All Along the Watchtower: Isaiah 21
This sermon is on Isaiah chapter 21 by way of Bob Dylan.
Isaiah is a book against which I keep banging my head. Some of it is of such extraordinary depth, even vastness, of character that I have no idea how a human imagination is capable of generating it. Some of it has descriptions of God that read like ‘Portrait of a Psychopath’. And that is what I love about it. I love this collision of contradictory aspects and forces in the one book. I got onto chapter 21 specifically by way of a Bob Dylan song called ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Most people seem to know the song but no one seems to know what it’s about. No one seems to have much idea of what to do with Isaiah 21 either. I don’t know for sure but my suspicion is that the Dylan song is based on Isaiah 21. What interests me is how powerful both texts are, even without either of them making terribly much sense. And I am interested in the experience of wrestling with such texts and the possibility that there yet might still be things one can do with nonetheless.
Last week Malcolm McKinlay talked about how the Psalms can be a permission to foreground various negative emotions like anger and hate. The emotions can, by means of the Psalms, come out into the open where you can see them and deal with them. Gwen Strickland did a meditation using a Dr. Seuss story on allowing yourself to establish some sort of relationship or processing of negative emotions like fear. This talk is about making friends with ‘negative’ experiences like non-meaning/ the break-down of meaning. It’s about how finding bits of the Bible that seem to do that can be good practice for dealing with similar experience in real life.
I should say, before I proceed, that this sermon is a work in progress. Talking here is a way of thinking ‘out loud’ in order to think things through. I don’t have any especial ‘answers’ about the text. Mostly I just have questions. But I’m interested in exploring the issues they raise.
First, I want to introduce some concepts. The words for these concepts are French and they are about different kinds of enjoyment.
There are basically two: There’s plaisir and there’s jouissance. The words mean roughly, ‘pleasure’ (plaisir) and ‘joy’ (jouissance). You can bet with the French that the words have other meanings, too, which are rude. (And they are). For our purposes though, plaisir means, essentially, the pleasure of the familiar, the pleasure of the normal. The kind of enjoyment that you’re likely to get when there’s not much effort and everything is safe.
The other kind of pleasure is jouissance. Jouissance is a pleasure that begins in a kind of pain. And that pain is ‘difficulty’. Jouissance happens where things aren’t so familiar, they’re a bit or even a lot threatening, and you’ve lost your bearings. It’s getting scary, you’re out to sea and there is a strong sense of risk.
On Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters talks about a similar kind of difference using other words. Plaisir, the pleasure of the ‘normal’ they call ‘Vanilla’, as in the ice cream; and the pleasure of the more unusual, even dangerous kinds, they call ‘Kinks’. These terms come from underground sex-slang but Buffy the TV programme is so cheerfully flippant and ironic in the way it treats everything these terms could be applied to just about anything.
This distinction itself, between these two kinds of pleasure, goes back to about 1700 years. In the 3rd century AD, there was a Jewish guy called Longinus. He was writing a book about what makes for great writing. He called his book On the Sublime. He was writing, in part, on what makes the Bible great. It was the first time the Bible had been treated as literature. For Longinus, ‘good’ writing keeps the rules and ‘great’ writing breaks them. Good writing is ‘the beautiful’; great writing is ‘the sublime’. Good writing is easy to deal with and you know what's what. Great writing, is not so easy and it’s going to give you a difficult time. It’s going to disrupt your sense of what you know and where things are. You don’t know quite what you’re dealing with and it’s not an immediate barrel of laughs.
Maybe one crude sort of analogy with this basic pairing is a musical one. We could compare the difference between harmony and dissonance. For ‘harmony’ we could think ‘lack of tension’ and play a nice happy C major chord. For ‘dissonance’, a tone cluster.
