Wednesday, February 11, 2009

John the Baptizer: a Q & A

This spring will see the release of my newest book, JOHN THE BAPTIZER. Below is a recent Q & A prepared by W.W.Norton concerning some of the salient issues surrounding John's life, John's legend, and my effort to present it as fully and as coherently as I was able.

For more on the book, and early reactions, the reader can click here.

Q: You suggest in your author note about the origins of JOHN THE BAPTIZER that you are a practicing Catholic. How do you think the Catholic Church would respond to your portrait of John? What about other Christian denominations?

BH: I’m not sure it’s fair to practicing Catholics to call myself a practicing Catholic. Safer to say that I identify with Catholics and Catholicism and probably will to the end of my days. The happiest church-going situation I, or my wife and I, ever found ourselves in was at a Jesuit church in Chelsea with a largely gay congregation. That or a New Church (Swedenborgian) over on 35th and Park. I suspect that either one of those institutions would be quite open to what I’ve done, or tried to do, inasmuch as both are essentially embracing and inclusive institutions, devoted more to the process of questioning than with providing clear-cut, dogmatic answers.

Within the broader community of Catholics, and Christians, I suspect there might be more misgiving, insofar as mine is a portrait that does trouble the orthodox perception of John, as the long-prophesied forerunner of the messiah. I think the simple gesture of moving John to the center of the story, and letting Jesus be a supporting character, is in itself a little disorienting; letting John’s birth be the holy birth; letting his death be the passion play; reminding the reader just how many of the ideas that we normally associate with Jesus were spoken at that same time by John, and that these ideas hardly originated with him either; and that the crew of followers, and listeners, was a motley one, not all of whom were so quick to leave John and embrace Jesus.

It has to make a Christian uncomfortable to ponder such things. All I’d say to those who do find such inquiry troubling is that nearly all of the most radical ideas that I explore in this book – having to do with the doubts that existed about Jesus and his motives, the rivalry that existed between his and John’s followers, the cross-pollination of their ideas and practice -- are drawn directly from the gospel itself.

Q: Is there an “orthodox” view of John that diverges from what you’ve presented here?

BH: I won’t claim to have read any encyclical on the topic, but John is generally understood to be the One Who Comes Before. This was foretold, that before the Savior there would come one to prepare the way, and I think that’s an idea that can be understood both historically – that someone would come to announce the entrance of the Messiah and identify him – but also more personally, that before we can accept the Light of the Saviour, whoever he may be, we first must be opened and purified. And this, by most orthodox reckonings, is who John is. This was the function he performed. That is why one is (or was, back in the old days) supposed to confess before one took communion. You’ve got to visit John before you get to Jesus. Otherwise, it won't take.

I guess the fundamental question that underlies my book is whether that is true, whether that is an adequate explanation of who John was, or whether he was offering something slightly different -- or radically different -- from the faith that evolved from the mission of his most prominent heir, who was Jesus.

This struck me as a rather obvious question, and yet in having sat and talked with a number of different clergymen about John (and having sat through my share of sermons as well), I was more often than not struck by the almost milquetoast quality of their explanations. Setting aside John's function as a “preparer of the way,” they tended to focus on his selflessness, the willingness to see and accept his role, and accept his own diminishment in light of Jesus. That’s all well and good. I don’t even necessarily disagree with that, other than to want to stress how fraught that process must have been, both for him and for his disciples.

And in general I’ve come away with the sense of contemporary preachers and teachers just not being all that comfortable with the topic of John. When confronted with the issues and the questions to which John and John’s mission naturally give rise – why did he doubt, what about Jesus offended John’s followers, to what extent might he have been used by early Christians to legitimize Jesus' claims -- I consistently found their answers to be a little canned. One gets the impression that most priests, reverends and the like would just as soon not discuss John, which is understandable if you take a step back.

Q: Why?

BH: Well, in the first place, the essential feature of his mission – to purify – is one which has largely lost purchase in the Western tradition. We speak of what we believe. We speak of what we might do in support of, or as the exercise of that belief. We don’t talk much about preserving our purity. Purity and purification is frankly a much more potent and living idea within Islam, say, and a largely un-remarked element of the conflict that exists between us and the Muslim world right now.

Moreover, I think that John, or the idea of John, functioned best and most naturally within the more prophetic tradition -- or really the prophetic mindset -- that held sway at the time of his birth and during the time that the New Testament was being assembled. If one is familiar with that tradition, and accepts John as being the last of the prophets, he’s a much easier character to make sense of. He fits.

