What I’ve been Reading
Tom Harpur; The Pagan Christ. This came out in 2004, and I’ve just gotten to it, although the subject matter interests me greatly, and I like Tom Harpur’s approaches and style. (I read his book on life after death some time ago). I read this one through with great enthusiasm, but it is a rather odd book in some ways and I think he could have improved it by making some changes.The book’s thesis is that Christ was probably not an historical figure at all, but an embodiment of various Near Eastern mythological saviour figures, and was based in particular on the Egyptian stories of Isis, Osiris, Horus, Set. Harpur apologizes too much for possibly upsetting his fellow Christians by this perspective, and the references back and forth from Egyptian sources to the Christ story are unduly repetitious. I think Harpur is quite right in arguing that the Christ story will only remain vital if the mythological content is emphasized and that literalist readings of the life of Christ as reported in the Gospels are detrimental to true spirituality, or at least to one that is valid for the present age. Harper leans heavily on the work of a few (probably unfairly neglected) scholars, but gives little indication that the issue of Christ’s historicity has been argued for more than a hundred years by much more notable figures. He says little or nothing about the various schools of German, French and Dutch Biblical criticism; some historical perspective on his own arguments would have been helpful. Nor does Harpur really deal in much depth with the view that Christ was undoubtedly historical, which some still assert; a closer examination of the sources of knowledge of Christ might have given us a better sense of the issues involved. I noticed, by the way, that the name of Pontius Pilate does not appear in Harpur’s index and the wicked thought crossed my mind that some good soul might have stashed away the true Acta of Pilate (many forgeries existed) and that these will emerge one day to prove that Jesus was far from merely a mythical figure! (Justin Martyr Apology xxxv and xlviii–quoted by Paul Maier–suggests that Pilate’s Acta confirmed the Christ story). Another possibility would be a finding of the Acta that actually denied the Christ story, or minimalized it, records not successfully destroyed by the early Christians! Anatole France’s famous story,” The Procurator of Judea,” suggests that Pilate in later life would have had trouble recalling(in fact would fail to recall!) his dealings with Jesus. But of course Anatol France was writing at the height of the “higher criticism” era. Overall, I found Harpur’s book a little disappointing, though useful and fascinating too!
Vintila Horia: God Was Born in Exile. A wonderful novel written by a Romanian writer in exile from the fascist Romania of World War II. (He wrote it in French. and it was published in France in 1960). It purports to be the memoirs of the poet Ovid, exiled by the Emperor Augustus to Tomi on the desolate shores of the Black Sea. The deep subject of the novel is the transformation from the pagan world to the Christian, but the novel is not tendentious; it is about spiritual longing, and also about abuse of imperial power, but again, that is not what’s exceptional about it. What’s wonderful is its poetry, its sensual grasp, its rendering of the transformations of consciousness, its sense of the natural world and its glimpses of strong and unusual characters, male and female. Unlike a somewhat similar novel, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, this book is never tedious, or marmoreal, and its gloom is offset by wonder and discovery. My greatest literary discovery since The Master and Margarita, which one of my students recommended to me some twenty-five years ago.
Gide’s Journals. Reading them again after years of not dipping in. Amazing comments on literature and the personalities he encounters. Shrewd and of course highly intelligent and thoroughly his own stuff.
Gide mentions reading four or five of Simenon’s Maigret novels in one week! I just read Maigret and the Headless Corpse from 1955. The usual effortless magic of evocation and compulsive reading, but after bringing on stage one of his best female characters, Simenon just closes the thing down! (Yes, the mystery was solved, but . . .!)
Martin Gayford: The Yellow House. Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles. A fine read. Great details here and a few disappointments, e.g. I’m no wiser than before about the ear-cutting episode!
John Buntin: LA Noir. An amazing in-depth picture of a crude virtuouso of crime (Mickey Cohen) and his exploits in the LA of the thirties and forties, but the book’s scope is even wider.
Georg Luck: Arcana Mundi. Fascinating book about magic and the occult in the Greco-Roman world, complete with translations of relevent texts.
Sean Haldane: Always Two. A fine collection of poetry by a British-Irish-Canadian writer who lives in London. “Desire in Belfast” is a stunner, but there are many.
I’ve just read Sean’s historical mystery novel in Ms., “The Devil’s Making.” About Victoria B.C. in 1869. A clash of cultures, Darwin’s ideas, and the Noyes sexual practices figure in this, and all of the conflicting forces get their due. It’s a gem of a narrative, and some lucky publisher, I hope, will discover this soon.
I also just finished in Ms. Dr. Debby Gorham’s delightful narrative pictures of the Indiana childhood of her grandmother.
Ivan Bunin: Dark Avenues. I re-read these Russian stories frequently. Bunin at his best (and many stories in here show him at his best) is amazing at depicting sudden, unbridled passions. See “Ironcoat,” “Antigone,” and many others, and, in another vein, “Cold September,” although in my edition the translation of one of the best (“Wolves”) has a garbled ending. No writer I know has Bunin’s ability to describe attractive young women as they appear to fascinated, “begeistered” young men.
Arthur Rubenstein: My Young Years. I finally caught up with this in a second-hand bookstore. Wonderful picture of European art and music circles at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Rubenstein’s narrative style is delightful (whether it’s his skills or a ghost’s–who cares?) and there are many memorable scenes and characters, vividly presented. perhaps some of this bordering on fiction, but fascinating all the same.
Gauguin’s Journal Noa Noa edited by Nicholas Wadley. I’m dipping into this again–after seeing the Gauguin exhibition in London. A beautifully presented edition, with excellent notes and introduction. It’s fascinating that Gauguin’s plain and near-crude notes and jottings read so much more powerfully than the elaborations by his collaborator, the poet Charles Morice–a classic case of less is more, of original vision over aesthetic manipulation. As Chekhov once said about a line from a schoolboy’s story (the boy had written: “The sea is big”)–”That’s all it said, and I found it wonderful.”
Mario Vargas-Llosa’s The Way to Paradise–also on Gauguin. I just picked this (hardcover edition for $1!) at the suggestion of my son Steve, and am loving it.