I’d want to make a slight shift on Longinus and interpret him a bit differently. For Longinus the categories are pretty much set: either something is well-done and it’s ‘beautiful’ or it’s provocatively breaking the rules and it’s ‘sublime’. I’d want to re-frame that and say there’s something more a like a continuum between them and that even the nature of the continuum shifts throughout time depending on what culture you’re in and so on. And besides, between harmony [C major] and dissonance [tone-cluster] might be interesting things on the way [C minor 9].
Citysiders over the years, have often arrived here of course for different reasons but one common sort of phenomenon of the Bible no longer making sense in quite the ways that we were lead to believe it would. The impression that the Bible has become difficult for them without it ever quite becoming a pleasure as well.
I want to look at the possibility of that difficulties becoming a means to a different kind of pleasure instead of being registered as an obstacle. This means in part the possibility of finding a pleasure in ‘non-sense’. It’s a space where you can enjoy the collapse of meaning and still finding something productive in it. The reasons for doing so I’ll get to at the end.
As the ideas are still fairly much in the process of being ‘processed’ I may at some point lose my footing. In which case I won’t just be talking about the death of meaning, I’ll be enacting it. But that will all be to the good.
Some bits of Bible don’t just make ‘no sense’, they actively defy it.
The first section of this chapter in Isaiah creates all sorts of ‘dissonance’, disruptions in our expectations that make the chapter bewildering reading. Isaiah’s language deliberately frustrates sense but I think it does so with all the skill we might find now in a modern maker of horror-movies.
I’m won’t read through it first. I want to go through it a bit at a time so we can get a sense of the build-up of the tension it creates.
To add to the general dissonance I’m going to use the King James Version of the Bible because that was the one Bob Dylan was using when he wrote ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and because – I like it.
Isaiah 21 begins: “The burden of the desert of the sea”. Already, in one line, we have several surprises.
The opening line involves a ‘burden’. What do they mean by ‘burden’? It could be a heavy weight. It could be the older sense of a ‘song’. A song that is a heavy weight?
If we’re reading through Isaiah this chapter fits into a series of statements made against various places and each of these places has a name. Each name is a political power. Here is the first vision in that sequence that does not have an object with a name. The place this statement is about is a place without an identity. Something is happening to someone or something and we don’t know what, but it appears to be severe enough that there’s nothing left to ‘identify the body’.
‘Desert of the sea’. That’s a bit weird – to describe the sea in terms of a desert. Why a desert? Surely, a desert is the opposite of the sea. One of these things is not like the other. One is predominantly dry, the other is wet. How can you describe something to do with water in terms of something that is to do with ground? And why would you bother? ‘The desert of the sea’. Might just possibly be a metaphor.
In fact, if we turn it around we have a metaphor that is almost a cliché: the sea of the desert where camels are the ‘ships’. In that case however, the ‘sea’ is the metaphor and the desert is the referent. Here, it is around the other way.
The ‘desert of the sea’ describes the desert as a ‘sea’. Not the first image to occur to you off the top of your head, In fact, it is one of the more unlikely. It rates up there with the T.S. Eliot line “ Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like - a patient etherised upon a table”. A anaesthetised body is about the last thing likely to occur to one to describe the sky, unless you’re a fan of T.S. Eliot.
Eliot has his reasons. Maybe Isaiah has his too. We don’t know what they are but we’ve at least got this violent yoking of one unlike thing with another. One thing they might have in common is that they are both images of ‘waste’ in the old sense of ‘wasteland’. They are regions of the earth resistant to human cultivation or civilisation. So the violence of the combination of desert and sea at least suggests that there is a devastation so total that the region involved has become as resistant to human transformation or ‘rescue’ as the desert or the sea.
The immediate problem though is that the non-correspondence between the two terms, the image and the referent, means we’re more likely just to experience the two images collapsing into one another.