In, fact, one wouldn't have to be too too cynical to suggest that the only reason we talk about John the Baptist at all these days is because the early Christians, (and even Jesus himself, if the gospel is to be believed) understood that Jesus’ messianic claim depended on there having been a forerunner of some kind -- a prophet to fill Elijah’s shoes – and that John most closely filled the bill. Without John and John’s voucher, Jesus really had no claim to being the Saviour.

Today, I don’t think most Christians are quite so conversant with, or mindful of, the prophetic tradition that assigned John that role. Christians are by definition post-prophetic and have been for two-thousand years. As such, a character like John just doesn’t make as much sense, or serve as clear a purpose. Today we are more liable to approach John as a stand alone figure. When we do, we are more liable to be troubled, or confused, by all the questions that follow.

Q: You say that you tried to harmonize many divergent strands of canonical, historical, Gnostic, arcane, popular and artistic “information” about John. What did you discard and why? As there anything in particular that refused to “harmonize”? Did you intentionally leave in anything you yourself find “discordant”?

BH: What did I discard? Well I’ll just come right out and admit, Mallarme wrote a poem about Herodias that I can’t make heads or tails of. I tried, and maybe I used it on some osmotic level, just don’t ask me how.

More controversially, one could argue that I might have held back on, and elided, certain passages is the gospel of John (the evangelist), but only because I found his gospel to be the most coercive, and therefore the least credible, when it comes to John’s role and significance. That’s a horribly presumptuous thing to say about a document to which I am so indebted, and which obviously transcends anything I could hope to offer. That said, there are moments when its author gets out the shoehorn that I just wasn’t comfortable using.

Otherwise, I’d say I steered clear of the two extremes: Hollywood depictions of John (Charlton Heston, etc) I find for the most part to be embarrassing and laughable, prime examples of just what I’ve been talking about, which is that, as a character, I just don’t think we’ve ever been comfortable with who this man is, or what the point is. John the Baptist is a good time to go buy more popcorn. That’s what I did anyway.

Alternately, if you go on the Internet and get reckless with your mouse, you can run into some pretty extraordinary conspiracy theories about who John was and what actually transpired between him and Jesus. I actually cyber-engaged a guy who believed that John the Baptist was John Hyrcanus. One would have to be a bit of a Josephus wonk to understand just how strange – and kind of pointless -- an idea that is, but trust me, it would be like some insisting to you, two-thousand years from now, that Pete Rose was actually Pete Rozelle. There are other more toxic theories out there, such as that Jesus had John killed in order to overturn the feminine Godhead and install the masculine. Again, I don’t feel that I’m in a position either to dismantle or defend such arguments. If someone out there wants to try, godspeed. But I think at a certain point one has to recognize the line at which one's own brain shuts down. For me, these sorts of theories exist beyond that line.

As for discord, I think there’s a lot of it. Names and angels and cosmologies that draw from different traditions, but as I mention in the author’s note, a large part of my job was to figure out how to incorporate those dissonances into the body of the story itself, how to turn it into dramatic conflict, to let the characters fight it out among each other, and in their own minds.

But even that makes my process sound a little more agenda-driven than it actually was. Frankly, the final arbiter for me in almost all my choices -- and what designates the book as a novel, I suppose -- is personal taste. Aesthetics. As opposed, say, to accuracy, to provability or probability. I assumed there was truth in beauty. On that account I can assure you, if there was anything out there that I found either beautiful or moving – whether it was a painting or a piece of music, a scene in Josephus or the Bible, or Gospel of Levi Dowling -- I tried to find a way to use it. The paintings of the holy family, for instance – of John and Jesus as babies, with Mary and Elizabeth presiding. No one ever claimed that those scenes “happened,” so far as I know. They are not depictions of apocryphal scenes. They are more like heavenly portraits, if you will, but served for me to illustrate and body-out Elizabeth’s “dreams.”

On the other hand, if I found something ugly – by which I mean false, murky, obvious, manipulative, or self-interested – that was really the quickest route to the circular file.

Q: When John is being raised as a young man in the village on the other side of the Jordan – where do you envision him exactly and what inspired your portrait of that community?

BH: I purposefully don’t specify the location because I think part of the point of that chapter of John’s life is that it took place beyond the reach of Israel or Rome or Parthia or Nabataea. Uncounted tribes existed, with their own holy men, their own prayers, their connections to the variety of faiths surrounding them. There is a Gnostic tradition, occupied today exclusively by the Mandeans, which traces back to the time of John, and which can justifiably be connected to the traditions of the Subba and the Sabeans and all the way back to the Zoroastrians. I imagined there being a Babylonian Jewish influence to John’s Subban upbringing as well, but specifically I think I probably leaned most heavily on the portraits of traditional Mandean tribal life that I was able to find.

