An Acquittal

Dostoevsky’s Devils is a 700-page epic of spiritual lawlessness, conniving, and singularly poor decisions. For most of the novel, this plays out in long conversations, awkward domestic scenes, and some very unfortunate social events. At the climax, everything joins in a conflagration of murders and suicides, with two or three natural deaths for variation in tragedy. Such is Dostoevsky’s genius that it scrapes above melodrama to meaning.

To end a story in a general slaughter of the principals is an established tradition. It is dignified, though not justified, by a notable presence in classic literature. As a rule, I don’t care for it. Such endings usually feel rushed, as though the author killed off the characters as the quickest expedient to ending the story. They may even be read as lazy. You could craft an unexpected, yet logical and satisfying, resolution of the characters’ internal and external struggles. Or you could just kill everyone.

The worst aspect of the “everyone dies” resolution is that it is so purposelessly bleak. The point goes beyond any objection that the story is dark, or depressing. It is the meaninglessness of it that is insupportable. If all the story’s conflict and energy simply terminates in a general slaughter, what was the point of it? The characters may as well have not bothered.

Dostoevsky’s Devils entirely acquits itself of any charge of being rushed or lazy, and not because it is 700 pages long. The forces in the story, at work from the beginning, slowly but inevitably plunge it down into violence. You knew that this, more or less, was how it would end. Devils does not escape the meaninglessness so crushing in similarly violent resolutions. It makes no effort to escape. Every death is senseless. There is no heroism, nothing achieved or saved. The villains win thoroughly, and even they gain nothing. With grim irony, Dostoevsky allows his villains to succeed in their schemes while failing in their objects. Most stories work in dichotomy: someone has to win and someone else has to lose. In Devils the villains fail, and still everyone else loses.

What redeems all this is the force of Dostoevsky’s ideas. The novel is sometimes labeled a critique of atheism, and that is true enough. Its full scope, however, is broader and subtler. The crucial dynamic of the novel is the strange, half-contemptuous affinity between the young radicals and the rich, respectable people in power. These, together, are Dostoevsky’s devils. The revolutionaries were active in mischief, and the people in authority complaisant to it. The radicals were declared atheists. The people in authority went to church, or at least made profession of some vague God. But they had no spiritual or intellectual anchor. They simply drifted – ever attracted by new ideas but incapable of serious examination, impressed by boldness but unable to hold conviction of their own. Indifference is as fatal to the soul as disbelief. The devils were not all atheists, but they were all godless.

This, then, is the true theme of Devils: what happens when people are left to themselves, without God. All the senseless sorrow of Devils, the oppressive futility, the blundering crimes that are at once cruel and stupid – this is what happens when God is left out of life. There is no point to the miserable episodes unleashed in the chaos of disbelief, but that is Dostoevsky’s point. “God is necessary and so must exist,” one atheist confesses. “But I know that He doesn’t and can’t.” I have no doubt that Dostoevsky believed in God. But Devils is not, at heart, a statement that God is real. It is a statement that God is necessary.

Devils is a little too heavy, a little too dark. But I understand it, and I can appreciate even those aspects I don’t enjoy. I still believe that a general slaughter of principal characters is a poor resolution to most stories. But one of the curious facts about art is that even the worst ideas are, very occasionally, done right.

Past the High Point

Genuinely compelling villains, although always too few, exist in fair abundance. Much more rare is a compelling villain who charts a convincing and satisfying redemption arc. Rarest of all is a compelling villain who, at the end of his satisfying redemption arc, does not promptly die. It grows predictable and, occasionally, rather bleak. Why can’t a villain finish his redemption arc without finishing himself?

Practicality is one driving reason. A redeemed villain is an ex-villain, and where do you go from there? Once a villain gives up all the interesting plans that made him so necessary to the story – gives up world domination, or mad scientific experiments, or destroying people’s lives for his personal satisfaction – what does he do next? It would be easy to say that he becomes a hero. It would not be easy to do. Not everything that makes a good villain makes a good hero. We are entertained by the badness of villains, if it is done with elan: insouciant lies, frank selfishness, grandiose pomposity, Force-choking incompetent subordinates, etc.

