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ArribaAbajoOn the Definition of Jesus in Modern Fiction

Frank P. Bowman

The subject of Jesus -or figures of Jesus- in literature involves multiple problems of theology, myth and history, of the history of literature and literary forms. These problems should ideally be treated in the framework of the many texts which make use of Jesus, but our purpose is only to suggest what issues are involved and what useful and valid observations are possible. To do even this at times requires stating the obvious, but critical writings on Jesus in literature have perhaps suffered from a neglect of the obvious. The problem itself is essentially historical; it undergoes both superficial and fundamental changes from generation to generation. The present study is largely limited to post-Enlightenment and pre-World War II literature -to books written between 1780 and 1940. It is also primarily concerned with narrative literature as opposed to lyric, evocative or uniquely anecdotal forms where the Christ material, though rich, is generically dissimilar and in particular not biographical. The examples have been selected either because they seem typical of the categories described or, more often, because they are extreme -located at one of the fines of the literary uses of Jesus.

The novel which this issue commemorates, Nazarín, clearly reflects and makes use of the Jesus tradition. Its hero, though he lives in modern Spain, resembles Jesus in looks, conduct, attitudes, moral message, in details of his life -he heals the sick, brings an almost dead baby back to life, is accompanied by two women including an ex-prostitute, encounters an alcalde reminiscent of Pontius Pilate -even in name; no one could deny that he is a «Jesus figure». Yet, Nazarín presents problems. Why, if this be Jesus, does he wander about Spain rather than his native Palestine? Why the long interview with Belmonte, which has no counterpart in the Gospels? Why the prison scenes, and more especially the nightmarish attempt to escape? What is the meaning of the novel's conclusion, so similar to and yet different from the drama of Palm Sunday, Passion Week and Easter? Why, in short, does Galdós insist in identifying his hero in some ways, but not in others, with Jesus? And what does such «partial identification» mean?

There are even more important questions of critical theory at stake. How, and how much, does a familiarity with the Gospels and the figure of Jesus inform our reading of Galdós's novel? How much can a knowledge of other literary works in which Jesus or a Jesus figure appears, and whatever theories we may derive from them about the nature of literature, shape that reading and help answer the questions raised by Nazarín? For those questions can only be answered either by looking more closely at the novel and at other works by Galdós, or by looking at works which somewhat resemble his in their use of a Jesus figure.

The literary «imitation» of Christ

The call to imitate Christ is a basic command laid on every believer, and the Christian's efforts at obedience have necessarily found verbal and literary expression. Another devotional command, that of seeing in our fellow man Jesus come back to life, has added impetus to this literature.113 However, critical and historical studies of the literary implications of the imitatio are either lacking or unsatisfactory. For one thing, we do not know enough about what happened to belief in Jesus during the period under study. Despite Albert Schweitzer's trail-blazing and still essential Quest of the historical Jesus (1906; English 1910), despite H. N. Fairchild's learned studies on the literary history of religion in nineteenth-century England, there is nothing comparable for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to Bremond's masterful Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France (eleven volumes, 1916-1933), and all the excellent subsequent works on seventeenth and eighteenth-century French spirituality; the seventy pages on our period by André Rayez in the recent Histoire spirituelle de la France (1964)suggest what a rich field this is. There are numerous exterior histories of the Church, but it is the interior history of belief which is important to our problem. Studies on literature itself, if one excepts an occasional excellent monograph such as Mother Maria Consolata's learned and thorough volume on Christ in the poetry of Lamartine, Vigny, Hugo and Musset (1947), tend to be either uninformed historically, and thus offer rather dilettantish observations about a particular author or work, or else unsophisticated about the pertinent problems of imitation, literary form, and the use of preexisting structures. The most ambitious and provocative study is certainly that of Edwin Moseley, Pseudonyms of Christ in the modern novel (1962), but even he neglects the influence of the «socialist Jesus» on the authors studied, and fails to distinguish sharply between, say, Conrad's Lord Jim (1900) and Lawrence's The Man who died (1935), two books in which the forms of imitation are radically different. The most fruitful and theologically informed studies are those of Amos Wilder,114 but Mr. Wilder is more interested in poetry than in narrative prose, and is concerned with contemporary literature and not with a problem of literary history. Detailed studies of the topoi which make up the Jesus figure are almost completely lacking; only when there is a series of such studies can we do more than offer hypotheses.115 Meanwhile, Jesus-hunting in fiction goes on at such a pace that Frederick Crews could tellingly satirize it in the chapter of The Pooh Perplex (1963) entitled «O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh» and attributed to one C. J. L. Culpepper.116

