I may not get around to seeing the new Scorsese movie Silence for a while. It does look interesting, so far as I can gauge from reviews and previews, and the 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel on which it is based is undeniably a very powerful piece of writing. At any rate, the trailers and the reviews and all the media paradiddle associated with the release of Scorsese's fillum have provoked certain thoughts in me, and though they inevitably approach impertinence, uninformed as they are by the appropriate spirit (Endo was a believer, and I am an infidel) nonetheless I thought I'd use the decent obscurity of this blog to work through them. When something bothers me I often have to write it out in order to understand what it is, so far has 'writing' overtaken 'thinking' in my mental praxis. And since that's what I'm doing here I should say at the get-go: this post is very long, abstruse, theological and not as clear or well-structured as it should be. You'd be best giving it a miss, I think.
There's a retrospective element in all this, for me. After the (notable, or unremarkable, I'm not sure) failure of my 2015 novel The Thing Itself to make any kind of impact on the world of science fiction, I spent much of 2016 discouraged and disengaged. I thought about quitting, although in the event I have, as of the start of 2017, got a few, more modest projects in hand. But this meant 2016 proved a fallow period for me, writing-wise. Indeed, I think I'm correct in saying that I only published two works of fiction over the twelve months: a story called ‘Between Nine And Eleven’ for an anthology of original fiction called Crises and Conflicts (the antho, and my story, is reviewed here), and a short novel called Bethany, which I self-published on amazon. The point of The Thing Itself was to suggest the reader should believe in God, and as far as that goes its approach is, I think, pretty ecumenical. Bethany, (a riff on the venerable Behold The Man SF conceit) is a rather more specific item of theological speculation. Probably too narrowly so, actually. It is the story of a modern-day man who travels back in time to kill Christ with a high-powered rifle, after he has resurrected from the crucifixion, but before he has ascended to heaven. Anyway: that is the context for what follows: thoughts on Endo's Silence and some other things.
Endo's novel parlays its historical specificity into something both profound and wide-ranging. It is set at a very particular moment in mid-seventeenth-century Japanese history, when the ruling shogunate has decided to extirpate Christianity. Its main character is a Jesuit priest called Sebastião Rodrigues, who is sent to Japan to support the nascent Christian church there, and also to investigate reports that his mentor, the respected priest Ferreira, has become an apostate to the faith. Rodrigues sets off knowing that he might himself be martyred, and fully accepting that possible fate; but the twist (a trivial way of putting it, but there you go) is that the authorities do not martyr him. Rather they torture and kill his flock, such that he knows he can end their suffering by treading on a 'fumi-e' (that is: stepping on a specially made representation of Christ, an action that signifies his apostasy). The image at the head of this post, showing precisely that action, is a still from an earlier film version of Endo's novel, Masahiro Shinoda's Chinmoku (1971).
It's a well-dramatised and thought-provoking ethical dilemma. After all: it is one thing to sacrifice oneself for one's beliefs, but quite another to sacrifice other people for one's beliefs. Rodrigues agony is that 'he had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him.' It is much harder to bear the pain of people we care about than it is to bear our own. Endo frames this dilemma in the larger context: why does God remain silent in the face of human suffering?
At one point in the story Rodrigues is made to watch the deaths of certain Japanese Christians, bundled up alive in matting and dropped into the sea. He sees
the sea stretched out endlessly, sadly; and all this time, over the sea, God simply maintained his unrelenting silence ... 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!' The priest had always thought that these words were that man's prayer, not that they issued from terror at the silence of God.Christ's words from the cross (Matthew 27:46 of course: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?') figure in this book as a rebus for the silence of the divine. Rodrigues' guide in Japan is a peasant and Christian apostate called Kichijiro, a cowardly drunk and weakling who often speaks a kind of holy-fool wisdom. For example, he echoes Matthew 27:46 when he asks Rodrigues:
"Why has Deus Sama [God] imposed this suffering upon us?" And then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. "Father," he said, "what evil have we done?" [p. 55]It's a distorting echo, though. And that brings me to my issues. Forsaking someone is not the same as imposing suffering upon someone. The difference is really quite important. Imposing suffering is what strength does to weakness; withdrawal is something quite other. Pontius Pilate and his soldiers imposed suffering on Christ; Christ's complaint on the cross is not that God has imposed anything on him, but in the contrary that he has removed himself from him. Pilate's pantomime of handwashing is, clearly, an empty parody of such withdrawal. Because of his place at the apex of political and military authority, Pilate simply can't withdraw from the injustice he knows is going on; or more precisely, he can't both retain his secular power and privilege and withdraw from the evil being done on his watch. It is in the nature of our social embeddedness that we don't always have the choice to withdraw from the suffering of others. Indeed, that last sentence is pretty much a thumbnail of human ethics as such.