But in the transition to heroism, even the most stylistic wickedness has to go. Worse, the villain’s role (so excellently played!) must be abandoned. And once all that is stripped away, what do you have left? You are in danger of changing a superior villain into a merely adequate hero. Not all creators know what to do with a smashing villain who entirely leaves off villainy. The story grows, too, harder to tell. There is high drama and even clarity in the conversion of villain to hero. Life, on the other side of redemption, sinks to something quieter and more muddled. It is easier to write a redemptive death than a redeemed life. And if the redeemed villain dies with all dispatch, his career as a hero will be too short to be disappointing.

Aside from the creative challenge of an ex-villain, certain thematic and even philosophical ideas drive the villain’s redemptive death. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life, and people believe this almost by instinct. Truly wonderful villains do truly terrible things. To do the best thing is a powerful culmination of the villain’s journey to heroism. In the case – and it usually is the case – that the villain has innocent blood on his hands, a heroic death is a kind of atonement. Steal life, give life. It satisfies justice. There are crimes that cry out for punishment. A change of heart does not buy impunity from every horrible thing done to other people.

In his self-sacrificial death, the redeemed villain pays his debt. That is why the redemption arc is so often completed with a heroic death. It is emotionally powerful, and satisfies a sense of rightness that is more felt than articulated. It is also the safest creative choice. If you don’t really know how to continue the villain or his story past the high point of redemption, you might as well stop there – and leave them wanting more.

But whatever excellent reasons exist for some redemption arcs to end in death, there is no reason that they all should. Occasionally – if for no other reason than to keep us guessing – creators should take up the challenge of an ex-villain who lives as a hero instead of dying as one. We grow fond of our compelling villains, even in their murderous phase. We cheer them on their journey to the light. We would like, after it all, to be able to keep them around. It’s tiresome to be compelled to end all such stories feeling sad. Every once in a while, it would be good to believe in grace enough to say that the villain, too, lives happily ever after.

A Critic’s Phrase

I didn’t pay much attention when Rise of Skywalker was released. I had already decided, skipping the trouble and expense of actually seeing it, that the movie was better than The Last Jedi but not exactly good. There was, of course, too much talk about the movie to entirely miss it. A word kept recurring in the discussion: nostalgic. It rang critically, and even people who had liked the movie sometimes used the word with an air of apology: It was nostalgic, but … Implicitly and explicitly, the nostalgia of Rise of Skywalker was put in contrast with the subversion of The Last Jedi. The movie wasn’t new, wasn’t different, didn’t try to be revolutionary. It tried to be like the original Star Wars movies – you know, the ones people actually liked.

It was at this time that I realized that I took nostalgic in the opposite sense that the critics meant it. I understood that I was meant to take it as a bad thing. I thought instead that it was, or in any case might be, a good thing. I’ve reflected since that there are other popular critics’ phrases to which I gave a different connotation, and sometimes a different meaning, than they do.

One of these is gritty realism. Somehow this phrase evokes a mental image of dirty concrete, which is not attractive but neither really relevant. As far as I can tell, gritty realism means something along the lines of “entertainment that you probably could not comfortably watch with your grandparents”. It is, perhaps, gritty in a moral sense. But as always in entertainment, the realism is optional and, even when existing, qualified. Much of the violence so lucidly presented by Hollywood is not, thank God, realistic. Gritty realism is generally used positively. But I don’t believe the assertion of realism, and the grit is not in itself impressive.

Feel-good is another well-worn shorthand. Often the term itself is criticism. Even when not exactly derogatory, it is usually condescending. A feel-good movie is well enough in its place, the attitude goes, but it’s not a very high place. Feel-good entertainment is not serious, not deep, not art. I am wholly in favor of that stern, clear-sighted moral point that many things that feel good are, in fact, bad. Yet I can’t agree with the negativity associated with the feel-good label. I don’t see why art that makes people feel good should be any lower than art that makes people feel bad. And do you know, I sometimes watch movies with the deliberate object of being made to feel better, and I do not dismiss entertainment because it is “feel-good”.