In the broadest terms, the problem is essentially one of myth. Myth, as Herman Broch put it, is the «archetype of all cognition of which the human mind is capable».117 As T. S. Eliot noted in his «Ulysses, order and myth», mythic constructs are then used by authors to give form and order to their vision of experience. From the Gospel material on Jesus a structure has been derived to which authors have had recourse in order to form the expression of their own vision. Why, and to what effect, is a more complex matter. Usually the Jesus myth serves to delineate a «tragic vision of life» like that adumbrated by Unamuno, Heidegger, and so many others; however, both that vision and the Jesus   —55→   myth used to express it permit certain kinds of final transcendency. The mythic construct of Jesus, like any other, thus becomes a literary vehicle, with the accompanying danger that the literary uses may trivialize the myth.

The Jesus myth also possesses certain peculiar attributes which separate it radically, from, say, the OEdipus myth or the Antigone myth. It claims two sorts of validity not asserted by most other myths. First, some purport that the story of Jesus contains not only the truth of meaningfulness, but also the truth of history; it actually took place in time and space. The existence of the historical Jesus has been a matter of primary concern, whereas the existence of the historical OEdipus remains unimportant. This question of historicity has also meant that the Jesus myth possesses a more fully detailed and «realistic» texture than do other myths. There is an iconographic tradition about Jesus as well as a geographic tradition; the myth offers many more specific incidents and details than even the myth of Hercules. As a result, Jesus lends himself to «psychologizing» more readily than do other mythic heroes. The historicity of Jesus not only poses a problem of belief; it also encourages realistic uses of the mythstructure.

More important still, many assert that the story of Jesus is not only a valid mythic structure, but is the one structure in which the key to all significant being is to be found. Others have just as vigorously denied this belief and the moral and institutional assertions which have accompanied it. The literary results of this claim to total validity have been paradoxical: on the one hand, the myth of Jesus is used with a didactic fervor hardly associated with the myth of OEdipus or Antigone; on the other, it is much more open to satirical uses or to warpings of its basic structure.118

The claims of historical and of total validity necessarily involve the Jesus myth in history, theology, politics, ethics and philosophy as well as in literature, and fictional works using the myth reflect these involvements. The most important for our period has come to be known, since Schweitzer, as the quest for the historical Jesus -the attempt, through the study of archeology, of the synoptic problem (with the development of the Higher Criticism), of philology, of comparative religion, to discover whether or not the historical Jesus existed and, if he did, who he was and what he thought he was. The two great figures in the quest remain Strauss and Renan, though the discussion continues well beyond them to produce the Modernist crisis at the beginning of this century and still goes on, even if scholars today seem less sanguine about establishing truly scientific results. The quest has usually been accompanied by doubts about the veracity of the traditional credal claims for Jesus, and thus has served to liberate the myth of Jesus, or, if one wishes, to make that myth's structure more supple and even ambiguous; Jesus figures who are no longer God made man, and who no longer die and rise again, begin appearing in fiction.

The quest for the historical Jesus has also encouraged the realistic and psychologizing treatments of the myth. For instance, it became so customary to offer «naturalistic» explanations of miracles that even such a purportedly orthodox book as Lloyd Douglas's The Robe (1942) explains away the miracle of the water turned into wine or of the multiplication of the loaves, just as Mosneron,   —56→   Venturini and Renan explain them in their «scientific» lives of Christ. And just as Renan, scientifically, gives Jesus a psychology so does Kazantzakis, fictionally, in The last temptation of Christ (1951).

Teacher of love, tormented prophet, or revolutionary?

More particularly, there developed in the period under study, both within and outside the Church, four main sorts of content attribution to the myth: the sweet Jesus, divine child and teacher of love; Jesus, the tormented prophet of truth whose message is one of despair and who suffers because of it; Jesus, the revolutionary, friend of the poor and enemy of the rich; and, chronologically the last of these, Christ as King. The first three are clearly present in Nazarín.