With respect to Silence, Endo conflates 'imposing suffering' and 'withdrawal' in a way that may, I'm not sure, approach a kind of existential or spiritual mendacity. I'm conscious, even self-conscious, that mine is a spiritually myopic reading, since I am not myself a believer. Still, it strikes me that there's something important here, somewhere in amongst the misty blur that presents itself to my old eyes.
Christians in mid-seventeenth-century Japan were indeed a persecuted minority. And although the execution of believers ceased after 1805, Christians in twentieth- and twenty-first century Japan, like Endo himself, remain a minority in Japanese culture, disadvantaged in various ways. When you are small, powerless, persecuted (even tortured and killed) the story of Christ will of course speak to you in a very direct manner, because it is, unique among major religions, the story of how Omnipotence made itself small, powerless and mortal, and suffered torture and death.
There are many sorts of story that can be told from that point of view. But it doesn't seem to me that Christianity is intrinsically this story—that is to say, I don't think Christianity is inherently a religion of powerlessness. Even an atheist like me can see that Nietzsche's dismissal of Christianity's 'slave morality' misses something important about the faith. Christianity started out as a small, oppressed and socially fragile movement. But it is no longer those things. Now Christianity is the dominant religion on the planet (of our 7 billion earthly souls, somewhere between 2.5 to 3 billion are Christian; the next biggest religion is Islam, with something like 1.7 billion adherents); and even taking into account the decline into secularism occasioned by several centuries of scientific materialism, Christianity still culturally dominates two of the three major global power blocs: Europe and North America (although only 2.5% of the population of China are Christian).
I'm well aware that these are crude indicators, but they're here to make a point. It is, in brief, the same point Rushdie elaborates in The Satanic Verses (1988). Hard to go back to that novel, of course, through the fog of everything that happened because of that novel; but it's worth remembering what Rushdie said about it before it became such a cause célèbre religieuse (not to say cause célèbre de la liberté d'expression). He styled it as a novel interested in exploring two things: what one does when one is not strong; and then what one does when one later becomes strong. The verses of the title figure, for Rushdie, as a compromise offered by a canny Mohammed to the established Meccan religious pieties of the day (the verses in effect praise Allāt, al-'Uzzā and Manāt, three goddesses worshipped in Mecca) at a time when his new religion was vulnerable; and his later repudiation of those verses marks the point at which his religion had become established enough to be able to row-back on this compromise. C M Naim puts it well:
Rushdie describes his book as an attempt to "give a secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion." ... Repeatedly, various characters in the book are asked: What kind of idea are you? When you are weak will you compromise; when you are strong will you be generous? Abu Simbel, the Grandee of Jahilia and an enemy of Mahound, answers the first question: "I bend. I sway. I calculate the odds, trim my sails, manipulate, survive." Rushdie's Mahound is also human, he too has his moment of compromise, the moment of the Satanic Verses, but then he transcends it and embraces the inevitable. [Naim, Ambiguities of Heritage (1999), 161]Endo's novel is about human weakness in the teeth of oppressive cruelty. And it is scrupulous in its attention not only to historical but cultural and geographical specificity: 'This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.' (p. 147) The question is whether the spiritual core of the novels scales; whether he is only saying something specific about historical Japan, or whether he is saying something more universal.