Here’s another one whose promise never moves me: action-packed. This has been used as a recommendation something like a million times. And I believe it. I also believe that being action-packed is the leading flaw of many action movies. I am not going to fault action movies for having action, but I think they could leave more time for the characters to do other things, like think. In some movies there is barely enough plot to string the chase sequences and fight scenes together. Action-packed? Yes. Always, these days. But is there anything more?

Happiness is an Aesthetic

There is a scene in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday where an English detective, impersonating an anarchist, is joined in a “foul tavern” by another English detective, impersonating a nihilistic German professor. The second undercover detective ordered a glass of milk, in keeping with the habits of the Professor de Worms. But he rejected, with contempt, his companion’s suggestion that he actually drink the milk. “We’re all Christians in this room, though perhaps,” he added, glancing around at the reeling crowd, “not strict ones.” Then he ordered a beer.

The part about everyone being a Christian was, of course, ironic. Even a hundred years ago, when people easily believed in Christian nations, they knew the difference between a national religion and a personal conviction. The beer was not ironic. Chesterton really believed that to be a Christian, rather than a nihilistic German, was a reason to drink beer rather than milk. Because (such was Chesterton’s conviction) beer is good.

One of Chesterton’s most striking characteristics, as a writer, was how he related religion to pleasure, and pleasure to morality. He expressed it once in a rhyme written in praise of inns, “Where the bacon’s on the rafter / And the wine is in the wood, / And God that made good laughter / Has seen that they are good.”

The last phrase is an allusion to Genesis, where God made the world and saw that it was good. It recalls, too, one of the loveliest images in Scripture, that of God creating the earth “while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy.” This idea that the physical creation is a good thing, a thing to rejoice over, suffuses Chesterton’s works. He saw the goodness everywhere. It’s a bad old world in many ways; popular catchphrases aside, there is nothing unprecedented about a pandemic. But Chesterton never got over the thought that it’s a good world, too, and it is pretty wonderful, after all, that the sky is blue and the grass is green.

If good meals and good laughter have the Creator’s approval, that is a call to enjoyment, and also to gratitude. Oscar Wilde once gibed that sunsets are not popular because you can’t pay for them. Chesterton retorted that you can pay for them – you can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde. “Surely,” he wrote, “one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.” There have always been people who take virtue as a reason to reject material pleasures. It was Chesterton’s happier analysis to take acceptance of material pleasures as a reason for virtue.

Chesterton always tended to happiness. It is rare to find an author who joined so naturally religion and the goodness of the world, or whose embrace of pleasure was so full-hearted and so wholesome. Gritty realism, so-called, always has an audience, and darkness is both a point of view and an aesthetic. But happiness is also an aesthetic, and often a soothing one. Happiness rooted in the ordinary, as Chesterton’s was, is particularly soothing. We grow distracted, anxious, ungrateful; the news is like a storm on the horizon. It is good to remember what we still have, all the small pleasures and ordinary joys – and God that made good laughter has seen that they are good.

The Decision of Meaning

The happiest person in Romeo and Juliet is Rosaline, who had the good sense to be uninvolved. Romeo spent his initial scenes declaring her matchless beauty, his undying love, that there would never be another woman for him, etc., up until he met Juliet and immediately began saying all those things about her instead. Romeo needed some sort of productive occupation. I would like to think that Shakespeare presaged Juliet with Rosaline as an ironic comment on the transitory nature of even passionate feeling. More likely he included Rosaline simply because the 1562 poem Romeus and Juliet did.

I take Rosaline to be the inheritance of an older source, thoughtlessly carried over, because she is out of place within the new work. Romeo and Juliet is not ironic in its tone. It takes itself and its lovers seriously. That Romeo replaces Rosaline as casually as people replace light bulbs undermines the love story. None of his dramatic declarations of undying love were true. He believed them, but they weren’t true. That they become true when he starts spouting them about Juliet can only be taken on faith, and some of us are skeptics. Yet I don’t think, given the tenor of the play, that we are meant to doubt.