The sweet Jesus, divine child and teacher of love («Maître d'amour»), has produced many devotional manuals, some centering on the Month of the Child Jesus, others on the loving and pulsating Sacred Heart (though this latter devotion also contains a tragic element to be associated with Jesus as the tormented prophet of truth). It has also involved a cultus of Mary Magdalene and of the relations between Jesus and the fallen woman. In literature, in addition to numerous volumes and poems, often of rather dubious taste, about the child Jesus and about Mary Magdalene, it has produced many a Jesus figure who is the innocent, child-like voice of truth.119 Finally, it has led to an immense literature in which Jesus is seen as the teacher of love, that love sometimes even being identified with sexual passion.

The tormented prophet -Jesus as he who speaks the truth in despair and suffers because he does so- has an even stronger literary tradition, for here Jesus often serves as the figure and justification of the poet. In its extreme form, Jesus knows metaphysical anguish in the garden of Gethsemani and himself proclaims the Death of God.120 But the saying that Good Friday was, for the Romantics, the whole of the liturgical year is fairly accurate; perhaps, as faith in the Resurrection and Ascension have diminished, the myth structure of Jesus, truncated thereby, has lent itself more and more to the illustration of despair.

The most fruitful and important of these meanings is that of the socialist Jesus. It finds its support in a number of Gospel texts and in the tradition of communalism among the early Christians. Jesus was poor, chased the money changers from the temple, condemned the rich man to hell, said to sell all and give to the poor; these and other texts, through the centuries, have been used as arguments in support of the demands of those oppressed and in want. At the time of the French Revolution, despite that movement's anticlericalism and the Cults of Reason and of the Supreme Being, such political uses of the Gospel became widespread; it is as if, the tabernacles emptied, Jesus was forced out on the streets in the new guise of «le sans-culotte de Nazareth», and the Christian socialist themes appear in pamphlets, theophilanthropic sermons, revolutionary orations. These earlier writings make little use, however, of Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection or Ascension; a turnabout occurs in the next half-century, with the development of mystic socialism.121 The mystic socialists, who had often personally known the religious revival of Romanticism, maintained that socialism would introduce not only a redistribution of wealth and political power but also a new   —57→   organization of humanity and indeed of the human being, a Utopia soon identified with the eschatological Kingdom of the Gospel parables, now located on this earth. The Kingdom was to be realized through caritas and communion, with a revised sacramentalism so characteristic of the Parisian Banquets of '48, and, more importantly, through the sufferings: of violence. The pattern of Passion, Death, Resurrection expresses the prerequisites to the glory of the Kingdom-Utopia. Mystic socialism thereby vejoins the «tragic prophet» tradition. The important figure is Lamennais with his Paroles dun croyant (1833) and his extensively commented edition of the Gospels but behind him and in dialogue with him stand Joseph Buchez, Etienne Cabet, Alphonse Esquiros, Alphonse-Louis Constant, and many others, all writing their new versions of the Gospel. The whole movement has continued to flourish with the «social gospel» and in such novels as Kazantzakis's A Greek passion (1948) and in Nazarín. Here again, with the crisis in belief a new validity is given to the myth of Jesus; but it is of note that in this instance the crisis is a double one -doubts about the validity of the tradition credal interpretations of Jesus join with doubts about the efficacy of rationalist, Enlightenment solutions to man's problems, together with the renewed theme that through evil good will come; all these give new life to the basic structure of the Gospel story.122

The types of narrative imitation

This superficial excursus into the history of recent political-religious thought has been necessary because only an understanding of these trends can explain what the literary uses of the Christ are about. That myth's peculiar claims to historicity and to unique validity make it imperative that any study of the Christ myth in literature be to some extent a study in the sociology of literature. We can now suggest formal categories for the literary uses of the Christ myth in the period under study, after however noting the useful distinction, borrowed from Gospel criticism, which separates the didache -the ethical teachings, good deeds, mighty works of Jesus- from the kerygma-the good news that God had been made man, suffered in atonement for our sins by his willing death, and conquered death. For instance, pre-romantic socialism makes use of the didache for propaganda purposes, whereas mystic socialism structures its theories on the kerygma itself. In the same way, some literary uses of the Jesus myth center on the didache, whereas others use the kerygma, or actual structure of the myth.

All categories admittedly impose a false structure on the complex continuity of phenomena, but here as often they may help elucidate the problem at stake. I have arranged the categories in the order of their increasing distance from the form and content of the original source, the synoptic material itself.