The next line begins “As whirlwinds in the south pass through”. Whirlwinds. The bit in nature where air stirs up the surface of the ground. Like the movie Twister (not the game). Think Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt and a flying cow. A confusion of land and air. Just in the line before we’ve had a short-circuit in our imaginations where desert and sea are combined, and in the violence of the effort of trying to imagine the combination of the two, a dissolution of the one into the other. Earth mixed with water. Now, earth mixed with air. We have across the two lines a confusion of land, water and air. That’s three of the four traditional elements. The fourth would have been fire. Earth, water, air and fire are the basic components of the world that the human imagination tends to use as the basis of everything else.
In many of the world’s creation myths a god comes along and makes a universe. What he makes a universe out of is a chaos he finds already lying there. The chaos what the creating god will then separate into what will become the four elements. The god then recombines these elements in different ways to form what will become the world we think we recognise.
We have a residual, though still fairly explicit, form of this myth in the opening chapter of Genesis where light is separated from darkness (the emergence of ‘fire’), land from sea and sea from sea with air in the middle.
Here in Isaiah, we find the opposite happening. We have an eradication of an identity – no place-name presented – a burden about a somewhere that is now a nowhere and cannot be named. And then we’ve got the elements from which identities are made, dissolving into each other. We have the reduction of the components of creation into a complete mess. What we are looking at is something like a total de-creation. An un-creation. It’s not just kicking over sand-castles – it’s destroying even the possibility of ‘sand’.
At this point in the chapter we are still unsure as to who is doing what and why. The implication though is that a destruction is in progress and on a scale that can only be thought of as a creation going in reverse. Only God would be capable of doing that. One thing that we would want to think about God, especially given the opening chapter of Genesis, with his first historical action, action is that it is in the character of God to create, make, and act constructively. Not to destroy. And we’d hope that he’s beginning as he means to continue. Destruction is something we separate out in our minds as belonging to forces opposed to God. Here in Isaiah, God is starting to look a little dangerous.
“As whirlwinds in the south pass through, so it cometh from the desert’. Ok. We are in fact talking about a desert for a start. The first line had reversed our sense of which was the metaphor and which was the thing to which it referred. Now that line is proving to have been even more troublesome than we might have guessed.
New problem: “As whirlwinds in the south pass through, so . . . ‘it’. What is the ‘it’? Obviously it is gender neutral. No clarity of its sex. Maybe a dissolution of gender. But more urgently for the moment, we have no antecedent. No previous clue as to who we’re talking about. We’ve just gone straight into using an ‘it’. And it stuffs up our metaphor. Actually, it stuffs up our simile. ‘As whirlwinds pass through, it’. Whirlwinds are being compared to something, to an, to an, to an . . . ‘it’. A what?
“A grievous vision is declared unto me”. Uh-huh. Isaiah has seen something horrible. So horrible, it causes him grief (hence ‘grievous’). ‘Grievous’ is pretty strong. We might think nowadays of the phrase ‘Grievous Bodily Harm’. I’m not sure the phrase was around in the 17th Century when the King James was put together, but GBH becomes a bit of an issue later in the chapter. Is the vision grievous for its content? Or is the actual experience of having the vision itself grievous? We don’t know. We don’t even know yet what Isaiah can see.
We do know he goes from seeing – ‘a vision’ – to hearing – ‘is declared’. the thing ‘seen’ is now being ‘told’. In a heartbeat, Isaiah has gone from seeing to hearing. Isaiah cannot cope with what he’s being shown and has to drop into just hearing about it. Imagine a hands-over-eyes position but in language. We are watching Isaiah go into rapid mode of defence. He’s shifted senses.
What is it that he sees or hears?
“The treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously and the spoiler spoileth”. Fat lot of good that. Here we have a kind of person doing the kind of thing that that person is likely to do. This has told us almost precisely nothing. To describe something in terms of itself is really unhelpful. “The really Isaiah-ish thing about Isaiah is that he’s just so ‘Isaiah’”. Yes . .
We want some clues here and Isaiah is refusing to give them to us.
Suddenly, we get names. “Go up, O Elam, besiege, O Media!”