But again, what I most wanted to depict, in tracing John’s youth and upbringing, was almost a step-by-step progression – one which finds him, as a child, at the furthest possible remove from the tradition of his blood parents (there among the Subba), then moves him closer (with the Essenes, who are patently Jewish but still “set apart”), and then finally introduces him to the Temple of his father, the heart of Israel. I saw him, even despite his lineage, as approaching the Temple as an outsider, and as having to grapple with that same conflict for the rest of his life, as to whether he belonged to the Gnostic, ascetic tradition in which he was raised, or the more orthodox tradition to which he was born, and which he felt “sent” to restore and revive.

Q: Do your consider your view of John ultimately to be iconographic or iconoclastic?

BH: This was a live question for me as I wrote, because I didn’t really know the answer, and I didn’t have a clear desire one way or the other. I suppose, because of my upbringing, I never quite shed the notion that there was something at least renegade about what I was doing, for reasons already stated, for making John the protagonist, for making Jesus (in certain eyes) the “bad guy”; for asserting the legitimacy of the Gnostic approach alongside the more traditional; for pointing out that Jesus really was a student of John’s, etc etc.

However, on finishing, on stepping back and hearing what readers have had to say, it’s my sense that the portrait ultimately ends up being more iconic – again, probably because of my upbringing and because of my approach. I didn’t take this story on because I had some radical agenda, or some alternate theory I was trying to peddle. I took it on because I’m a storyteller, because all the various parts of John’s story struck me as being achingly beautiful, and because I recognized that for whatever reason no one had yet tried to assemble them into a single account. If I wrote the book “in faith,” as they say, it was in faith that the narrative existed, even despite the dispersal of sources, and that it revolved around a single (at least somewhat) comprehensible character.

That this character should turn out to be different than we might have expected is hardly surprising – the closer we look at anyone or anything, the more our estimation is liable to change – but to the extent that what I’ve presented here is a attempted distillation of our collected memories and meditations, it’s hard to see how the result could be called iconoclastic.

Q: What about your view of Jewish history – is that a conventional one? Did you take liberties?

BH: Not so much more than Josephus himself, whose trustworthiness is far from absolute. If there was any other guide I had in mind, or precedent, it would have been the Shakespearean histories, just in terms of the balance they strike between the needs of good drama, and the conscience of history. I’m certainly not saying I’m as good a writer as Shakespeare, but as historians I’d say we’re in the same ballpark. I might even give me the nod, in terms of trustworthiness.

Q: Is Manean an historical character? If so how did you find him?

BH: Absolutely. I found him in Bartlett’s book of unused-but-basically-reliable narrators. The Acts of the Apostles makes mention of Manean as having been a friend of Antipas’ from his childhood. A schoolmate. He is also placed in Antioch as an early teacher of the gospel of Jesus. As such, he is quite likely to have been there at Herod Antipas’s banquet, and as likely as anyone to have been the source of the be-heading story as it was later reflected in the synoptic gospels.

That he was also the son of Menahem the Essene, advisor to Herod the Great (and also a bonafide historical character), is a pretty wild conjecture based, if I’m not mistaken, upon the similarity of the names -- ‘Manean’ being and alternate spelling of ‘Menahem’. But this conjecture did not originate with me. Among those peddling this theory would be the co-historians Comay and Brownrigg. I just took it and ran.

Q: Has anyone else ever taken your view of what Salome’s infamous Dance of the Seven Veils was really about, or how it led to John’s beheading?

BH: Well, first things first: that it was a Dance of Seven Veils is itself a grafting from later history. The Greek word for the dance that Salome performed for her father – this as reflected in Mark’s pericope (or capsule) of the incident – can be translated as romp, as in childish “romp,” as in the sort of thing grandparents happily endure at Thanksgiving.

But to your question, I’m hesitant to say no one has ever taken my view, just because it seems rather obvious once you stare at the pericope of four or five years on end. The gospels themselves differ as to whether Salome asked for the head on her own or at the suggestion of her mother. I went with the latter. To be clear, my contribution, if it is a contribution, is that out of clear recognition that Antipas deep-down feared and revered John, Salome (very much at her mother’s recommendation), asked for the prophet’s head to punish Antipas for having statutorily raped for the last several months.

Again, looking at the Bible passage, I can’t imagine any other plausible explanation.

