John field notes 3i: Porous borders

In John, the speakers sometimes bleed into one another as if possessed by the same spirit.  It’s the Greek chorus or the long, amazed monologues towards the end of many Faulkner novels, monologues that blend with the narration and almost break character.

For the space of six verses at the end of John 3, for instance, the English translations can’t agree on who’s talking.

The New American Standard thinks that in verses 31 through 36 the speaker is John the Baptist, but the New Revised Standard and the Revised English Bible think the text has switched from John the Baptist to John the narrator.  But even the New Revised Standard acknowledges in a note that “some interpreters hold that the quotation continues through verse 36,” making the speaker John the Baptist.

Here’s the exact intersection of John the Baptist’s words (first sentence) with what might be John the narrator’s words (second sentence):

He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. (John 3:30-31, NNAS)

Things that don’t matter in John the way they need to matter in other books, even other gospels: where, when, and now who. The words at the end of John chapter 3 could have come from Jesus, John the Baptist, or John the narrator. The porous borders certainly highlight the message but, oddly, not at the expense of characterization, at least in a deeper (or John would say, higher) sense because the words point back to identity. Who is behind words is a central concern in John. Even in the contested six verses, the central issue is the words’ sources:

He who comes from above is above all others; he who is from the earth belongs to the earth and uses earthly speech. He who comes from heaven bears witness to what he has seen and heard, even though no one accepts his witness. To accept his witness is to affirm that God speaks the truth;  for he whom God sent utters the words of God, so measureless is God’s gift of the Spirit. (John 3:31-34, REB)

While the reader is trying to figure out who’s speaking, John is telling us how to tell who’s really speaking. My inquiry (i.e., who is speaking) belongs to the earth, but John uses the terms of my inquiry to point to a higher level. He has done this to me earlier in the book, just as he has done it to the Jews and to Nicodemus.

In John, the reader as unspoken character never evanesces for long.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

Reconstruction

I wrote my first letter to the editor before I was ten, and I’ve been writing them about every ten years since. Here’s my latest.  The Washington Post column I was responding to seems to be no longer on the paper’s web site or anywhere else on the Internet, for that matter.

Like my previous letters, this one was not published.

Dear Sir:

Mr. Brag Bowling [Civil War 150, “No Abolitionist He,” Mar. 4] offers the South’s rejection of the Corwin Amendment as evidence that it wasn’t fighting to preserve slavery but “for a higher purpose, their political independence.” (The 1861 Corwin Amendment would have prevented any future Constitutional amendment from allowing Congress to end slavery in any state.)

While many Southerners didn’t trust Northern promises to uphold slavery in states where it existed, the South seceded over the Republicans’ promise to stop slavery’s spread into the nation’s considerable western territories.  The territories had been the national slavery debate’s political focus from the time of the Northwest Ordinance (1787) to the Missouri Compromise (1820), the Wilmot Proviso (1847), the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and Bleeding Kansas (1854 – 1858). One need only peruse Donald Reynolds‘s excellent book Editors Make War: Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis to get an idea of how quickly the South turned to secession as a result of the Republicans’ 1860 electoral success and their commitment to stop slavery’s spread.

I’m a Virginian who, like Mr. Bowling, had forefathers who fought for the Confederacy, but I cannot honor – much less reinvent – the Confederacy’s motive.

John field notes 13a: Periodic irony

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. (John 13:3-4, KJV)

Periodic sentences are usually dramatic, but John employs that syntax here to create a kind of dramatic irony.  The immediate irony, of course, is the grandeur of the phrases followed by the servility of the clause. Jesus’ grand knowledge followed by his servile act. Luke achieves the same immediate irony in a periodic sentence:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2, KJV)

Luke’s periodic sentence sets John the Baptist’s humble introduction in a time defined by all of the grand layers of government to which John was subject. John’s very introduction, then, foreshadows his later problems with the authorities. Anyway, Luke’s periodic sentence, like John’s, leads us from grandeur to humility.  And as in John, the phrases are the clause’s foil.

I like this definition of dramatic irony:

Dramatic irony is when the words and actions of the characters of a work of literature have a different meaning for the reader than they do for the characters. This is the result of the reader having a greater knowledge than the characters themselves.