1. The embroidered life of Jesus where Jesus is the center of perspective.

There are many works of this sort, some claiming to be fiction, others not. They vary from «biographies» such as Renan's Vie de Jésus (1863) to epics such as Alletz's Nouvelle Messiade (1830) or Soumet's Divine épopée (1840), or meditative visions such as those of Bl. Anna Katharina Emmerick, written down, arranged and embellished by Klemens Brentano (1833). Anna Katharina's meditations   —58→   add to and explain the Gospel story, while underlining the humility and suffering of Jesus. She tightens plot structure: the man whose ear Peter cut off in the Garden, named Malchus, was converted by his miraculous healing and served as messenger for the Holy Women during the rest of the Passion, and it was his brother who asked Peter the question leading to the third denial. Above all, she augments the details of the Passion; at Christ's arrest, for instance, his hands are tied with new, hard cords and a belt full of iron nails put around his waist. In Alletz's epic, an avowed imitation of Klopstock, angels and devils are active; Beelzebub leads Mary Magdalene to new rendez-vous with her seducer Eliézer after her pardon. Numerous minor characters are invented, Muses are invoked, we visit Hell and Heaven and cosmic explanations of the synoptic events are given, as well as realistic ones (Judas's betrayal is explained in part by his love for Sephora, Antenor's daughter). Joseph of Arimathea goes to Capri to tell Tiberius about Jesus.

These works all recount the synoptic story, while adding other material to it: more precise detail, psychological explanations, coincidental actions which tighten the plot, supernatural material which increases the immediate cosmic import of the Gospel legend. In all instances, of course, this material has nonsynoptic sources: Klopstock, Milton, the apocryphal Gospels, with Anna Katharina a certain painterly and devotional tradition. Her Jesus is tragic and suffering, the Jesus of Alletz tends toward the teacher of love. But the basic kerygma structure and the basic synoptic biography are maintained.

2. The second category contains those works which recount an embroidered life of Jesus but where Jesus is not himself the center of the perspective; instead, someone else -usually a fictional creation- is the hero and it is through his contacts with Jesus that we learn about Jesus. Two well-known examples are Lew Wallace's Ben Hur (1880) and Douglas's The Robe. It is no longer Joseph of Arimathea who goes to Capri to tell Tiberius of Christ, but Marcellus, the Tribune who was in command of the soldiers who killed Christ and who, by the magic power of Christ's robe, becomes converted. In large part, the quest for verisimilitude explains this shift in perspective. Borrowing a technique from the historical novel, these authors mix historical and invented characters. The frank purpose of the novels is to edify, and the shifted perspective allows the author to amuse while edifying -Ben Hur is caught in the passionate conflict between the good (Jewish) and bad (Egyptian) woman in a pattern which has assured sales for many a tale. From the Gothic novel comes a thrilling section on a hidden prison cell. Again, other literary sources are exploited together with the synoptics -for topical material such as the bringing of the good news to Tiberius, or for structural devices such as the man caught between the blond and the black woman. Verisimilitude is increased by psychologizing and by the naturalist explanation of miracles, and plot is tightened by coincidences (for example, the lepers cured by Jesus are the mother and sister of Ben Hur, Balthazar himself is present at the crucifixion).

In two other respects, this category is quite distinct from the preceding one. First, it has not been granted much stature as a literary form. Moseley, while not defining the genre, dismisses such books as «attempts to recreate a facet of   —59→   the scriptures for better or for worse» as opposed to «sincere books which enrich contemporary themes by the employment of the chief objective correlative of our culture» (p. 34). Also, because of the shift in perspective, these novels introduce a second Jesus type, for the hero on whom the book is centered becomes a figure of Jesus. Marcellus, after leading a good life, living with the poor, preaching the message of love, having no place to lay his head, joyously goes to meet the martyr's death. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Ben Hur, and the result is a sort of mirror novel which presents both Jesus and a figure of Jesus.

3. The third category contains works which «warp» the kerygma. They again recount the life of Jesus while adhering to and embroidering on the synoptic material, but radically change the traditional meaning of the Jesus myth. Two well known examples are D. H. Lawrence's The Man who died and Kazantzakis's The last temptation of Christ. In Lawrence's novel, Jesus does not hang on the cross long enough to die, and after a period of convalescence goes off to Egypt to encounter a priestess of Isis and know sexual fulfilment; what Lawrence does with the line, «I am risen», is quite scandalous. Kazantzakis's novel is more subtle; his Jesus resists death to go live with Martha and Mary, produces multiple children and becomes the exponent of a kind of Bergsonian life-force vitalism. In both instances, the first parts of the book constitute successful retellings of the synoptic material, in Lawrence's case with the sparse distant style so well practiced by historical novelists like Bryher, in Kazantzakis's with a good deal of psychologizing and realism, where, for example, Mary's anguish at the seeming madness of her son Jesus is well portrayed. It is only with the post-Resurrection life that they begin to warp radically the sense of the kerygma. Now it would not occur to anyone to tell seriously the story of Antigone with an ending in which she happily marries Creon and becomes a supporter of his political machine. But the claims to validity made for the Jesus myth produce these uses where the validity is countered with a new and different moral message. Whether such works can be artistically successful is a matter discussed below.