It should be noted that I avoided like the plague the Rita Hayworth movie, so I have no idea what their explanation was, and that the other most famous interpretation would be the one offered by Oscar Wilde in his play Salome, which is a work that that I deeply love and admire – likewise the Ken Russell movie, Salome’s Last Dance, which is based on the Wilde. (I’m not so keen on the Strauss opera, but that has more to do with the music and casting requirements.) In the Wilde account, Salome demands John’s head as a way of getting back at John for having spurned her sexual advances, which (granted) could have been motivated by the desire to get back at her lascivious step-father. It’s very good and funny and disturbing account. I just don’t think it sheds much light on John. He and his head, are an excellent, excellent prop.

While I’m at it, I should perhaps mention that Flaubert wrote a fairly long short story about the same incident. I don’t at the moment recall what Salome’s motive is there, maybe because the story as a whole is a bit of a mess. The set design is great, though, and I copped it liberally and shamelessly.

Q: Is there a character in the book with whom you most identify?

BH: Probably Manean. He is in the classic narrator seat, and has all the characteristics of a good novelist: aware of all the arguments to be a made, and to that extent sympathetic to every side; willing to play advisor and confidante, but extremely circumspect about revealing his own leanings; possessed of an appalling willingness to watch other people, even friends, make horrible mistakes without intervening. He’s extremely passive aggressive, in other words, like all good writers.

I also have a soft spot for Azharan, John’s brother and most devoted disciple. In a lot of ways, I don’t think anyone in the book suffers quite as much as he does, and all because he’s loyal.

Q: I find your prose style in this book – styles, since there are two distinct strands or narrative voices – unique. Breathtaking, actually. What are your influences and how did you manage to keep both voices so pure, without one approach bleeding into the other? Was there any temptation to unify them more?

BH: Immersion, I’d say, and an adherence to sources. One of the advantages to working so slowly is that over time you actually begin to forget which parts of the story you’ve borrowed and which you’ve made up. Another is that voices just start to grow into you.

That two voices finally emerged in this instance is, as I say, a function of my high regard for the sources I was using. I think this is something all writers struggle with, especially when they’re telling stories derived from outside sources (sources other than their imagination, that is.) On the one hand you have at some point to take control of your story, wherever you found it, to make it your own, to take responsibility for it, if only to discover why you were so drawn to it in the first place.

By that same token, there is a strong impulse to want to honor the source, and to serve it, to find a way to allow the reader to see it and be inspired it by it the same way you were.

This is an issue I’ve dealt with in my last two novels, the former one being about the first eight weeks of Napoleon’s stay on St. Helena. In that book, as with John, I really loved all the material I was drawing from – the diaries and memoirs – and was dogged throughout by the fear that there was something profoundly presumptuous in my thinking that I could do better, or shed more light, than my sources had. Both in the case of that book and John, I had half a mind simply to present the reader with my bibliography and let them follow the same path I did, and make of it what they will.

Obviously I did not do that, but I suspect that any reader who did a running check of text-to-source-material would be surprised at the extent to which the story presented here really is a thinly-veiled collage.

That said, I assume the two voices to which you refer would be the one that recounts the ‘secular’ story – the one about the Herods – and the one that recounts the ‘sacred’ one, about John. In each case, there are characters within the accounts that I regard as being the likely sources. The secular witness is Manean. The sacred witness is Kharsand. Each acquired its voice primarily from the source material. In the case of the Herodian saga, that would be Josephus, who would have been a heckuva novelist had he so chosen. In the case of the John material, the primary sources would be the gospels and the Mandean stories, which in particular possess a kind of music I hadn’t really heard before, but which comes through even in translation because of the essentially oral tradition from which they emerge. The Mandaean accounts are clearly cants, poems, songs, presented in such a way that they can be heard and remembered. Capturing their rhythm and syntax was far less difficult than actually breaking them down, recognizing which parts could serve as incidents, which were allegories, when should first-person passages be switched to third. That sort of thing.

And in the course of doing that work – the “make-it, break it, make it again” nature of all creative activity -- you learn things about the different styles, and you begin apply them. You recognize, for instance, that one characteristic that almost all sacred or scriptural writing shares in common is the fact that it never tries to sell itself – an idea, or an event. In most fiction writing, or literary writing, so much effort is expended on trying to persuade the reader -- of time and place, of the power of a moment, of the significance of an idea or an action. A “literary” writer, faced with the prospect of recounting an angelic visitation, would naturally want to express to the reader just what it felt and looked like, to set the reader there and make her believe that what happened here really happened. A scriptural writer knows better than to try, and usually winds up being more convincing. It’s quite liberating one you get the hang of it, and it extends to all incidents and descriptions. Even dialogue. “Andrew went to him and said, ‘…'” is an unthinkable sentence in a short story. It’s the bread and butter of scriptural writing.