Who are these people? Or are they places? And who is talking to them? Is it God? Is it the prophet? And what would Elam and Media do if they heard these instructions? Elam: “Um, just got the call – gotta go . . . ‘up’. . . .Um. ‘Up’. Here is ‘us’ and here is - ‘up’ . . . Well, better get on with it.” Media: “Tough cheese to you, we get to lay siege. . . to . . . um . . well . . . ‘to’. We’re laying siege’. At least we’re laying siege. Not like you, you’re just going ‘up . . . At least we get a transitive verb. Just a pity about the . . .object”.
“All the sighing thereof have I made to cease”. ‘Thereof’? Sighing of what? Or sighing caused by what? Is it the sighing of those who have been beaten up by the ‘neighbourhood bully’? Is it the sighing of the neighbourhood bully being beaten up? Or is it the sighing of Elam and Media having to deal with these ridiculous instructions?
More disturbing though is the question of who is doing the addressing. If it is Isaiah, then how does a backwoods, backwater, voice of the voiceless get to address nations in the geo-political arena? And who would listen to him? If it’s not Isaiah, then it might be God doing the speaking. If it is God, then we have a very sudden shift of register between speakers. In fact the outright hijacking of the prophet’s speech by another voice entirely. Isaiah reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy. Here there is the dissolution of boundary between identities and between self and not-self.
Next line. Beautiful: “Therefore”. One of these beautiful random Biblical appearances of the word ‘therefore’. We hope for a logical cause-and-effect sequence with some logical coherence and we get these random ‘therefores’. How did we get ‘here’ from ‘there’. We don’t even know what either of them are.
“My loins are filled with pain. Pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travails.” Obviously, old-fashioned language for being in labour. Giving birth. But who is speaking? Is it Isaiah? Isaiah was a bloke. Last time we looked. Now he’s giving birth. What has to happen psychologically to a male speaker to end up in this state?
He seems to have lost, at level of his metaphors, his gender. Was a man, now he’s not. Less than he was. He is experiencing the great male secret anxiety of a castration complex. But it’s not just the loss of a gender physically, it’s a replacement with an entirely different one. He’s got a whole new different set of equipment. He’s giving birth! Giving birth? To what? And where did ‘baby’ come from?
“I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it”. Another translation has the even more graphic ‘convulsed’.
There are those random, unidentified flying pronouns again. ‘It’, ‘it’, ‘it’ . . . The ‘it’ would appear to be the thing he is giving birth to, but it is causing him more than birth pangs, it’s outright horror. He’s in labour with a monstrous birth. Giving birth to a monster. Something he cannot afford to look at yet, and the metaphors are reversing. He’s going from hearing to seeing. Earlier his defence was going from seeing to hearing. Now that defence is breaking down. Oh no. It’s getting closer. On no, it was already closer. It was inside him. Body-horror on top of body-horror. ‘Body-horror’ is the horror at the dissolving of boundaries between identities that should otherwise retain their discrete integrities. Not only has he experienced psychologically a castration, and a shift of gender, and a discovery that he is giving birth, the thing he is giving birth to is a monster that is inside him. It’s barely Bible any more - it’s David Cronenberg or Ridley Scott. [The Fly; Dead Ringers; Crash; Alien]
How did ‘it’ get there? Isaiah’s experiencing the dissolution of boundaries between God and self, between his gender and another and the dissolution of the boundary between inside and outside. Isaiah is experiencing violation of his sense of his sense of self on multiple different levels. This part of the chapter is a total fragmentation of the self. Or of the sense of self he previously had. And with the monstrous birth the horror previously felt to be off-stage is now coming out to where we can see it. The tension is excruciating.
“The night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me”. Mild, mild understatement. Perfectly fits with the psychology of the horror-movie motifs. ‘Those who get their jollies, get the chop’.
Next line, and we’ve got total dissociation. “Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat drink: arise, ye princes and anoint the shield”.
