivity was perfectly understandable. As long as Inanna’s cult can be viewed in such a light, there is no moral issue. But the Gutanu/Gutanna/Bull/(heavenly) episode does, in fact, raise an explicit issue of sexual morality. In it, we have passed from Kramer’s world of innocent pastoralism to the worlds of epic and tragedy, where sexual misconduct connotes treason. Noah’s family did not merely survive and procreate their kind; they created nations and experienced the peculiar ethics of high political intrigue.
In biblical tradition, the focal point of sexual irregularity is Noah’s son Ham, who began his political career as Enmebaraggesi of Kishand concluded it as Ur Nammu of Ur. Ham’s regime of Third Urholds the key to the sacred marriage rite and to its political and spiritual correlatives. The dynasty claimed an all-star cast from thegreat rebel faction: Ur Nammu, Ham; Shulgi, Ham’s cursed heirCanaan; Shu-Sin, the “Mighty Hunter” Nimrod; and Amar-Sin, Jebus, the great god Zeus. Shulgi, as it happens, was the first fully documented “husband” of the sacred marriage rite as political ritual.
Reasoning from the standard, leisurely evolutionary chronology, Kramer explains that, at some unknown point in the third millennium, “the king of Sumer, whoever he may have been, had to become the husband of Inanna, as a kind of Dumuzi incarnate.”[(11) Ibid pp. 62-63]
Dumuzi was the patriarch Togarmah, Noah’s son by the White Matriarch and father of the Sumerian race. As Ham’s son by the White Matriarch, Canaan was Dumuzi’s logical counterpart, especially if we recognize Ham’s desire to supplant Noah as first father of postdiluvian Mankind. The regime of Third Ur commenced after Noah’s death. Whether or not the practice of the sacred marriage rite originated at Third Ur is beside the point because it arose from Ham’s primitive motive to supplant Noah. Coming into his own at latter-day Ur, Ham made Canaan the definitive “Dumuzi incarnate,” spouse of the goddess Inanna, who would confirm Canaan’s legitimacy despite all the curses that Hebrew tradition could summon against him:
“ln battle I am your leader, in combat I am your helpmate,
In the assembly I am your champion,
On the road I am your life.
You, the chosen shepherd of the holy house,
You, the sustainer of An’s great shrine,
In all ways you are fit.”
[(12) Ibid., pp. 64.]
The voice of Inanna in this crux passage carries the weight of the “Ka,” even the Christian Paraclete, a point made repeatedly by Hislop in regard to the cult of Astarte. Through Ham’s logic, femininity replaced the “Ka” altogether. Enkidu of the Epic of Gilgamesh lay with a prostitute because sexual contact was supposed to have opened his eyes to the powers which distinguish urban civilization from rural savagery. Ham had experienced the great revolution of the dispensation of human government and realized, in the depth of his soul, the spiritual difference between antediluvian and postdiluvian life. He and Canaan lacked the faith to attribute this great revolution to the will of an invisible God. Instead, they found what seemed to them the ultimate explanation of civilized glory in the distinctive sexual privileges of Noah’s early postdiluvian family. Polygamy degenerated into prostitution when sexual privilege became a medium of free and casual power hunger. Secular world civilization is built on such a foundation of prostitution, polygenetic amnesia, and an endless process of political manipulation and improvisation. The explicit Noahic charter is gone; instinctive power hunger remains.
The Texture of Modern Apologetics
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century triggered the climax of the present age of the Church both for good and evil. It took effect in three ways:
(1) by placing the Bible and the privilege of interpreting biblical doctrine in the hands of Christian laymen;
(2) by promoting liberty of conscience and, therefore, general liberalism, as an ethical ideal; and
(3) by giving scientific prestige to empirical investigation, rather than tradition, in determining issues of fact and truth.
The Protestant phase of the Church Age climaxed two centuries later in the Great Awakening and Evangelical movement of eighteenth-century Britain and colonial America. Evangelicals modified all three of the Protestant tendencies: (1) by achieving anew catholic consensus through key salvation doctrines too humane and popular to be neglected or opposed by the Protestant world;(2) by redirecting Protestant moral energy from liberty of conscience to missionary zeal; and (3) by re-focusing empirical thought on the concrete phenomenon of New Birth and on the casual growth of Church population. In short, evangelicals treated the sixteenth-century revolution as a means to specific Gospel ends rather than a liberal end in itself.