I also think that, whether Shakespeare intended it or not, Romeo’s histrionics over Rosaline add a grain of salt to his histrionics over Juliet. The war over authorial intent has been waged and, for the moment, decided. A story’s interpretation is not presumed to be dictated by the author’s intentions. As much as I approve, I willingly admit the merits of the defeated idea. There is a kind of fairness in giving the creator the decision in the meaning of the work. And literary interpretation could do with more objectivity. That is the inescapable conclusion of sitting in college literature courses, listening to people give suspiciously faddish interpretations of books you suspect they merely skimmed.

But although it would be the well-deserved death of a thousand lazy essays, I can’t give the decision of meaning to creators. They’re interpreting, too. The literary evolution of Romeo and Juliet proves the point. Shakespeare based his play on Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet. The story is essentially the same in both works; Shakespeare repeated Brooke in every event of importance. Yet if Shakespeare took it for a love story, Brooke took it for a morality tale. Brooke, who probably did not suffer fools, advised his readers that the “most unhappy death” of Romeus and Juliet stood as an example to them of what comes of “unhonest desire”, neglecting the authority of parents, and getting your advice from drunken gossips and superstitious friars (“the naturally fit instruments of unchastity”). (Perhaps Brooke was harsh toward superstitious friars. Nevertheless, I give him credit for hating Friar Lawrence.)

We are all interpreters of stories, the storytellers as much as the rest of us. The special power of creators is in deciding what will be interpreted, not how it should be. Readers sometimes work out a story to its implications farther and more clearly than the author himself. A story stands as it was created. It is not, in the end, what the author meant but what he said, and that anyone can know.

That requires, however, reading the book. It’s only fair.

The Crux of the Tragedy

Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. I know because everyone says so. Like most of you, I was compelled to experience his greatness in school, and I did not particularly enjoy it. (It was Othello. I could not work out the math by which the Great Handkerchief Scandal resulted in murder.) Earlier this year, I decided to give Shakespeare another go. I browsed Amazon for options and, scrupulously applying my principles, chose the most cost-efficient: the complete works of Shakespeare, bound into one enormous volume that could probably be used as a murder weapon but cost, used, $10.

The table of contents covers well over two thousand pages. I searched it for a place to begin and, intimidated, settled on the beginning. I proceeded on this direct approach only to be confronted by Romeo and Juliet. All my adult life, I had intended to never read Romeo and Juliet. But it was the next story in the collection and so, for a sense of completeness, I read it. The play has four centuries of hype to live up to and, as you would expect, it doesn’t.

It has its points, of course. My experience of Shakespeare is limited – Romeo and Juliet is only fourth in the book – but he seems to have been the kind of writer whose work is often uneven but never meritless. There is wit and gorgeous verse in Romeo and Juliet. The dramatic irony is interesting. The graveyard denouement, and Juliet’s living burial with her dead relatives, are evocatively horrible. And although Shakespeare probably didn’t intend it, it is kind of funny to watch Romeo drama-queen all over the stage.

And yet, as a love story, Romeo and Juliet is hasty and shallow. The two meet at a party and marry the next day. By the time they commit suicide, they have known each other perhaps a week. Granted, it was a jam-packed week, mostly with murders, but still. I know they were passionate to the point of hysteria. I know they gave some pretty speeches. I hold, nonetheless, to the principle that one of the requirements of a grand love affair is that it outlive milk.

If not a grand love story, Romeo and Juliet is a great tragedy – needless and self-inflicted, unredeemed by nobility. Neither hero nor heroine was courageous when it might have helped. Both, once they discovered each other, became cruel to everyone else – whether it was Juliet declaring her cousin’s death a good thing or Romeo skewering poor Paris. When the apothecary protested that he could be executed for selling the poison, Romeo goaded him into it by scorning his hunger and poverty. He put the man’s life at risk and pressed him into the guilt of complicity with another’s self-destruction. These are great moral crimes.