In John’s periodic sentence, we finally learn the extent of what Jesus understands about himself. But in the sentence’s clause, Jesus acts contrary to it.  When John unveils, we find a veil. Luke’s periodic sentence, as deftly as it introduces the tension of John the Baptist’s life, doesn’t pull off what John does here.

John’s surface irony (grandeur/servility) points to a greater dramatic irony, and an inverted one: the reader has a lesser, not greater, “knowledge than the characters themselves.” Therefore, the reader remains the unknown character, maybe more than in a Calvino novel.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

[What is Sufism?]

From time to time a Revelation ‘flows’ like a great tidal wave from the Ocean of Infinitude to the shores of our finite world; and Sufism is the vocation and the discipline and the science of plunging into the ebb of one of these waves and being drawn back with it to its Eternal and Infinite Source.

From redsulfur.

A car beam

When I grow up, I want to write like this:

A car beam — like something sprayed out of a hose — lights up the room he is in, and he pauses once again in mid-step, seeing that same woman’s eyes on him, a man moving on top of her, his fingers in her blonde hair. And she has seen, he knows, even though now he is naked, the same man she photographed earlier in the crowded party, for by accident he stands the same way now, half turned in surprise at the light that reveals his body in the darkness. The car lights sweep up into a corner of the room and disappear.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, pg. 36. What is revealed, not by the headlights but by the prose, stands starkly against the tone.  The still shot; the ironic, beguiling syntax; Faulkner without the fireworks.

John field notes 3g: Why write gospels?

Luke and John said why they wrote; Matthew and Mark didn’t.

Some later wrote them to harmonize these four.

Jefferson wrote a gospel with a razor. Reynolds Price wrote one, too, using Mark as a tree and material from the other gospels and elsewhere and his own informed imagination as leaves.  (Price is part harmonizer, part inventor, and part Jefferson.) Each term, Price even makes his students write gospels.

Why write anything? I think it’s push and pull, attraction and revulsion. And the need to add our own testimony, even if only as editors, commentators, or (like me) marginalists.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

It sounds so modern

From “Samuel Johnson on Pope,” which appeared on The Lives of the English Poets (1779-1781):

Poetry was not the sole praise of either; for both excelled likewise in prose. The style of Dryden is capricious and varied; that of Pope is cautious and uniform. Dryden observes the motions of his own mind; Pope constrains his mind to his own rules of composition. Dryden’s page is a natural field, diversified by the exuberance of abundant vegetation. Pope’s is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe, and leveled by the roller.

That is criticism, I believe!

John field note 3f: John’s organum

Hearsay to avoid heresy:

“You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ (John 3:28, NNAS)

John is sketchy in certain ways — the private settings, the unclear referents. And Reynolds Price describes the gospel’s “relentlessly limited battery of words” — Greek wasn’t John’s first language, after all. But, according to Price, John’s patois is “homemade”: John’s struggle with Greek is like Nabokov’s struggle with English:

For a modern reader of his Koine original, John seems like nothing so much as a highly skilled and intelligent expatriate (which early tradition in fact claims he was) — an Einstein or a Thomas Mann, a Conrad or a Nabokov: one who is able to express himself readily and powerfully on most of the difficult matters he encounters but in a homemade and eccentric patois.  No one can for a moment believe that Vladimir Nabokov was born writing English; but the English of his later novels is, to say the least, imposing in the bizarre strength with which it insists in oaring upstream against the whole natural flow of English. John likewise is always pushing hard uphill in what is clearly an acquired vehicle, a medium that requires him often to work outside and against the thought processes of his native tongue, which scholars can tell us is Aramaic. (Price, Three Gospels 18 – 19)

Anyway, funny that the characters and even the narrator in such a sketchy book can be so punctilious about what is said. What is said is referred to as witness and testimony.  (John the Baptist here says, “You can testify that I testified.”) The contrast leads to how I describe John’s tone this time through: John’s brief anecdotes and early dialogues play above a plainchant of legal references (testimony, witness) that adds a kind of tension to the anecdotes’ and dialogues’ unclear referents, private settings, and extended and repeating metaphors. John is a mesmerizing and disturbing organum.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]