What, in these circumstances would you want to prepare a table for? Is this some mad variation on ‘and bring plenty of hot water”? And again: to whom is this man talking? Whom does the prophet address? Is it the group of people in the place suffering the disaster? Maybe it’s the people in the disaster zone. Is Isaiah actually concerned for them? Is he, knowing the disaster that befalls them, being sarcastic? Is he gloating? Is he being really bitter in his irony? Shouldn’t he be telling them to protect themselves?
“Arise ye princes and anoint the shield”. Anoint the shield? What do you want to do that for? Is it a religious gesture? At a pinch I could imagine that you might put oil on a shield to make a slippery surface so that the enemies’ missiles slide off? It is hardly a gesture likely to be effective against a god bent on wholesale local de-creation. “Here we are suffering a disaster and we ward off impending catastrophe with . . . surrealism!”
Then we get to the famous bit, the bit that seems to be the basis for the Dylan song:
“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, ‘Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth’”.
Suddenly, the introduction of a new character. Or is it? A watchman on a tower. Looking out for messengers. And, straight into a very weird bit: “And he cried, ‘A lion; my lord’”. Of course. Told to stand there and look out for messengers and straight away he’s distracted by cats. But what’s that lion doing here? Other translations have no idea either and so they leave him out. But not Uncle Bob. “A wildcat did growl”. . . The cat gets a function as part of the menacing background [mise en scene/menace en scene].
“I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights . . . ‘ There’s a bit of a tradition in Near East literature for watchmen doing the whole sleep-deprivation thing. May account for the hallucinogenic quality so far. . .
I will skip briefly down to the next section dealing with the land of Edom to note that ‘Edom’ “Calleth to me, ‘Watchman, what of the night?’”. So. Isaiah responds to the term ‘watchman’. That would make him the same person as the ‘watchman’ earlier in the chapter. There was no indication earlier that Isaiah and the watchman were at all the same person. What happened earlier then is the splitting of Isaiah into at least three different personalities – Isaiah, the watchman who was addressed and spoke independently, and - a large cat.
What kind of devastation is so great that it shivers and slivers the perception of the psyche that is watching it?
“ ‘. . . And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen’. And he answered and said” – wait for it, wait for it - “Babylon is fallen, is fallen”. At last. We have the news. All the tension is released. The whole chapter so far has been a dramatic and violent build-up of tension. Primarily by keeping off-stage the nature of the horrific event and even to whom it is happening.
Tension is seriously sustained too by the piling up of dissonance in the language. We read for information. When we get information we experience a satisfaction. If that satisfaction is thwarted, as by say, the fragmentation of the language, we get a tension. Our hope for the release of that tension in the form of something that makes sense is then deferred onto our expectations about the next line. That deferral keeps happening in this chapter. In fact it has kept happening for nine and one half lines now. The cognitive tension and the pressure it has built is considerable.
Now we know what has happened and who it happened to.
“And all the graven images of her gods he hath broken to the ground”. Interesting that the only visual image of the destruction of Babylon that we actually get is the breaking of idols, which is the breaking of images. Breaking idols is a pastime that is know as iconoclasm. ‘Icon’ – the idol – ‘clasm’ – the breaking. Such a feature would be consistent with the general Hebrew injunction against visual representation, as in the commandment against ‘graven images’.
Isaiah has done two things with that here. First, he has used the breaking of the idols as a small ‘image’ to represent the total phenomenon of the breaking of Babylon. A part standing for the whole. More interesting though is the fact that Isaiah has also applied this iconoclasm of the content of his vision (the breaking of the idols as the breaking of Babylon) to the language, the form of his vision as well. Language has been pretty severely ruptured the whole way through this chapter. The vision ‘is’ ‘grievous’ both for what it sees and how. Isaiah’s content – the breakage of Babylon – is reflected in his form – the breakdown of his language. Suddenly, the chapter is incoherent no longer. It is perfect.
“Oh my threshing, and the corn of my floor”. This language looks like the language of intimacy. ‘O my precious, O my sweet, my blue-eyed boy, my brown-eyed girl, my little cabbage, my little mushroom’ etc. Although ‘my threshing and the corn of my floor’ is hardly what one would expect as terms of endearment.