It seems to me that Christ, for Christians, has to be a figure both weak and strong, in complex ways. I don't just mean 'weak enough to beg for the cup to be taken away, strong enough to accept that this couldn't happen'. Nor do I mean the more theologically inflected sense of 'weak enough to be killed even though he is God, strong enough to take the sins of the world on his shoulders'. I mean the way his whole ministry bridged weakness and strength, the way it critiqued the strength of the politically powerful and focused on the socially outcast and weak, the way Christ's preaching promised an inversion of conventional categories of strength and weakness, 'the last shall be first'.
If you were tortured for your beliefs, it would of course take strength to hold out. But if others are tortured for your beliefs, and you still refuse to yield, do we still call that strength? Doesn't it look more like a kind of pitilessness? Or even disingenuousness, like a person donating to charity with somebody else's money and then taking all the credit?
To put the matter another way: it has always seemed to me that strength, like pride, is one of those Schrödinger's personal qualities that can be a profound virtue or a dangerous self-indulgence, even a wickedness, in ways that are opaque to us until they start having actual effects on other people. That Endo's Silence grasps this so cannily with respect to 'strength' is one of the things that makes it a great novel. When Rodrigues finally does tread on the fumi-e, he hears Christ's voice, and understands that he is, in a sense, treading on himself, or rather permitting his oppressors to tread on him, in a wrenching imitation of Christ.
I think I understand that. Even as a non-believer it strikes me as a powerful and moving moment. Clearly, the 'imitation of Christ' is one of the central planks of Christian praxis. I'm referring here both to the broader discipline and to Thomas à Kempis's De Imitatione Christi (the second-most translated book in the history of the world, after the Bible). Samuel Beckett, by no means a conventional Church of Ireland Anglican, used to say that there was a line from The Imitation of Christ that ‘seemed to be made for me and which I have never forgotten’. It was: ‘He that can well suffer shall find most peace.’
See, there's the nub.
Presumably imitating Christ is a man's-reach-should-exceed-his-grasp kind of deal (or what's a heaven for?). It would be an act of hubris to announce 'I am perfectly Christ-like in my life', after all. Still, even the reaching has its dangers, I think. Just below hubris on the reaching ladder is a kind of self-absorption, an occlusion of focus that neglects the situatedness of Christ's passion—I mean the way Christ's story is both that of suffering endured and suffering imposed. There's a more obvious a less obvious aspect of this, I think. The more obvious is that, if we think ourselves into the position of Christ, we necessarily think others into the roles of oppressors. Our suffering is not some abstract element; it is directed at us by the cruel and the wicked and the know-not-what-they-do blind. If we are the oppressed then they are the oppressors. In the early days of the faith, 'we' Christians were the minority, the put-down and martyred, and 'they' were the princes and the powers of this world. But we are not in the early days of the faith, and 'we' Christians are now the majority, 'we' are the princes and the powers of the world. If we nonetheless believe ourselves to be, in some core way, the oppressed minority things get gnarly. 'They' (Jews, say: or Muslims, or Blacks, or refugees, or the Liberals) are oppressing 'us'. It's is a surprisingly common mindset, by no means confined to religion; indeed, the recent American election has brought a great seam of it into the light. Whites are the real victims of racism; 'political correctness' is fascism; equal pay for women is sexist against men; and so on. In a nutshell this is the strong saying to the weak: back off, make no claims on the sacred category of suffering, for we are the real victims.
This is not a gesture of renunciation of strength. On the contrary, it is a strategy of consolidating strength: White people complaining that any changes to the status quo at all are 'racism against White people' are, quite specifically, doing so because they don't want to sacrifice power, privilege and status. And I'm certainly not suggesting that the root of this mindset is Christian theology, or the desire to imitate Christ. Clearly there will be many people who undertake this latter challenge out of genuine humility, in goodness and devotion of heart. But I do, I suppose, wonder about the dangers in ignoring the historical trajectory of Christianity as a feature of the social world: the vector by which Christianity was once weak and marginal and is now strong and central. It is unseemly to assume the mantle of victimhood when one is, in all practical respects, not a victim. Is it more than unseemly, though?