Q: When I first met you, you were writing not about a sacred figure, but a profane one – the 60s comedian Lenny Bruce.

BH: Eton Boone, but I take your point.

Q: Do he and John the Baptizer have more in common than meets the eye? In general, your novels seem to be dominated by a single male character who stands apart from the crowd. Do you see any progression?

BH: I suspect that this is the sort of question that I am incapable of talking about it with any authority or dignity, and that I am better off just following my nose and letting you figure out what I think smells good.

I would say this, however, that every book is a reaction to the last. Every book tends to beak the rules of the last, and that as far as protagonists go, the same holds true. Gus Uyterhoeven, the protagonist of The Chess Garden was a direct response to Eton Boon: the former cultivated the ability to see spirit; the latter, ego. Dr. Perlman (of Perlman’s Ordeal) was a skeptic, a rationalist and a humanist tested by faith, taunted by the unseen. Toby, who was kind of the moral center and conscience of The Monsters of St. Helena represented another swing of the pendulum back in the direction of spiritual sight, or openness.

John the Baptizer, as you’ve noted, is really comprised of two stories: a sacred story about John; a profane story about the Herods. But even within John’s character, there is a contrast between the enlightened vision he possesses, and the anger that overtakes him when he looks back down at the world around him. I think that anger charged him, in a way, and it was derived from a sense of separateness, of strangeness to the world, that likely exceeded that of any character I’ve ever dealt with, and probably ever will. I hope.

Regarding the more general question of my protagonists and the crowds they play to, or the situation they find themselves in, I would last (and inadvisably) say this. Right or wrong, it struck me a while back that the operative idea behind most popular fiction was to put an “ordinary character in an extraordinary situation,” while the directive of literary fiction was to put an “extraordinary character in ordinary situation,” and that my career, such as it is, could be seen as an experiment in doubling down and seeing what happened if you put an extraordinary character in an extraordinary situation. Why not?

Jury’s still out, I guess.

Q: Has writing this book changed your own faith or view of Christianity in any way?

BH: I would suspect. I think for anyone who identifies him- or herself as a Christian, the question comes, does your faith consist in what you do, or in what you believe. John’s life reminds us that a lot of Jesus’ “message” – having to do with the primacy of good acts, of charity, of purity, and of divorcing yourself from the trappings of the world – don’t really belong to Jesus at all. These ideas existed before him, and would likely have existed after him whether or not he had come to give them voice. What the figure of Jesus brings to all these ideas is his own sacrifice, the mystery of faith, if you will, that simple but inscrutable mechanism by which his death and resurrection saves us all provided that we believe in it, and him.

The question all Christians are bound to ask themselves along the way is whether they really need that – to give over to the belief in a savior, a belief in Jesus’sacrifice and resurrection, and a conviction that their own their salvation depends precisely upon this belief -- or whether their salvation could just as well consist in all the sorts of things taught and demonstrated by John: charity, self-sacrifice, independence from the world and so forth. It is a tempting proposition. We can’t pretend that vesting one’s faith in a mere belief – that "God so loved mankind" and so forth… -- isn’t fraught with risk and potential misunderstanding. It clearly is. It breeds false righteousness. Arrogance. Wars, dare I say? Would it not suffice to be a follower of John – to seek purity and light through a simple life of good acts and devotion -- or do we need to go that extra step and marry our actions to a belief in the miracle of Christ’s resurrection.

I certainly don’t think John’s story answers that question, but I do think it asks that question rather forcefully, by exploring the loyalty and the practice of those who did not go on to follow Jesus, by looking at John as a seer and teacher in his own right, and not just a functionary within a Judeo-Christian story of sin and redemption. And by ending where it ends. That was always one of my favorite things about John’s story, in fact, is that it concludes before we come to the crucial “Christian” moment of Jesus’ death and resurrection. By ending where it does, John's life poses questions about the necessity of Jesus' sacrifice. Aside from the fact that John does refer to Jesus as “lamb” – which is definitely fascinating – his story offers no opinion about the truth or the significance of what was to happen on Golgotha or in the tomb. John’s life doesn’t foresee that. I think a great part of the doubt he experienced in prison is attributable to the fact that he did not understand how “Christian” salvation would manifest. He was inheriting thousands of years of conjecture and catastrophic expectation. In absence of that knowledge , he had no choice but to doubt, to wonder. How is the Nazarene going to pull this off? And do I trust him?

As for myself, I suppose that the number of years I've spent with John and his story is in itself an indication of my own desire to do without that particular mystery of faith. To see if I miss it. To see if I feel liberated without it. I don’t really know the answer yet. If I’ve learned anything in this process, it’s that these things take time.