Mostly, Romeo and Juliet distinguish themselves by their absolute lack of wisdom and good sense. They were not star-crossed lovers. They were simply and inexcusably wrong about everything. Their secret marriage was a disaster in the wings from I do. That was so exceedingly obvious even they should have seen it. The only question was whether the crisis would be forced when Juliet got pregnant or when her parents chose a husband for her. Romeo and Juliet might have at least tried the honest approach. Rejecting that, they might have run away together. Either brave frankness or open rebellion could have saved them. But they would literally have rather killed themselves.

The only sensible reaction to Romeo and Juliet is Children, you are really very stupid. And that is the crux of this tragedy – that they were little more than children in need of adult supervision, and nobody was it: not the Nurse, not Friar Lawrence, not their awful parents. Romeo and Juliet got drunk on their first sip of sexual love and ruined everything. That is not a beautiful love story, nor an ennobling tragedy, but it is piercingly poignant.

Redundant Redundancies

Today’s topic is redundant phrases. We have all had it drilled into us that redundancy is bad and clean, effective communication excises the pointless. We also have ingrained into us our civilization’s stock of well-worn and oft-used expressions, which did not undergo a strict vetting by licensed grammarians and therefore contains redundancies. Like Orwell’s animals, some of these redundancies are more equal than others.

Some of them have no excuse except that they have been worn into our brains. We use them without thinking, but we should stop. You should not use the phrase a pair of twins because that is, you know, how twins work. It’s not necessary to state that some famous person has written an autobiography of her life, because she scarcely could have written an autobiography of anyone else’s life. A biography of his life is likewise unnecessary but more forgivable. All moments are brief, and all summaries should be. A warning that isn’t advanced isn’t. Cooperate together is repetitive because one cannot cooperate alone. The phrases added bonus and free gift are simply not acceptable.

Cease and desist and null and void are admittedly redundant. But they are also lawerly – and not in the greasy way of commercials for local personal-injury law firms but in the magisterial way of Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is something almost soothing in their official lilt. And cease, desist, null and void are all excellent words that we find too little opportunity to use in casual conversation. So we are not going to fuss about these phrases. We are also inclined to give a pass to twelve noon and twelve midnight. True, noon or midnight alone would be sufficient. Yet these phrases have rather a nice ring. We also note, if anyone needs a more objective rationale, that noon and midnight qualify twelve, which needs qualification. But mostly we note that you can easily imagine twelve noon and twelve midnight being spoken with a British accent.

Perhaps the most redundant of all redundancies is that famous assertion I saw it with my own eyes. Judged only by redundancy, this expression would not only be taken out but, afterwards, shot. Yet I wouldn’t give it up. The elaboration with my own eyes is pure emphasis, a verbal exclamation point. For the same reason, I am soft on completely annihilated. Annihilation is total destruction and cannot be more complete than it already is. But I think that, as decimate lost its old precision of ten percent, annihilated is losing its precision of one hundred percent. A little emphasis on its totality may not be wrong.

Some repetitive phrases are merely bad habits. Others have been elevated almost to the level of philosophy while remaining, still, bad habits. Remember that all experience is lived experience. That’s what makes it experience: you lived it. There is no need to clarify that your or anyone else’s experience is lived – unless, of course, you are writing a paper and up against a word count. Similarly, every religion is a system of belief with established ceremonies and practices, and an institutional hierarchy to go along with it. No religion got to where it is without organization, and it is pointless to toss around organized religion. There is no other kind.

There is considerable objectivity in which phrases are redundant. There is considerable subjectivity in which redundant phrases are acceptable. So tell me which you rate as more equal, and which you rate as less. But please, don’t tell me you want to keep added bonus.