4. The next category contains those tales which, abandoning the synoptic background, the Palestinian location and historical moment described by the Gospels, present Jesus in another time and place; but he is clearly identified as Jesus himself come back to life again, and, so far as the kerygma is present, it is unwarped; certain elements in Jesus' message are of course emphasized at the expense of others, but the ethical import of the tale is at least potentially contained in the Gospel. Such is the case for Balzac's fantastic story, Jésus-Christ en Flandre (1831), where Jesus appears in medieval Flanders to calm once more a storm and walk on the waters, save those who put their trust in him and who share his love for the poor and his condemnation of the rich and the hypocritical.123 Even more typical of this category are the «if Christ were alive today» stories, such as Alphonse Constant's La Dernière incarnation du Christ (1846), in which Jesus reappears in early nineteenth-century France and, while still healing the sick and preaching a gospel of justice and peace, also advocates trade unions, equal rights for women, and socialism. As so often in this sort of story, the «Christus insanit» theme -if Christ were alive today, he would be   —60→   judged mad- appears. Even a charming light tale, such as Mérimée's Fédérigo (1829) in which a gambler outwits Christ to obtain the grace of always winning at cards, and nonetheless merits immortal life, still presents a Jesus who loves the poor and outcast, possesses divine power and pardons sinners. Notably, Mérimée claims his tale is a folk story dating from the late Middle Ages, and indeed here as with Balzac and with the apparition of Jesus at the end of Flaubert's La Légende de S. Julien l'hospitalier (1877) we have a neo-medieval type of literature where, moreover, Jesus' appearance is only momentary and we cannot really speak of a biography.

5. A similar but different category also abandons the historical time and place of the Gospels and presents Jesus as coming back to life in a different age, but here the kerygma is completely warped and rejected. These works are both highly imaginative and highly sarcastic. The late Enlightenment, after making a mock-epic of the life of Joan of Are, already produced such a work in Parny's La Guerre des dieux (1799), an amusing satire where in heaven the new Christian divinities carry the fort previously held by the pagan gods. Scabrous instances abound, as when Jesus, playing charades, becomes sexually excited at the sight of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross, but the tradition of these incidents is with Parny largely Goliardic. Such is no longer true (despite the heavy irony of the text) with the scene in Lautréamont's Chants de Maldoror (1868) where a hair of the God-Man left behind in an incredibly sordid bordello laments the horror of its master's night of sadism and unnatural vice; the God-Man finally returns to collect his hair and express his fears at what Lucifer will make of the whole incident once he hears about it. A full century after Parny comes Panizza's Concile d'amour (1895), also in dramatic form, also taking place in heaven, also giving a glimpse of the Holy Family at work. In Panizza, the Trinity and especially the Virgin Mary who is the moving force behind them, disturbed at Renaissance optimism and the resulting decline in faith, decide to send venereal disease to man via Pope Alexander VI in order to remind humanity of its fallen condition and its need for God. Jesus is here presented as a weak, emasculated homosexual type, the easy victim of the manipulations of his mother and Satan. The sarcasm is violent, and despite their parallel forms the humor of Parny's:

Auriez-vous cru, messieurs, que d'un pigeon
Il pût jamais résulter un mouton?

is now gone. This is indeed a sordid branch of literature, owing much to the old underground tradition of the Black Jesus, and most of its themes can already be found in Mirabeau's Erotika Biblion (1783), but Panizza and Lautréamont possess a certain seriousness in their perverse exploitation of the themes of the sweet Jesus, teacher of love. Such satirical warpings of the kerygma, for reasons suggested below, possess a power and know a success non-satirical warpings have not known.