Is this God comforting Judah in the aftermath of the destruction of that which had oppressed her? Or is it Isaiah comforting Babylon? . . .
If it is the last, we have an extraordinary situation. The prophet Isaiah is registering the destruction, even decimation of the vicious enemy with tenderness and compassion. As such, it is a bit hard to fathom. Here is the voice of the voiceless oppressed addressing the recently decimated oppressor in tones of a surprising kind of grief. It would be a bit like a Jewish POW in 1945 speaking from a concentration camp to say “O my Berlin . . .”
Mostly, people want to vote for these lines being God’s address to a beaten Israel. I don’t think so. The evidence in the chapter so far is overwhelmingly against that option. The entire chapter so far has been Isaiah experiencing within his own person the agony of the destruction of what one would presume to be his enemy. And experiencing that destruction as his own. The experience is so severe, Isaiah has suffered an almost total splintering and fragmentation of everything he could previously have identified as a ‘self’.
Or is it? Could it not be rather the splintering of a position? Is it that Isaiah disintegrates as a personality? Or is that a dimension of his personality is shattered by the experience? And that this aspect might have been one that rejoices simply in the downfall of the enemy?
To rejoice in the downfall of the enemy is, paradoxically to split off one response to a situation from the others, one part of the psyche from the others. What looks initially like the totally shivering and slivering of a personality as we have here in a strange way unites the larger vision of the prophet with all these subsidiary responses and parts of the self. His positional ego may have been shattered but his ability to see beyond that positionality has been restored. Even to the point of being able to begin to register the other no longer as simply evil or demonic but as something or someone with whom he might be capable of entering into a relationship (“O my threshed and winnowed one’).
At the very least we notice from this chapter that it’s a rough deal being a prophet. We can be pretty justified in our cynicism about anyone taking up the mantle of a self-appointed prophet. Not much of your ego gets left when you dive into the volcanic core of the psyche or of God. Impressively, Isaiah is aware of all the shards into which he finds himself broken. Isaiah is consistently aware of all the parts of himself in response to a situation. He doesn’t partition off aspects of himself. He’s not doing knee-jerk or ideological pronouncements only.
I should say that there is no necessary moral valuation of these terms - plaisir/jouissance etc. One is not intrinsically better than the other. There is however a kind of problem that can develop that I want to address. A commitment to the pleasure of the comfortable or the ‘comfort zone’ is understandable. It is, after all, ‘comfortable’. The problem arises when the anxiety about maintaining that comfort becomes a need to batten down the hatches and prevent all hints of dissonance. ‘We don’t want your dissonance, no! Go away’. And then sending out search and destroy missions against the slightest hint of the unfamiliar.
Religions are especially good at this. Again, understandably. We want access to the good God with the good rules and the good systematic theology and the implications of not having this are too disturbing to contemplate. The implications are totally threatening and of course the religions of love immediately turn into religions of prosecution in order to maintain their sense of themselves as coherent ‘selves’. And the impulse to prosecution gets faster the more that sense of comfort zone is insecure and that outside is experienced as threat. And the other is consequently demonised.
In such a situation the swiftness and severity of a judgement works against anything like effective ‘justice’. ‘Judgement’ prevents the possibility of doing ‘justice’ with the facts of the otherness of the ‘other’.
I read a sermon recently on the web-site for Zen Mountain in Upstate New York. Zen Mountain Monastery is a very rigorous Zen organisation that seems to be leading the Buddhist end of the dialogue with Christianity.
In the sermon I read, there was a reflection on the scale of billboards. It went something like: ‘Billboards are big. They are big because they need to catch your attention when you’re driving past them at very high speeds. It is not until you get out and walk past one that you realise just how huge the billboards are. When you’re walking you tend to be moving more slowly and you begin to notice more. And notice other things as well. You notice even more if you sit down’.