The Great Awakening, however, coincided with the Enlightenment, the foundational movement toward secularistic apostasy throughout Christendom. John Wesley and Voltaire were contemporaries. The Enlightemnent simply meant the Reformation stripped of its religious premises, subject matter, and motivation. Because of the variety of religious opinions which resulted from the Protestant ideal of lay Bible study, “enlightened” Deists concluded that the Bible was too specific in contents and too peculiar in its impact on diverse readers to inspire religious consensus. Ignoring the evangelical answer, they rejected peculiar Bible doctrine in favor of the general truths of natural revelation. These Deists now treated liberty of conscience as a humanitarian moral absolute superior to any purely religious consideration. In fact, they put religion on the defensive to prove its humanitarian value. Trends in science followed suit. By the early nineteenth century, “enlightened” minds of the logical positivist kind began to treat methodologies for gathering factas more authoritative than any conclusions drawn by these or any other methods. Secularists now began to conceive of science, not as knowledge, but as an endless quest for knowledge, that is, a set of learned rituals for confirming agnosticism.
In sum, the Enlightenment implied three principles: a distrust of religious orthodoxy based on a fear of being misled by doubtful specifics; an absolute humanism, the ethics of humanity for humanity’s sake; and a curiously self-contradictory agnostic science. In religious terms, these principles meant a distrust of the Bible, a distaste for the doctrine of hell (as inhumane), and a commitment to be “ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth.” No matter what the vicissitudes of philosophical or religious opinion, these three principles remain the foundation of secular learned consensus.
Because these principles are neutral and colorless in themselves, they required concrete embodiment and received it from the Victorian thinkers Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Marxism, Darwinism, and Freudianism represent more than the specifics ubject matters and issues of Das Kapital, Origin of Species, or The Ego and the Id. Marx and Lenin gave the secular principle of humanity for humanity’s sake a concrete revolutionary image by identifying the cause of humanity with the economic interests of a specific social class. Freud took a lesson from Shakespeare’s character Queen Gertrude of Hamlet and applied to the souls of millions the “flattering unction” that human psychology, rather than spiritual power, accounts for the affairs of men. By explaining the spiritual away, Freud confirmed the “enlightened” distrust of religion by dismissing transcendental symbolism as earthy dream imagery, colorful and compelling but devoid of objective authority. Darwinism completed the process by anchoring the secular ideal of the endless quest in a colorful theory of origins. Darwinism buttressed Freudianism (and largely inspired it) by redefining animal species as casual variations rather than complete manifestations of God’s creative ideas, thus establishing the Freudian premise of purely subjective symbolism.
Some Christians misunderstand this last point. In fact, Darwinism can be traced back to certain conceptual deficiencies in the Christian theology of Europe. In their zeal to reject pagan idolatry, Christians have adopted the mistaken view that the form of the human body has nothing to do with the “image of God” in man.” (13) This conventional theological notion seems intellectually sophisticated but has led directly to the conceptual triumph of Darwinism. The “image of God” is supposed to represent man’s “invisible part,” that is, the intangible faculties of conscience, reason, and the like. No one disputes that the “image of God” refers to conscience and reason; but the view that this image has nothing to do with the body is profoundly erroneous, even blasphemous, because it implies that God, in the Creation, failed to harmonize the form of the body with these faculties.
[(13) Calvin states the conventional position by attacking Osiander for “indiscriminately extending God’s image both to the body and soul” and thus “mingling heaven and earth.” The issue, overlooked by Calvin, is whether things on earth correspond to things in heaven or from a closed, secularistic, evolutionary system of their own. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I, 187.]
The enemies of Christianity can sense the futility of this theological flaw and have exploited it with profound effect. If the form of the human body derives from any other source except these divine faculties, then we might as well say that human form derives from purely casual causes, unrelated to the ideal mind of God. Darwinism is the logical result, namely, that God caused the animal and human forms to occur haphazardly and without regard to any dimensions of His own essence. The doctrine of special Creation loses all of its logical force once we assume that the animal and human forms fail to incarnate specific dimensions of God’s creative mind. Every logically consistent Creationist is also a Christian idealist; and everyman who doubts the divine meaning of the human body is in process of becoming a Darwinian. Under the influence of its doctrine of human form, the Christian Church could easily have invented the theory of evolution, on its own, except for the restraining influence of the Book of Genesis.