6. The next category consists of those stories which present, not Jesus himself, but a figure of Jesus in some different age. In this category not only is the kerygma pattern, unwarped, followed in whole or in part, but also the hero   —61→   is identified as a figure of Jesus by his physical appearance, by other characters, because he is called upon to play the role of Jesus. No reader who has read the Gospels can doubt that this is a reincarnation of Jesus, even if he be a different person with a different name. Galdós's Nazarín belongs to this category, as does Kazantzakis's other Jesus-novel, A Greek passion. The shepherd Manolios, chosen to play the role of Jesus in a Passion play, takes his role seriously. Like S. Januarius he becomes a Jesus figure, exemplifying the Jesus of the mystic socialist gospel, and finally goes to meet his death willingly, confident that his socialist mission will triumph. The Gospel provides the structure for these tales, their meaning exploits one of the viable contents given the kerygma at the time the novel is written, and the import of the story is increased by the use of the Jesus referent. Dostoievski's The Idiot (1869) and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862) are probably the most noted of novels in this category, which includes a number of quite remarkable works. They serve, in our period, a role similar to that of hagiography in an earlier age.

7. The final category resembles the preceding one in that it supposedly presents a figure of Jesus in a different age, but the kerygma pattern is somewhat warped and only followed in part. The hero is much less ostensibly identified with Jesus; indeed, the identity may not be noted or accepted by some readers who can properly doubt that this is a reincarnation of Jesus. It is with novels of this sort that Mr. Moseley is primarily (though not always) concerned, and the category often poses problems of intention or of misreading, for every man in some way resembles Jesus, even if only because he is born and dies. There is then the question of whether we possess critical tools which can let us know if these heroes are figures of Jesus, and also of whether and how their being figures of Jesus enriches our reading of the novel. Of the many instances, two -Melville's Billy Budd (1891, publ. 1924) and Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir (1831)- will, because they are extremes, elucidate the problem.

There are several metaphors which would serve to identify Melville's beautiful sailor with Jesus in an explicit manner. Claggart is labelled Ananias by Captain Vere, there is the «cloud fleece of the Lamb of God» and the ascending of Billy at his death. In many ways, Billy resembles Jesus. He is an innocent and a peace-maker, he is of illegitimate birth, he is falsely accused, undergoes a trial, and faces death willingly, pardoning -with «God bless Captain Vere» as his words from the cross- those who have been instrumental in his death. In other ways (aside from the abandoning of the synoptic setting) he does not resemble Jesus. He is a sailor, suffers from a speech defect, kills a man, does not atone for others, knows no resurrection after his death. Finally, the story, like Vigny's Servitude et grandeur militaires (1835) which it resembles in several ways, is concerned with the military necessity and the problem of military justice; these are not often preoccupations of Christological material. It can, of course, be argued that the military condition is here but a metaphor for the human condition.

Mr. Richard Grant, in a very astute and well-reasoned but I think finally not convincing article, has tried to demonstrate that Stendhal's Julien Sorel is a Christ figure, and thereby explain some of the problems undeniably posed by   —62→   the conclusion of Le Rouge et le Noir.124 He points out that Julien is a carpenter's son, refuses to answer the accusations made at his trial, is condemned to death on a Friday and expects to be guillotined at the end of three days. After his condemnation he entertains two hardened thieves in his cell; after his death he is transported to a grotto or cave, and his head is spirited away by a woman, Mathilde. One could argue that Jesus died on a Friday and not three days after, that he did not entertain two thieves in prison but spoke with them on the cross; but Mr. Grant's main thesis is that Julien represents a new sort of Christ. «The Christ symbol is used by Stendhal not to evoke Jesus, but rather to portray Julien as the new Christ, the martyr of a bourgeois society which is inwardly non-religious, but which does not dare to accept the lay morality of Voltaire and the idéologues. Both victim and judge of this society, Julien Sorel is like Camus' Philippe Meursault, 'le seul Christ que nous méritions.» Here then most elements of didache and kerygma are neglected by the author. Moseley would see a Christ-figure in all heroes who exemplify «continuation in spite of physical disappointment», which Julien really does not exemplify. Aside from recalling the useful caveat that one cannot be at the same time everything and something (if every hero is a Christ figure there is no point to discussing any hero as a Christ figure), it might be well, having defined the categories or grammar of the fictional Jesus, now to look at his rhetoric -what we can learn from the above examples about how and why the fictional Jesus is created- and then see if this rhetoric will help with this ambiguous last category.