What I am trying to present with Isaiah chapter 21 is the process of ‘slowing down’. Of noticing what happens when you’re not in a hurry to come up with the right answers or the ‘rhema word for today’. To notice and allow space for the places where meaning seems to break down and things are not so stable as they once were. And that in slowing down even further you start to notice how what did not make any sense before now begins to make a different kind of sense.
The plaisir/knee-jerk reaction of hasty judgements and rapid responses give way to the awkwardness of wrestling productively with difficult. And with them all sorts of off possibilities for oneself come into view. The possibilities of splitting and dissolutions but I’m not sure that they are simply destructive. They are destructive of the pronouncing, prosecutory, persecutory ego with which one begins.
Three centuries ago John Milton wrote a poem called Paradise Lost, X - thousand lines on the first three chapters of Genesis. The hero of the poem, despite perhaps Milton’s best intentions, is his Satan. I’m a fan of Milton’s Satan. He does in fact get all the best lines and the greatest amount of energy and he has all that moody, broody, sulky, demonic glamour. I am not such a fan of C.S. Lewis. But Lewis does voice a feeling the reader can get about Milton's Satan. In one respect at least, Satan is incredibly boring. He has to take a position on things. Meet a situation, say where he stands; see a new thing, say where he stands … eventually you realise all Satan can see is really himself. Himself ‘taking a position’ and saying where he stands. It’s just tedious. But more to the point is that he suffers all sorts of internal contradictions, cannot own them as his own and projects all his own dissonance out onto the universe around him. He’s deep in his own plaisir and thinks everything else is wrong. In so doing, he loses sight of the possibility of ever actually engaging with anything at all. There is nothing to disrupt or shatter his total commitment narcissism.
When we go fast with an object, in this case a text, it’s too easy to make a swift and ‘safe’ judgement on it. With a swift and safe judgement we align ourselves with a position and reject everything that is not past of that position. We go into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ position. In taking a position and rejecting the other we identify the other everything ‘wrong’. And disown I the process the parts of us that are wrong. “Projection” says Harold Bloom, “seeks to expel from the self everything that the self cannot bear to acknowledge as being its own”.
Slowing down and allowing jouissance and difficulty allows is to own the dark parts of ourselves before we project them onto the other.
And this can, as in the case of Isaiah, lead to a complete disintegration of our opening ‘position’. But with that may come the beginning of our ability to recognise the reality of the other and as in the case of Isaiah begin to establish a sense of relationship with the other.
In the Middle ages, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the most influential Christian thinkers. ‘The C.S. Lewis of his age’ blah bah. He did however have a problem psychologically and that was with his own sexuality. His problem was that he had any kind of sexuality. Bernard allowed this difficulty to distort his perception of the Bible. He read the Song of Songs, which is about as frank an appreciation of sexuality as you’re likely to find in any literature, and he encountered a moment of dissonance. For Bernard, sex was bad. The Song of Songs suggests that sex is intrinsically good. Bernard chose the plaisir or ‘vanilla’ option of going with the safe and the known and the ‘good’ of his established position and wrote a massive commentary on the poem which reinvented it as being a polemic against sexuality in any form at all. Bernard refused the jouissance or ‘dissonance’ of having his position questioned. He hunted down and eradicated the sexual impulses in himself. And then he projected that inner conflict outwards.
First he projected it onto the text and distorted it into a meaning the exact opposite of itself. Then he projected again his dissonance onto others. Anyone guilty of what Bernard considered a heresy he attacked with excommunication and execution. His contemporary, Abelard said ’No – I think the Song of Songs thinks sex is OK’. Bernard was outraged and mobilised the Pope against Abelard. Bernard turned his own dysfunction out onto those he persecuted. Every heretic is killed was an embodiment of a sexual impulse Bernard could not afford to own. In a weird sort of way, Bernard had an intensely sexual relationship with every heretic with whom he dealt. It would not be too much of an understatement to say that the history of Europe could have been very, very different if Bernard had confronted his own dissonance and allowed a disruptive experience of the Song of Songs to challenge his preconceptions.