The organic nature of the secular apostasy has dictated an organic apologetic response, with implicit anti-Marxist, anti-Freudian, and anti-Darwinian dimensions. Living under the pressure of the apostasy, Christians have developed such a response whether or not they are fully aware of it. Some of the response is more or less superficial or indirect in logic. Christian conservatives oppose Marxism, ot through strong anti-communist logic, but through the simple awareness that the Soviet Empire equates communism with atheism and is determined to persecute both the Church and Israel. The anti-
Freudian position is a simple defence of Christian sexual morality; and the anti-Darwinian, a mere detail of the general case for biblical literalism. In other words, many Christians are not consciously aware of the inner logic of the apostasy until it begins to conflict visibly with the “letter of the law.” The task of confronting apostate logic has fallen to Christian intellectuals such as the British “Inkling” group of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.
Despite their community of interests, Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams expressed three fundamentally different and complementary types of apologetic testimony. A Roman Catholic, Tolkien shared in the same principle of conservative nostalgia for Catholic Christendom which inspired the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott and, through Scott, the conversion of John Henry Newman. Because Scott never turned Catholic, the Christendom ideal is larger than the Catholic Church and has determined the conservatism of many Protestants. For lack of a better term it can be labeled “amillennial sentiment” or “the High Church consensus.” It is essentially a cultural, even literary spirit of cooperative harmony among the best minds of Christian Europe and, as such, influenced Lewis and Williams almost as much as Tolkien.
The chief target of Tolkien’s school is Marxism. At its worst, th eamillennial spirit degenerates into fascism, a tendency which Lewis occasionally noted in Tolkien.” (14) Fascism originated as an anti-Marxist movement. The point of conflict is easily defined. Marxism assumes that every man’s god is his belly: that the purpose of humanity is to feed itself. From the time of Thomas Carlyle down to Tolkien, the enemies of Utilitarianism or Marxism have objected that Medieval chivalry and feudal loyalty had actually worked because man “does not live by bread alone” but is a spiritual being activated by conscience, ancient symbolism, and ideals of self-sacrifice. Through his concept of the Hobbit race, Tolkien acknowledges that most men appear to be comfort-loving epicureans but respond, inevitably, to the mystical appeal of chivalric high adventure.
[(14) Carpenter notes Tolkien’s sympathy toward Franco’s cause in Spain and his passing affinity for one Roy Campbell who represented “a particular blend of Catholicism and Fascism.” Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings (New York: Ballantine, 1978), p. 212.]
C. S. Lewis exhibited the Protestant gift of iconoclastic criticism. Like the eighteenth-century poet-critic Samuel Johnson, he was at his best in condemning the illogical follies of fashionable error. He targeted Freudianism, matching the clever anti-Christian iconoclasm of the Freudians with a clever anti-Freudian strategy of his own. The common ground was an interest in sexuality. Freud, basing his concept of practical Christianity on the behavior of “repressed” Victorian Germans, was fascinated by the blind, irrational power of sexual impulses and was convinced, with Friedrich Nietzche, that respectable, timid people are merely scandalized by powers which they neither understand nor ultimately control. In other words, Freud interpreted sexuality as a dark, quasi-religious mystery, deeper than any religion and, thus, the key to all religions. Lewis despised this argument through the Christian perception that “resurrection power” is akin to sexuality and simply superior to it.
Lewis’ apologetic approach, grounded in reason, is not well adapted to those parts of the world where apostasy has advanced so far that anarchy reigns and Freud’s “dark power of the Id” vies for immediate social supremacy. Confrontation with such satanic power was the specialty of Charles Williams. The final form of apologetics is supernaturalistic, apocalyptic, and judgmental. It threatens the enemies of Christianity with the consequences of unrepentant death, requiring them to choose heaven or hell today and experience one or the other tomorrow. As an apologetic strategy,t hreats of judgement are worthless apart from metaphysical support, given evidence of supernaturalistic change within the human context of life. Although most apostates are infuriated by threats of judgment, the human conscience remains open to this very elemental sort of conviction.