The rhetoric of narrative imitations of Jesus

In these fictional recreations of Jesus and figures of Jesus a sort of collapsing of the synoptic material often takes place. Balzac combines the separate incidents of the calming of the storm and the walking on the water. The woman caught in adultery, the woman who perfumes Jesus' feet, and the woman at the foot of the cross are all identified as Mary Magdalene; or, when we have a figure of Jesus, the corresponding figure of Mary Magdalene takes on the pattern of these three perhaps separate Gospel characters. Lazarus the poor is usually identified with Lazarus raised from the dead. This collapsing of the characters and scenes derived from the synoptics parallels the addition of other characters and scenes not found in the synoptics. There is also a frequent use of coincidence: Balthazar is present at the crucifixion, the lepers Jesus heals are friends or relatives of the hero, the rejected lover of the now pure Mary Magdalene is among the active persecutors of Jesus in the sanhedrin.125

So far as these tales are in the realist mode, which is true of all except some of the anecdotes presenting Jesus in a different age, they resort, no matter how great their pretensions at orthodoxy, to naturalist explanations of miracles and of the events in the life of Jesus or the Jesus figure. This is inherent in the realist treatment, but also reflects the influence of the quest for the historical Jesus.

Finally, in all instances there is a contamination of the Gospel source with other literary sources. We have delineated this contamination for the examples closest to the synoptics, but it is necessarily increasingly prevalent as works   —63→   differ more and more from the Gospel. One must ask, with Le Rouge, if the Gospel source, as compared to other literary sources, is sufficiently important to merit critical consideration.

In the case of Galdós's Nazarín, there are seemingly two other major sources. One is surely Cervantes' Don Quijote. Nazarín's long trek across Spain trying to do good and taking things for what they ought to be rather than what they are clearly owes much to the gentleman of La Mancha. The fact that Nazarín is described as Arab, and the fact that Galdós at the time was reading Sufi mysticism, makes one suspect this hero also owes something, say, to the ninthcentury Moslem mystic Al-Hallaj. Like Nazarín, Al-Hallaj preached that by grace man can be purified and transformed so that the creature participates in the Divine essence. Like Nazarín, with his disciples he practiced the communal life of poverty. He also decided that he must be willing to die for the salvation of all, was arrested, escaped from prison, recaught, and taken as a prisoner afoot from Suse to Bagdad, suffering much during the trip. At Bagdad he was condemned to death, decapitated and burnt. But if Nazarín owes something to Al-Hallaj, Al-Hallaj himself owed much to Jesus. In any case, any examination of a work which makes use of Jesus or of a figure of Jesus must look for that work's non-synoptic sources.

Finally, what does the use of Jesus or of the figure of Jesus do, esthetically, in addition to providing the sort of ordering or structuring of experience which any myth provides? It can give the work a measure of verisimilitude. This is true not only of such novels as Ben Hur where, since the reader believes Jesus existed in history he is also tempted to believe that Ben Hur existed in history, but also of such novels as Nazarín and Billy Budd. That which is preposterous about Nazarín or about Billy Budd seems less preposterous so far as it falls short of the preposterous displayed in the synoptics which the reader, regardless of his degree of disbelief, feels possesses some historicity. The unique claims to historicity of the Jesus myth allow it to create this verisimilitude. But there is little preposterous about Julien Sorel, and Stendhal need not resort to a Jesus figure to create verisimilitude. Also, the use of Jesus or a Jesus figure may serve to create a certain high seriousness, or on the contrary, in those instances where the kerygma pattern is warped, to certify that a work is satiric. This high seriousness may even attribute transcendent value to the work or to the hero. So far as Manolios, Nazarín, Billy Budd resemble Jesus they suggest that the literary work is not only trying to order experience, but also to order it in a peculiarly and universally valid way. The unique claims to validity made for the Christ myth, which indeed, as Mr. Moseley puts it, does remain «the chief objective correlative of our culture» permit books which have Jesus or a Jesus figure as hero to claim that kind of validity also. Here again, Billy Budd does pretend to such high seriousness and even transcendent value, whereas Le Rouge et le Noir, Chronique de 1830, as great a novel as it is, does not; it is firmly planted in the historical immanent. An awareness of the comic is essential to any reading of Le Rouge, whereas the comic is necessarily absent from most of the works here discussed.

