In Tents # 85 A Note on Hermeneutics part 5

Nineteen-seventy was an interesting year for the Clark family. My brother Kevin, youngest of the pre-doctoral family, graduated high school. The oldest of the post-doctoral family graduated 6th grade, so it was the last year my sister Krista and I attended school in the same building, as she was three grades behind me. As for the adults, my father and his colleagues Soren Cox and Marshall Craig finished their freshman English textbook, About Language, and got word from the publisher that it was ready for use in the fall. But none of them would use it that fall. My father finally took a sabbatical, won an appointment as a Fulbright (he loved the sound of that word) fellow at the University of Oulu, Finland–the northernmost in the world, about 90 miles below the arctic circle. He hadn’t taken one in 1963 because my sister Diane got married, and in 1957 (if I have my family history right) he was in Seattle working on his doctorate.

But 1970 was sabbatical year. The Coxes headed for China–Hong Kong or Taiwan, I think, and the Craigs for London–which is where we rented a car to drive to Westfalia Autowerken to pick up the VW Vanagon my parents had ordered back in Provo. From there we headed north to Helsinki for a week of orientation at the bottom of Suomi before heading up toward the top. At the end of the school year we headed south, traveling through 16 countries in about 3 months, and again renting a car in England to tour in while we shipped the VW home so it would be waiting for us in New York when we got off the plane.

We toured around England, Scotland, and Wales for a couple of weeks, Tintern Abbey, Stonehenge, Edinburgh, Henry V in Stratford-on-Avon, and spent a few days with the Craigs. One night the adults came home from the theatre, laughing over a funny play about a man who keeps his aging, blind parents in garbage cans in the middle of his living room. Occasionally he lifts the lid and they poke their heads out trying to look at each other, kissing the air, “Time to make love, darling?”  That bit of black comedy became my parents’ refrain for years, and was my introduction to the Theater of the Absurd. In high school I performed a scene from Endgame as part of a graduate student’s production called -Isms. but the person who attracted me most was Eugène Ionesco, with plays like “The Leader,” “The Lesson,” The Bald Soprano, and particularly Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder’s 1974 film of Rhinoceros.

But I wasn’t enamored of the underlying philosophy. It doesn’t take much reading about the Theater of the Absurd to realize that it wasn’t called absurd because a bunch of inventive people were adept at thinking up absurd situations like keeping aging parents in garbage cans, or people turning into rhinoceroses as they adopt the beliefs around them. It was called absurd because life itself is absurd. Meaningless. My father told me one way to understand that idea is that since life has no inherent meaning, no meaning in itself, we have to create the meaning by how we live. The question for existentialists is, “If everyone faced with the choice I’m faced with were to make the same decision I’m about to make what kind of world would we have?” Thus, when we choose we’re choosing for everyone.

Well, that’s one view, anyway, but as Albert Camus says in the title essay of The Myth of Sisyphus, whatever meaning you achieve by pushing the rock to the top of the hill evaporates as the rock rolls back down the hill. Or maybe it was a commentator on Camus who pointed out that trying to make meaning of a meaningless world is a doomed task. Trying to resolve the contradiction of our duty to create meaning out of meaninglessness and always failing and yet needing to keep trying was a hard thing to get my mind around, and I figured only really smart people could do that and it wasn’t worth my time.

Put another way, if the universe is inherently meaningless, where does the energy of Rhinoceros or the delight in making torrents of words in The Bald Soprano come from? So when I came across Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle I latched onto the first sentence of “The Man on the Train,” “Strictly speaking there is no such thing as a literature of alienation.” No such thing? What has he not been reading? I’ve got to read this. No such thing because if I read a story about an alienated person and think, “Yes, that’s exactly how life is,” I’ve formed an alliance with the character and the author, so we’re not alienated from each other. Art presupposes an audience, an other you are writing for, an other to read your expression of alienation or joy or puzzlement, an other to read whatever you express.

OK, how are you going to connect this to the project at hand, which is to try and look behind the Greek hermeneutic that developed as the Church shifted from a Jewish to a Gentile body, and glimpse the Jewish hermeneutic?

Part of the answer has to do with memory and the connections we make in memory. Think of the Gospels as communal memories, particularly Luke, who says he studied the sources and wrote his history. Or think of the way we usually discuss Jesus’ parables as stories designed be recalled later. Or think of how the oft-quoted John 14:26 connects learning and memory.

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

The Gospels are not doctrinal treatises or expositions, and even their sermons are more in the wisdom tradition of James than in the Greek rhetorical tradition of Paul. Paul’s treatises are more abstract than the Gospels or the account his travels in Acts, not because he doesn’t have personal experience to draw on, but because he’s trying to abstract principles from the stories in the community’s memory.

This means there’s a gap between people’s experiences and the abstract statements of them, which may explain how Ionesco can write a blistering satire where people turn into rhinoceroses as they adopt fascist ideals, or joyous children’s picture books like story number 1 and story number 3.  If he experienced life as meaningless where would he get the energy to create meaning?