Now it may well be (indeed I'm sure for many people it is) the case that many people feel individually powerless and victimised even though they belong to one or other structurally dominant and powerful group. Of course, of course. And of course 'the imitation of Christ' may well be an entirely inward, personal process of withdrawal from the cruel world. Two of the four sections of by Thomas à Kempis's De Imitatione Christi are called "Directives for the Interior Life" and "On Interior Consolation", after all. But where the individual is weak compared to the collective, the collective is strong compared to the individual, and if we replace 'collective' with 'church' it is clear that Christ's example must be about both how we deal with our powerlessness and misery and how we deal with our collective strength.
I'm not being very clear, here, I think: so I'll put it another way. What would Christ have done if the the Sanhedrin, or Pilate, had not tortured and crucified him, but had instead made him watch as they tortured and crucified his disciples, or his mother, or random citizens? He was strong enough to accept his own suffering, but would he have been strong enough to endure that? And if he was, if he gladly accepted the suffering of others whilst he himself remained unharmed, would we even call that strength?
The bald truth is: it's easier to endure our own suffering than the suffering of others. Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter (1948)—Graham Greene's single best book, I'd say—understands this. Serving as a police officer in Colonial West Africa, Scobie gets a letter from home telling him his young daughter has died of illness, quickly and without pain. This, of course, is heartbreaking news. But then afterwards, because of the vagaries of international post at a time of war, he gets a second letter, one his wife had posted earlier, telling him that his daughter is sick, but that they are all prayerful and hopeful that she will get better. This, the novel insists, is much worse than just discovering his daughter has gone. It is hard when a loved one dies, but at least then they are beyond suffering. It's the two letters, and the order in which they arrive, that breaks something inside Scobie and leads, down the winding path of Greene's plot, to his suicide.
Greene's conclusion, in this novel, is not a hopeful one. He asks: how can we live with the suffering of others? And his answer is: we can't. He presents two options. Either we banish those others from our hearts (“In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love”), or we sink into the swamp of pity and are consumed. It is one of Greene's broader conceits as a writer that pity, like innocence, is corrosive and dangerous. Christ showed compassion for others, but compassion is more than we can manage. In the novel's preface Greene writes:
I had meant the story of Scobie to enlarge a theme which I had touched on in The Ministry of Fear, the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion. I had written in The Ministry of Fear: “Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn't safe when pity's prowling around.”This pity is also what undoes Endo's Rodriguez, if indeed he is undone—the novel's ending is, I think, much more ambiguous on this matter than Greene would ever be. But how rare is this sort of storytelling? How much demand is there for it? Isn't there simply more appetite for the heroic cadences with which Dickens sends his self-sacrificing (his pointedly not other-sacrificing) Sidney Carton to the guillotine? 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known': through accepting my suffering I will finally be free and at peace—it really is a perfectly Thomas à Kempis sentiment.
I suspect we simply prefer stories in which an individual sacrifices him- or herself to stories in which people sacrifice other people for their ideals; and furthermore I suspect that stories in which people sacrifice others for their ideals without being automatically demonized for it are rarer than hen's teeth. (I mean: we like stories about idiot generals sending brave soldiers over the top at the Somme, so long as it's made very clear that the generals are indeed braying idiots). Our retellings of the story of Joan of Arc centre on Joan herself. Of course they do. I mean, can we imagine a version of that story sympathetically centred on Cardinal Cauchon? A version in which Cauchon fights his monster as Beowulf fought Grendel, or Sarah Connor fought the terminator? Of course we can't.
Another of Greene’s novels, The Power and the Glory (1940), is precisely this kind of Sidney Carton story, and for that reason seems to me a much less interesting novel than The Heart of the Matter (though Greene himself thought it his masterpiece). Even when we're dealing with a figure as compromised and venal as the unnamed priest-protagonist of The Power and the Glory, or perhaps even precisely because we're dealing with such a character, this Sidney-Cartonesque Imitation of Christ is beguiling to us. The Passion is the ur-scene of all this.