A guy called Peter the Venerable wrote to Bernard at the time and said: “(Dear Bernard) You perform all the difficult religious duties; you fast, you watch, you suffer; but you will not endure the easy ones – you do not love”.
Peter the Venerable is pretty courageous taking on Bernard of Clairvaux but I think, perhaps, he gets things round the wrong way. The difficult thing is to love. To love the process having your illusions, preconceptions, prejudices, and projections run aground on the concrete reality of the other, whether that other is a text, a person, a nation. And to replace those distorted illusions, negative or positive, with the concrete experience of relationship.
A modern phenomenon of the same problem is the extraordinary statement of Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York, in his address to the United Nations: “The time for moral relativism is over. We are right, they are wrong”. I don’t know if I were in the American position if I would behave any differently but the astonishing thing here is the total demonisation of the ‘other’ and the complete unwillingness to acknowledge contradictions in their own position. I want to ask “But what about the CIA?” I am still waiting for any sort of statement by church leaders in the States in acknowledgement of any kind of American culpability at all. Perhaps some of the intensity of the American reaction is being fuelled by a sense of guilt and a need for disavowal.
What about the Dylan song? There is really only one part of the song I want to refer to here and it is the second verse: “There are many here among us/Who feel that life is but a joke”. Isaiah 21 majors on the collapse of meaning. If any part of the Bible gives grounds for the perception of the universe as absurd and intrinsically meaningless, it is Isaiah 21. The chapter mimes the death of meaning in the collapse of the sense of its sentences. I’m intrigued that Dylan seized on this chapter as the basis for a song in which characters can question the meaning of existence and then decide against or rather beyond ‘meaninglessness’.
“But you and I, we’ve been through that/ And this is not our fate/ So let us not talk falsely now/The hour is getting late”. And then things get apocalyptic.
We should be careful to notice what Dylan is doing here. His ‘kindly’ thief says: “But you and I, we’ve been through that”. This is not the voice of anxious commitment to plaisir ‘We don’t believe in no non-meaning, no!’ Nor is it the tedious nihilism of the Perpetual New Left – ‘Yay, meaninglessness/existentialism, man’. The speaker in the Dylan song has emerged out the other side of the collapse of meaning. An extraordinary thing to do. But emerging into what?
Is it the end of the world? Maybe. It was for Babylon. I suspect though, from Isaiah’s point of view it was not the end of the world but the end of a way of seeing the world. The end of seeing the world through easy judgements. The end of easy systems of making sense and the beginning of moving, with Dylan’s thief, through the collapse of false, projected meanings, into something else.
In summary I would like to end by referring to Brian Eno’s line about art being a rehearsal for life. In art, we get controlled doses of chaos, or what I have been referring to here as jouissance, dissonance, difficulty or tension. These controlled doses of chaos we get to experience, in art, in safety. There we can take risks in dealing with chaos or tension that we might not take in real life. In art – and I’m using that term in its broadest possible sense – we can take these risks without necessarily having to incur any form of moral or physical harm. With these experiments we can learn things about situations and about ourselves that we can then transfer usefully into our experience of the everyday world.
I want to transfer Eno’s principle to the situation of reading a Bible. We usually think, in our plaisir-shaped frameworks that the Bible is all clean-lines and coherence, logic, laws and an intelligible ‘Lord’. We tend to think also that those outside ‘belief’ will want to point out the contradictions and chaos in the Bible as a reason for not engaging with something like a Bible. Why bother? It’s so contradictory from the start.
My point: we can afford to acknowledge the chaotic, dissonant, jouissant nature of the Bible. In beginning to process the appearance of non-meaning, even the apparent collapse of meaning in the Bible, we can begin to process previously unacknowledged aspects of the Biblical text, the world outside it and ourselves. In this way we might ease up on forcing ourselves on the world. We may even begin to recognise it.