To approach this from a different angle I remember my late brother-in-law Bruce Campbell (he of the early spring 1963 wedding) explaining Nietzsche’s phrase “God is dead” to me. Perhaps I had mentioned a bumper sticker, “Sorry to hear about your God. Mine’s alive and well.” Bruce explained that the traditional definition of God makes God completely different from us, and such a god might as well be dead. Nietzsche was announcing the death of a definition.

Of course, Nietzsche wasn’t the first to question the philosophical definition of God. David Hume did it a century earlier in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Here’s how his three main discussants characterize God. (The page numbers come from the 1854 Kemp Smith edition of Hume’s works.)

[66] Philo: But so near an approach we never surely can make to the Deity. His ways are not our ways. His attributes are perfect, but incomprehensible. … [67] and … The infirmities of our nature do not permit us to reach any ideas which in the least correspond to the ineffable sublimity of the Divine attributes.

[68] Cleanthes to Demea: Or how do you mystics, who maintain the absolute incomprehensibility of the Deity, differ from Sceptics or Atheists, who assert, that the first cause of all is unknown and unintelligible?

[69] Demea to Cleanthes: [Since all a human mind knows is change] How is this compatible with that perfect immutability and simplicity which all true Theists ascribe to the Deity?

I don’t know how well Cleanthes’ question to Demea resonated with me when I first read the Dialogues (most of it, anyway) after Jim Faulconer repeatedly praised it in class as the greatest exposé ever written of the god of the philosophers. Note that the phrase is “the god of the philosophers,” not “God.” Faulconer sees the Dialogues as concerned with how people define God, which defining turns God the person, the Being, into god the concept. But I’m not sure whether I connected the definition of God as “perfect, but incomprehensible” with the idea that life is inherently meaningless.

I may have seen the two as mirror images back in college, but it was a real discovery to me a couple of years ago when I realized that the ideas are in essence the same, because the essence of both is that reality, meaning or God, is inaccessible to us. It’s not, as T. S. Eliot’s bird (apparently badly burnt) Norton says, that “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” Rather, reality isn’t even available to us. We can’t push a rock up the hill and roll it against the gates of the prison of meaning, battering them down to let the prisoner go free, because as soon as we get to the top of the hill the rock rolls away from us, from our control. And if we desire “to praise and adore at the mercy seat” we won’t see a face like ours staring back at us. Whoever, or whatever, sits in the mercy seat is incomprehensible to us.

And yet. Camus ends his essay, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” and those who “adore at the mercy seat” see that adoration as part of approaching the glorified throne to kneel at a pair of feet very much like their own–except for the nail holes.

So if we experience life and the struggles thereof as enough to fill our hearts, and if we experience our worship as personal worship of a personal being who knows and loves us, why do we insist on defining reality, or whatever we think of as ultimate, in terms that express inaccessibility and complete otherness?

Your turn (to borrow a phrase from the brother I didn’t mention in this post, who once told me French existentialism developed as a philosophy that would ease the moral burden French resistance fighters in World War II felt at killing other people).

2 Thoughts on “In Tents # 85 A Note on Hermeneutics part 5

  1. Lee Allred on February 1, 2018 at 10:45 am said:

    Interesting post, Harlow. Much to think about.

    BTW, your closing paragraphs echo themes I played with in a recent DC Comics series we just concluded. Defining reality and Camus and his absurdist/existentialist writings figure prominently in it, with concluding counter arguments lifted from Eliza R. Snow.

  2. Harlow Clark on February 15, 2018 at 1:42 am said:

    Great comment, Lee. Thanks

    I rewrote Camus myself about 20 years ago, a story called “Sisyphus” which takes off from that moment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Orpheus comes down to the underworld pining for Euridyce, and his music is so entrancing that all activity stops. In my story Sisyphus realizes that if all activity can be brought to a stop that way he doesn’t have to follow Zeus’s doom, and he breaks all Hades out of their prison.

    There’s a bit of dialogue from The Godwulf Manuscript, Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser novel, “What are you doing?” “Just waiting,” “For Lefty or Godot?” “For Lefty Godot, the pitcher.” Oh wait, when I ask the duckduck ( to go fetch that dialogue all the sources say it comes from Ross McDonald’s The Chill, which I read 10 years before The Godwulf Manuscript

    Whoever said it, I like the connection between social problem plays and the Theater of the Absurd. I finally read Waiting for Godot a few years ago, and when Pozzo and Lucky come on stage Pozzo sounds remarkably like a sexual predator. A lot like Humbert Humbert, maybe. I just listened to Jeremy Irons’ narration late last year. Gorgeous language but difficult to listen to Humbert making his evil sound so rational. I listened to that so I could listen to Reading Lolita in Teheran, which reads like an extended meditation on the comment I once read that Kafka’s novels are accurate portrayals of totalitarian regimes.

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