This final branch of apologetics correlates with what is known as “gothic” fiction and, in fact, can be labelled the “gothic argument. ”Gothic stories differ in religious tone from the comparatively Christian Dracula of Bram Stoker to the surface secularism of most Poe stories. They also differ in their capacity to represent the preternatural as an empirical given. Dracula is boldly heroic in this respect. M. R. James’ stories are especially clever in making us feel that the preternatural should be regarded as “gross and palpable.” Nearly all works of this kind have the same tonic effect on the human conscience, intimating to secularists that their flight from the supernatural is a childish attempt to whistle in the dark.
To the Freudians, of course, these works merely “play on our fears”; but when we ask secularists where these fears originate, they discuss the circulatory, glandular, and nervous systems in the manner of Ebenezer Scrooge’s psychomatic explanation of Marley’s Ghost as, an “underdone bit of potato.” The Freudian arsenal of explanations features repressed childhood memories; but the logic remains the same and similarly limited. To demonstrate how fear is registered in the psyche has little bearing on whether beings and situations capable of inspiring fear actually exist. In this respect as in others, Freudianism functions as the domestic handmkaiden of Darwinism, where the real strength of the anti-supernaturalistic position lies and where the ultimate confrontation with the “gothic argument” must take place.
It is no coincidence that M. R. James, cleverest of the gothic writers, based his stories on a formula taken from the field of archaeology. His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary appeared in 1903,twelve years after the discovery of the Gundestrup Caldron. The overriding theme of his stories is that antiquity implies a cosmos of powers which have only been sleeping, like the bodies of the Christian dead, “in the dust of the earth.” In Christian apologetics, the greatest of all doctrines is the resurrection of the dead, an idea so powerful that it, rather than sex, holds the key to the mysteries of human existence. Wherever it is clearly conceived as a metaphysical reality, resurrection annihilates every premise and every conclusion of the Marxist, Freudian, and Darwinian schools of thought. It erases the premise of Marxism by positing a version of humanity independent of the natural food chain; it cancels the premise of Freudianism by furnishing a degree of vitality so absolute that temporary sexual euphoria loses all meaning; and it destroys the whole point of evolution by bringing Mankind to absolute physical perfection in an instant of transformation.
[NOTE: EDITOR: The godless world thinks that sex is the ultimate example of intimacy. But, this reminds me of Bible verses that describe the relationship a person can have with God as being greater than and superior to that of marriage. It alludes to the resurrection of the dead in Christ into a tear-less perpetual euphoria undisturbed by human frailty and pain.]
James’ stories do not, in fact, present resurrection motifs as such.Like the North American gothicists Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft, James rivets his attention on the preternatural and,thus, confirms the secularistic attitude that supernaturalism of anykind is rather unsavory. But, like all art, his stories imply more thanthey state. The evil in his stories serves a dramatic, as opposed toa moral purpose. The effect is not indignation, but surprise. In classicgothic fiction, evil tends to be metaphor for apocalyptic power, justas Halloween imagery tends to stir the spirit of a child more deeplythan the pallid imagery of Easter. Freudians explain the imaginativepreference for Halloween as evidence for the irrational power of theId; but there is a far more Christian explanation.
A great gulf separates resurrection as a perennial doctrine of theChurch from resurrection as an accomplished metaphysical fact.Sooner or later the conscience must come to grips with this difference.Christians are fortunate to live in the twentieth century because Einsteinian physics has made it so much easier to conceptualize theglorified body of the resurrection. In the absence of such scientificinsight, the Victorian Matthew Arnold supposed that the ApostlePaul was dabbling aimlessly in metaphysics in his account of theresurrection body in I Corinthians 15. Arnold labored under the delusion that Christianity is a tissue of moral sentiments; and VictorianChristians had fed his delusion by treating the “blessed hope” ofthe resurrection as a wistful, consoling sentiment rather than a sincerebelief about the future transformation of Mankind. The gothicwriters should be honored for the way their work scandalizes passive,materialistic notions of reality and strips away the cloak of sentimental palaver from the stunning metaphysical promises of the faith.