Somewhere Out There

On the chance that anyone is not finding current events sufficiently bizarre, the Pentagon released UFO videos. Some people concluded from the imagery that aliens have already surreptitiously visited Earth and are probably planning an invasion that will end life as we know it. Pessimists, though, suggested that the so-called UFOs are really just afterimages. One thing is clear: What we are, as society, going to do with this revelation is first of all create memes, and second talk about aliens. I’m not much skilled with the former, so let’s go on to the latter. 

Some people consider aliens probable based on the science. (Others consider aliens certain based on the math, but I suspect their equations are missing some variables.) The perception of aliens as a scientific idea is widespread; the genesis of that perception is less clear. It’s not as if the existence of aliens can be deduced from observable phenomena, or proven from it. You can’t say, An apple falls from a tree and hits a man on the head, so aliens are real, or The Sun deflects light, therefore aliens live in Andromeda. And although some people swear that aliens explain unidentified flying objects, crop circles, and the pyramids, there is no phenomenon for which aliens are a necessary or even likely explanation.

Astronomy provides a different sort of rationale for the existence of aliens. The staggering number of stars and planets suggests a calculation, whether mathematical or gambler’s odds: With so many galaxies, so many solar systems, so many planets, there must be aliens somewhere out there. There is some emotion in this. The only thing more appalling than vast, unfathomable spaces is vast, unfathomable emptiness. We can’t imagine that all those galaxies are empty. And by empty, we mean empty of beings like us.

The argument is not all emotion. It has some math. But I don’t believe that anyone has written out the equations, or even can. What is the real chance of intelligent life, and how much is it increased by the sheer size of the universe? Consider that one of the patterns of scientific discovery is the great complexity of life and the specificity of the conditions necessary to it. The fine-tuning required for life is so great that some scientists posit it as evidence for the multiverse. The discoveries of astronomy gave some grounding to the idea of aliens. They did not establish it scientifically.

To trace the idea of aliens to its first proposition is not possible. Yet I doubt that it was from science, or even scientists. For all the trimmings of steel and stars, aliens have always struck me as the stepchildren of a million folk tales and fairy stories. On the surface they may be different from the extravagant denizens and ragged strays of Faerie, but in their essence, they’re the same. The world used to be huge, with unclimbed mountains and forests older than civilization and oceans that, for all anyone could dream, might pour out onto the stars. But the world grew small. We learned – we proved it to ourselves – that the mountains and forests and oceans are empty, empty of beings like us.

But our horizons expanded with science, and our dreams wandered. Maybe they were somewhere else – the moon, the center of the earth, Venus, Mars. We ruled that out, too. Now it’s the stars – somewhere, on some planet spinning around some sun, there is life like us.

We are, I sometimes think, lonely.

An Icon of Melodrama

If you consider the facts from a certain distance – objectively, even analytically – you would have to conclude that the image of a woman tied to the railroad tracks is grim. Tragic, even, if the evident intention is realized. We take it to be comical, but we’re not really to blame. The damsel in distress, tied to the railroad tracks, is an icon of melodrama burlesqued into a joke. Even more, it is a symbol of cartoon villainy and melodramatic storytelling.

The melodramatic, in modern use, is drama so excessive it becomes absurd. The phenomenon was wonderfully expressed by Oscar Wilde in his jibe that no one without a heart of stone could read the death of Little Nell and not laugh. But though it gets no respect now, melodrama was a reigning art form in its day. Because we are interested in all art forms here – at least all the art forms we are presently thinking of; don’t test us – we’re going to consider the most marked characteristics of melodrama. Hat tip to Robert M. Lewis’ From Traveling Show to Vaudeville, an excellent review of American entertainment.

Melodrama was, first of all, sensationalist. Well, yes, you say. By definition. And this is so. But melodrama brewed a distinct flavor of sensationalism. Melodrama was firmly grounded in the present day and in next-door locales. There was no once upon a time, no exotic, far-off lands. Nor were there the more or less than human – elves or aliens, superheroes or sorcerers. Melodrama was populated by at least the types of real people, cads and country boys and salesgirls.