The comic is, on the other hand, very much present in those authors such   —64→   as Parny, Lautréamont and Panizza, who make satirical use of a warped kerygma; here, the use of Jesus or a Jesus figure certifies the satirical intent of the work. There is, I think, a real problem with Lawrence and with Kazantzakis's Last temptation, which warp the kerygma but which are not ostensibly satirical comic works and which therefore seem to me doomed to failure. Any myth can be burlesqued, and its meaning thereby changed, but is it possible to change radically the structure of a myth without writing in the satirical, comic vein? In any case, it is unfortunately easy to read The Man who died as a comic book; otherwise read, it seems a very bad book indeed. And I find the latter part of The Last Temptation of Christ less than successful.126

The meanings of Jesus in modern narrative

What, finally, is the meaning of Jesus and his figures in this literature? First, certainly, it is that individual man in his experience possesses a kind of holiness and transcendence, or can possess it; such is the claim, or at least the hope, of all the works studied except the late-Enlightenment Parny -even Lautréamont and Panizza, though they resort to a «reverse Christ figure», the symbol of sickness and sin rather than of strength and grace, do so in bitter nostalgic despair at the lack of holiness in man.

The myth also often serves what Rollo May has called a progressive function, revealing new goals and possibilities to man within his tragic vision. Even though the Resurrection is that part of the Kerygma which has most suffered from the crisis of belief, Jesus and the Jesus figure is usually presented as not only tormented but in some way triumphant. It is striking how many of these works emphasize the willingness to go toward death in hope. Marcellus, Billy Budd, Manolios all die willingly and confident that their death has meaning. Only his humility keeps Nazarín, at the end of the novel, from being willing to be crucified, and thus he merits a further life of imitation of Christ.

Otherwise, the functions of Jesus or his figures seem to be a matter of history. He may be a prophet of truth, the image of the poet, or a revolutionary, the image of the hope for utopia on earth. Jesus figures in fiction reflect the social and political preoccupations of the society in which the fiction is written, and the study of Jesus in literature must be a study in the sociology of literature, concerned with politics as well as theology and esthetics.

It is noteworthy that, of the categories proposed above, all widely present at some moment between 1780 and 1940, several have disappeared. The first, the embroidered life centered on Jesus, seems to have been swallowed up, at least as a fictional mode, by the quest for the historical Jesus of which it was originally in part a manifestation. The anecdotal presentation of Jesus reincarnated in a different age survives in folk literature (the Woody Guthrie song Moseley discusses, for instance) and in some poetry, but to my knowledge has not recently produced any sophisticated literary narrative of note. The satirical warped kerygma also survives in oral literature, particularly in jokes,127 but the vein seems to have been worked out by such minor writers as John Erskine and Charles E. S. Wood. I have tried to show why the non-satirical warped kerygrna is doomed to failure; and the embroidered life where Jesus is not the center   —65→   of perspective seems to be passing out of fashion even in those unsophisticated circles who have always constituted its audience. Only our last two categories continue to produce notable works, and even there the last one presents, as we have seen, an acute critical problem. Fictional biographies of Jesus or of figures of Jesus are largely absent from the writings of those contemporary novelists most committed to Christianity, such as Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, Mauriac or Bernanos.128 When Jesus is present in the works of the heterodox, as in the Roivas of Patchen's Journal of Albion Moonlight or in the evocations of Beckett's En attendant Godot, or even in the «sophisticated» orthodox, as in the peculiar satirical allusions of a Jouhandeau, it is not as a structure permitting a meaningful ordering of existence and thus in a literary mode far different from that Galdós makes use of in his novel. For this contemporary literature, the methodology of Amos Wilder offers a much better approach than the one outlined here. I hope my methodology does explain why Galdós should place a Jesus figure in Spain, thus following a long tradition of exploiting the pretensions to universal validity of the Jesus myth by reincarnating him or figures of him in different ages; why he introduces the long conversation with Belmonte as a means of didactically expressing such themes as that of the «socialist Jesus»; and why his novel ends as it does, partly because of the necessary contamination of sources in Nazarín, partly because the willing march toward meaningful and victorious suffering or death is the major constant of the myth of Jesus in the age in which he wrote. I also hope I have suggested how he sought and achieved both verisimilitude and a certain high seriousness by making of his hero a figure of Jesus.

University of Pennsylvania



Estando en prensa el segundo tomo de Anales Galdosianos he hallado un interesantísimo artículo del profesor Hans Hinterhäuser que versa sobre este mismo tema y sobre el cual quiero llamar la atención de nuestros lectores:

«Die Christusgestalt im Roman des Fin de Siècle», Archiv für das Studium der neveren Sprachen und Literaturen, 1962, pp. 1-21.

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