Of course, gothicism, like all art, has a dual potential of false andtrue. It is always possible to glorify the occult for its own sake andmiss the tonic, apocalyptic message altogether. One gothic writerdiffers from another in this regard; and readers bring a host ofpresuppositional attitudes to such works. The distinction betweenChristian gothic and unwholesome occultism depends on nuance.Poe’s Romantic goal was to make rationalists aware that they havesouls poised between life and death. Dracula is based on the commendably Christian theme that Satan is very dangerous yet conquerable. M. R. James remains the most significant gothic writerfor our purposes because of his steady commitment to associate antiquarian study with apocalyptic power. A brief exposition of “TheTreasure of Abbot Thomas” should suffice to reveal his method.A Mr. Somerton has “undertaken” a personal “expedition,” likea true archaeologist, to investigate “Lord D---’s private chapel.” (15) The combined note of unsuspected adventure and deadpan empiricalmethod symbolizes the first stirrings of supernatural awareness inthe hearts of a skeptical generation. Somerton’s empirical memoryjust happens to stir up an echo of the Apocalypse: “They haveon their vestures a writing which no man knoweth, an evocativeparaphrase of different passages from the Book of Revelation, plunging the reader’s mind into a context all the more compelling for being somewhat irrelevant and half-digested, as based on archaeologicaldata and free association.”
[(15) M. R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (Baltimore
enguin, 1975), p. 140.]
Somerton manages to uncover and decipher a cryptogram promising buried treasure at the house and well of Abbot Thomas, oncethese can be located. He discovers that the well, like an invertedTower of Babel, is about seventy feet deep and equipped with a circular staircase leading downward. At the descending thirty-eighthstep, he finds a patch of cement disguised as stone, removes it,recognizes some prerequisite imagery, penetrates further, and sees,“some round light-coloured objects within which might be bags.
”He reaches for one of these and precipitates the climax of the story:
“I got the thing fairly in front of the mouth and begandrawingit out. Just then Brown gave a sharp ejaculation andranquickly up the steps with the lantern. Hewill tellyou why in a moment. Startled as I was, I lookedround after him, and saw him stand for a minute at thetop and then walk away a few yards. Then I heard himcall softly, “All right, sir,” and went on pulling out thegreat bag, in complete darkness. It hung for an instanton the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to mychest, and put its arms round my neck.”[16) Ibid., pp. 150.]
Freudian logic is on the right track in interpreting such a fictionas a myth of parturition. The well, hole within the well, and “complete darkness” all suggest the womb. The “great bag” simulatesa birth sac; and the act of “put[ting] its arms round my neck,”typifies the behavior of a more mature infant, juxtaposing timeframes in the classic manner of a dream. Freudianism, like all greatnon-Christian ideologies, begins with a truth, idolizes it, and “comesshort of the glory of God. Because symbolism is a synthetic reality,parturition is only one dimension, though an important one, ofJames’ story: a kind of “psychological local color” element.
According to the literal surface of the story, Somerton’s animatedbag is the furthest thing from a lovable infant: a loathesome preternatural being attached by a curse to the Abbot’s treasure in the sameway that mythical dragons guard treasures in folklore. Again, anthropologists will satisfy themselves that they exhaust the meaningof the story once we identify the dragon-guard motif. Why, then,does the story identify the dragon-guard with suggestions of anewborn infant? In the first place, the story adds a further suggestion, namely, that Abbot Thomas himself is the infant’s “father.”Somerton’s assistant Brown explains what had startled him:
“So I looked up and I see someone’_s ’ead lookin’ over atus. I s’pose I must ha’ said somethink, and I ’eld the lightup and run up the steps, and my light shone right on theface. That was a bad un, sir, if ever I see one! A holdisman, and the face very much fell in, and larfin’, as Ithought.”
[(17) ibid., pp. 151-152.]
Abbot Thomas’ laughter is appropriate because the outcome of thestory is both horrible and ludicrous yet horribly and ludicrouslysublime in the same way as the miracle of childbirth or greatermiracles yet. James concludes his story with a doubly ironic quotation of Latin Scripture, “Depositum custodi,
” “Keep that whichis committed to thee.”The concluding words ‘ ‘Depositum custodi
” can be read two ways.To the unimaginative, they are a blasphemous distortion of the Apostle’s exhortation to preserve the Gospel for future ages. To the Christian who understands the gothic argument, they mean, “Keep theglorious hope of an actual resurrection (when the Gospel will takecare of itself), under a cloak of darkness and horror until someoneactually dares to believe it.” The words, like the story, satirize theincapacity of soulish human beings to take the supernatural seriouslyuntil it literally reaches out and “puts its arms around their necks
The gothic argument, therefore, represents the defiant, apocalypticside of Christian testimony. This argument, like the milder formsof Tolkien and Lewis, has much to gain from the development ofNoahic science.