And that made it, perhaps, all the more wrenching when drama burst through the familiar with violence, both literal and metaphorical. Improbable dangers and extravagant disasters charged melodrama. Acts of God, bloody deeds of villainy, and blind, mechanical violence were all conjured to create excitement and robust physicality. Think of unpleasant yet unlikely ways to die, all of which require vigorous action to escape, inflict, or both. The writers of the melodramas did. That is why their heroes braved bullets and earthquakes, and their heroines were pushed off bridges and thrown beneath freight elevators and, yes, tied to railroad tracks.

Yet the danger that stalked the heroines of melodrama was not only physical. It was also moral. The popular melodrama Rosina Meadows (1841) was the tragedy of a young woman robbed of her virtue by an urbane scoundrel. (To catch a little of the spirit of melodrama: Both of them die in the last scene – Rosina for no particular reason, her erstwhile lover at the hands of her avenging father.) Rosina exemplifies the idea of young female innocence menaced by male villainy, ever-recurrent in melodrama. For all its full-hearted plunge into violence and crime, melodrama was intensely moralistic. So was its audience. The playwright Porter Emerson Browne marked with vague fondness how devotedly melodrama’s spectators hated the villain and loved the hero and heroine. The journalist Rollin Lynde Hart marked it with acid.

Doubtless there is a great deal of acid that might be spilled on an art form symbolized by a man in a black suit tying a woman to the railroad tracks. Absurdity, histrionics, and stereotypes thread through the image. But there must be something to be said for it as well. It is a striking image, and an indelible one. And if we could receive it as artlessly as the Bowery audiences once did, we might even see pathos within the schmaltz, and human longing beyond the absurdity.

Lazarus, Come from the Dead

I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.

— T.S. Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

In the last glimpse we catch of Lazarus, he is sitting at a dinner held in Christ’s honor, the object of the crowd’s curiosity and the target of a murder plot. People were going over to Jesus because He had raised Lazarus from the dead, so the Pharisees decided to kill Lazarus. They could be very straightforward in their problem-solving. Their solution would only have worked, however, if Lazarus stayed dead. One wonders if they detected a potential pitfall in this.

We are never told what became of the murder plot. Presumably it never came off. I am more impressed by the image in the Gospel of the people flocking to see Lazarus. I think I would have been more interested in hearing him. Lazarus, come from the dead, back to tell us all – But as far as the narrative reports, he tells nothing. Lazarus returns from the dead and silently vanishes.

He is not the only one. Other people rise from the dead, in both Testaments: the widow’s son in Nain, Jairus’ daughter, Dorcas, Eutychus, the Shunnamite’s son, the son of the widow in Zarephath. None of them is given a voice in Scripture to tell their story or make a statement. None of them tells all, or even anything. And it’s possible they had nothing to tell. Maybe rising from the dead was like waking up from sleep. We wouldn’t know.

There was another Lazarus, the beggar carried by the angels to heaven in Jesus’ parable. Later the rich man, in hell, asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, a messenger from the dead to bring truth to the living. Abraham dismissed the idea: They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

Let them listen to Moses and the prophets. We already have been told what we need to hear; the dead have nothing more to add. They will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. Strangely enough, the dead can’t even tell the truth better than it has already been told. And this, maybe, is what lies behind the loud silence of the Bible’s returned dead. Lazarus was raised as a sign and not as a messenger; the widows’ sons returned for love and not revelation.

One did return from death and speak. Jesus Christ is the only resurrection among all the risen dead. Everyone else returned to life before the grave, still to die for good and all. Only Christ traveled through death and beyond, to life in eternity – death not only reversed but conquered, never to be suffered again. The creeds say that Christ descended into hell. He Himself told no tales. What did He say? I think we should notice that He told the disciples that they should have seen this one coming, what with Moses and the prophets and all. And beyond that?

He gave a command, a commission, a blessing. He gave a promise that we would never be alone, and a brotherhood. I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. He gave hope, in more than words. We still haven’t torn down the veil of death. But we have – out of the darkness, the cold, the emptiness, above all grief and fear – the blazing glory of the Risen Son.