My question, though, when we look at this ur-scene, the whole scene, of Christ and all the people around him, is: who are we more like? Since we're talking imitation, take it as mimesis. Where are you, in here? Are you the central figure, nobly enduring suffering and death for the sake others? Or are you one of the other figures? A bystander; a bureaucrat; one of the Roman soldiers? Out of my own ignorance I ask: where are the novels that are about people who don't imitate Christ so much as they imitate the killers of Christ? Where is De Imitatione Pontii Pilati? Because, unless I misunderstand it, one crucial aspect of Christian teaching is that the killers of Christ are not 'they'. The killers of Christ are 'we'.
(Parenthetically, to address my own question: the obvious answer, I suppose, is: Dostoevsky. But I'm not sure his particular brand of psychological ur-existentialism is what I'm asking after here. The narrative of the passion is a Copernican one, in that every character in it, from Peter to Pilate to Judas, traces a subsidiary orbit around the central sun of Christ. Dostoevsky's Christ-like characters, his Aloysha Karamazovs or Princes Myshkin, are fundamentally passive, not only unable to prevent the suffering of those around them but unable to act as a centre of gravity for their respective novels. It's a different matter where Crime and Punishment is concerned; but then Raskolnikov is not somebody who lives his life in imitation of Christ. And I wonder if that isn't the point.)
Stories may tell us otherwise, but the truth of the matter is that we are not, actually, Sidney Carton. We're the ones lining the street, cheering; or maybe the ones pulling the lever on the guillotine, because that's our job. A Tale of Two Cities is a story about a man who imitates Christ, and a very powerful and affective novel it is too. We flatter ourselves by engaging imaginatively with such a story, such an imago Christi; and the danger of that is not so much narcissism (though I think that probably is a danger) as it is separating ourselves from those who are not Christ: the court officer with the flail, the Roman soldier with the nails and the hammer. They become 'not us', and the best we can aim for with such wretches is being able to forgive them. Forgiveness, though, runs legally-speaking down the slope from the strong to the weak, and in spiritual terms it runs from the affronted to the affronter. It can't reverse either gradient. And most of us in the west are at the higher end of that slope.
I am, I hope it's clear, talking about literature, not actual Christian living. I know something about the former. I know very little about the latter. And of course they are very different things. In a sermon from 1626, John Donne berated himself: “I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in and invite God and his angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.” Yet the fly, the coach driving down the street outside, the opening door are the matter of the novel. These are what novelists write about. If your novel can't create a world in which the fly, coach and door are believable, then it's not going to be able to say anything useful about God and his angels.
And it's this that brings me, belatedly, to my point. It's not that we ought to allow the buzzing fly and the creaking door to distract us from God; it's that this is what humans do, as Donne understood very well. And novels are about humans. Not that we ought to spend our lives in conscious imitation of Pontius Pilate—of course not! Just that most of us end up doing just that, in larger or smaller ways; doing our jobs, getting on with things, trying our best not to rock the boat. In the story of the Passion, God makes himself weak, such that the human characters are, by comparison, strong. The heart of this story is: what we do with our strength. The question then becomes: 'why do we use our strength to torture and kill?' This seems to me one of the quintessential Christian questions, yet I'm not sure which are the Christian novels that address it. The tug of the other kind of story, the Sidney Carton story in which strength bolsters the redeeming self-sacrifice, has too much gravity. And whatever reservations I have I must concede that Endo's novel is as powerful as it is because it denies Rodriguez the Cartonesque martyrdom and noble speechifying, even if by doing so Endo himself has been attacked by fellow Catholics for promoting a 'sinister theology'.
The final paragraphs, here, step down from the sublime to the ridiculous, or at least to the perverse. When I wrote Bethany I wanted to make a version of the Passion that wasn't about self-sacrifice. (I also wanted to flesh out, for my own satisfaction, the Géza Vermes 'Jesus the Jew' line; on account of having spent the 21st-century living with a Jew and raising Jewish children. Although that consideration is less relevant to the particular concerns of this post). So: I wanted to take seriously the idea that we humans killed Christ, and to individuate it. That meant writing a story about a devout man who is also a strong man:—both physically and psychologically strong, brave and determined and focused. His strength, inevitably, depends upon a certain distance from the rest of humanity, a resilience to the corrosion of Greene-y pity (Greene's Scobie is happiest when most removed from the messiness of human interactions. 'Except for the sound of the rain, on the road, on the roofs, on the umbrella, there was absolute silence: only the dying moan of the sirens continued for a moment or two to vibrate within the ear. It seemed to Scobie later that this was the ultimate border he had reached in happiness: being in darkness, alone, with the rain falling, without love or pity.' That's a completely different valence of silence to Endo's, of course). Because science fiction is what I do, Bethany includes some time-travelly speculation about the nature of time as a medium that is, I think (I think) new. Hard to be sure in a sub-genre as crowded as time-travel though.
Two other things, to note briefly: one is that the premise naturally provokes a 'why?' Why would a devout Christian try to kill Christ? Since it seemed to me, from the outside as it were, that this question should hinge not on 'would' but 'did', I made it the point of the story—what I mean is that I assume for a Christian this question is not a hypothetical but a historical one. God came to us and we killed him: why? (A more dilute version of this question might be: why would Christ's most devout follower, Peter, betray him? What sort of account of human motivation would satisfy you as an answer to that? I suspect such an answer would have to do with Peter's human weakness, just as the answer I sketch in Bethany has to do with human strength). The novel I wrote sets out deliberately to overdetermine my protagonist's motivations. His reasoning is not a mysterious blank, but a blizzard of overlapping possibilities..
And two: Bethany needed to be a violent novel, a story that included violent scenes and articulated a larger sort of structuring violence. And here I was most wary of all, because my intention was not to describe Christianity itself as inherently violent. As against the Crusades and the Inquisition we can put into the other balance, well, many things: Athens in the 420s-BC slaughtering the entire male population of Melos and Scione and selling all the women and children into slavery. We can put the Nankin massacre and Stalin's purges. Violence is a human proclivity, and a Christian proclivity only insofar as Christians are humans. I'm in two minds about Bataille's argument [from Le procès de Gilles Rais (1965)] that 'il se peut que le christianisme ne veuille pas un monde dont la violence serait exclue. Il fait la part de la violence, ce qu’il cherche est la force d’âme sans laquelle la violence ne pourrait être supportée.' (That 'il se peut' is a distancing tactic, I suppose; but still, this strikes me as a statement not about Christianity as such so much as about any system of law that relies upon violence to curb violence). Nonetheless, the heart of the Christian story is that a peaceful man is violently tortured to death. I don't pretend Bethany has anything new to say about that. I don't expect you to buy a copy; the reception of The Thing Itself taught me that the audience for such abstruse self-indulgence is very small. If I'm honest, I don't even expect you to have made it all the way down to the end of this very long, over-long blogpost. But I was moved to write, and I did; and although I was not aware of any proximate inspiration from Endo's great novel when I wrote my small one, the advertising buzz surrounding the release of Scorsese has made me think about it all again. Bête (2014) was a kind-of philosophical novel about 'l'animal que donc je suis' and wilderness and bereavement, and sank pretty much without trace. The Thing Itself (2015) was a more ambitious philosophical novel about Kant and time and why you should believe in God, and it suffered a similar fate. It's very possible that SF, a community with a higher proportion of Dawkins-y atheists than the general population, just isn't interested in being told it should believe in God. That's fair enough (It's also possible that SF didn't like the novel because it's shit: okham's razor and so on). At any rate, Bethany is a pendant to those two, I suppose; smaller in scope as well as size, and tucked away as a self-pub where nobody will notice it. And the SF logic that decrees trilogies be our structuring forms suggests I should stop worrying away at those sorts of questions now. So I will. Put it this way: The Thing Itself and Bethany are me, as it were, treading on the fumi-e of my own atheism. And after you tread on the fumi-e you need to get on with your life. It's just a question of: on what terms?
[Note: this Wikipedia article on the fumi-e suggests that the action of stepping on a fumi-e was called e-fumi, which means the title of this post should probably be 'The Atheist's E-fumi'. But the title is baffling enough as it is, so I think I'll leave it.']