Category Archives: Books


The other day I heard an interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, currently on tour for the English edition of his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Pope Francis has himself just published a book called The Church of Mercy, mercy apparently being the theological flavor of the season). But I suspect the real reason the cardinal rated an interview on my local public radio station is because he’s Kardinaal_III_Danneels_en_Kasperknown as “the pope’s theologian,” much as Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) was known as “the pope’s [recently sainted Pope John Paul’s] Rottweiler.” Having Kasper in studio must have seemed like the next best thing to having the pope himself there and a golden opportunity to pick the cardinal’s brains about the course of Roman Catholicism under Francis’s papacy.

But first the host Brian Lehrer, a gentle but intelligent interviewer, questioned Kasper about the meaning of the word mercy and the reason for its being so high up on the new pope’s agenda. The cardinal happily distinguished mercy from compassion (active versus passive), mercy from justice (complementary), the biblical origins of the virtue (Sermon on the Mount, among others). After several minutes of Q&A, though, little light had been shed on the subject either for the host (who is Jewish) or for me or, presumably, for other listeners to the program. But Lehrer had not denied Kasper his ten minutes for flogging the book, which was after all his immediate reason for appearing on the show or, for that matter, his being in the US in the first place.

Lehrer then moved on to the questions he, and much of his audience Catholic and non-Catholic alike, wanted answers to: Did the pope’s emphasis on mercy and understanding mean there would be any change to the church’s position on birth control or homosexuality or divorced and/or remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist, etc.? To all of which Kasper replied in diplomatic and noncommittal terms. He said Catholics are already making up their own minds about birth control, though he reminded us the church is not against all kinds (presumably he was referring to the “rhythm” method). And in the case of Catholics who have divorced and remarried, that choice is their own responsibility.

If you’re one of those Catholics, ex-Catholics or non-Catholics who have been hoping for something truly different from this pope compared with his predecessors, if in other words you have been hoping for a reassertion of the kind of liberal attitude with which John XXIII shook up the church fifty years ago, I’d say the prospects are dim.  John XXIII was an anomaly, a tragic mistake in the view of the church itself or at least that part of it that has put into power all popes since John XXIII and before.

The cardinal didn’t indicate anything had changed doctrinally for Catholics with the ascension of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papal throne. In case you missed it, just a couple months back Pope Francis threatened the Mafiosi of southern Italy with eternal hellfire if they don’t mend their ways. As long as the church continues to keep hell (and heaven) in the picture, no amount of mercy-talk will change the fundamental use of fear and reward with which the church has always kept the faithful in line.  Justice requires a hell by this logic, but it’s the sinner who condemns her/himself to eternal torment, not God, as the church sees it.

Kasper and the pope are simply staking out the themes of the new papacy, much as candidate Obama put forth the themes of his candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember “Hope and Change”? The traditional John Paul/Benedict XVI authoritarianism (attended by the revelation of a church-wide, decades-long cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children) got nowhere in the developed world, however much the church’s continued harping on homosexuality, the use of condoms and an insistence on a males-only clergy appealed to the conservative mentality of the hierarchy and the faithful in Africa and Latin America where the church is doing quite well, thank you.

John XXIII’s papacy was an attempt to return the church to a more collegial governance combined with a “preferential preference for the poor” that spawned a Liberation Theology movement which the church itself, with the help of like-minded friends in the US government and its armed forces, has since been doing its best to suppress, sometimes with murder.

Two hundred years ago the papacy was a feeble office to which the rest of the church paid little attention. The Kings of France, not the pope, appointed that nation’s bishops, a shocking example of papal impotence by today’s standards. The revival of the papacy as a “unitary power,” to use the phrase favored by those who want the same kind of extremePope Francis authority for the president of the United States — a preeminent, unassailable last word in matters doctrinal and ecclesiastical — started, as best I can tell, with Napoleon’s agreement to put the pope back in the driver’s seat if he, the pope, sided with the Little Corporal in his Italian wars. The consolidation and expansion of papal power has continued under subsequent popes until today it is all but forgotten that ultimate power in the church used to reside in councils of bishops with the pope acting as first among equals. Today we assume the pope is not only the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals but is the sole initiator of policy in those areas. No synod of bishops can do more than humbly offer advice. The pope is dictator, elected by a body of cardinals themselves appointed by, yes, previous popes. And, the last I heard, no ordinary Catholic or even ordinary priest or bishop gets to cast a ballot for anyone. The church is no more democratic than was the politburo, which also “elected” the head of the Soviet Union.

There are many good people who serve humanity in the name of Jesus — nuns who look after the most destitute cast-offs, who literally each day moping up the waste of people who have no chance of recovering from AIDS and other degenerative diseases. I know someone who has held babies who would not live out the night, would die untouched and unloved by anyone but those nuns. Those women don’t make the nightly news broadcasts.

There are others too, some of them clergy, who lead lives of dedication to the poor and who sometimes lose their lives because they do.  The popes and bishops rarely represent these Catholics. The hierarchy’s preoccupation is with the institution of the church, just as it was a thousand years ago when they had the power to execute anyone who deviated from the doctrine they laid down. Berdoglio/Pope Francis did not get elected pope to upset a two-thousand-year-old organization that is still recovering from the changes attempted by his predecessor half a century ago.

We get the leaders we are willing to settle for, whether it’s in Rome or Washington. We will get different ones when we demand them. But I have yet to hear anyone call for a democratization of the Roman Catholic Church (admitting that I don’t get around much in Catholic or any other religious circles). The idea, I suspect, is not even up for discussion, just as the idea of ordinary people taking over their own political and economic destinies is not up for discussion, the failure or Bolshevik communism having apparently proven the inevitability of corporate feudalism and top-down, money-driven politics.

At the risk of sounding like yet another pie-in-the-sky/pinko idealist living in La La Land, I suggest reading Rudolph Rocker’s Anarchosyndicalism, written (elegantly) in 1938 and as fresh and full of good, practical ideas as anything you’ll come across. All it proposes is what has already been demonstrated in other parts of the world as well as right now in many places in the US: that ordinary people are quite capable of ordering their own lives and of cooperating with their neighbors to their mutual benefit.

Meanwhile, if you’re still a Catholic, I suggest you start asking for the basic right of any human being to elect the people who claim to have the right to lay down laws by which they, the faithful, will get to spend that part of their existence called eternity. Democracy was good enough for the earliest version of Christianity. Why not now?

The Emperor’s Tailors: Lit-Crit as Orientalism

In “A Reader’s Manifesto” (August, 2001 Atlantic Monthly), his briefly infamous attack on the American literary establishment, B. R. Myers made the argument that gatekeepers of that establishment (university professors, literary critics, reviewers) define for the rest of us what is and what is not literature according to a narrow, ideologically-driven view that has nothing to do with the traditional meaning of the word, and they do so with an arrogant contempt for the common reader.

I say “briefly infamous” because Myers’s essay was itself attacked from every quarter with a vehemence that seemed all out of proportion to what those same critics insisted was the author’s insignificance and lack of credentials. They even accused him of being insufficiently Reader's_Manifesto_coverAmerican, and at least one noted establishment figure refused to ride the same elevator with Myers. But then he was assigned to oblivion, the most effective way to silence dissent.

The article received a more sympathetic hearing in the U.K. and Australia. Reading the reactions there, one gets the sense that it provided a refreshing gust of truth that the lit-crit establishment in those places dared not express on their own. I noticed, for instance that following the publication of “A Reader’s Manifesto” the Man Booker Prize in Britain announced that future nominees would be selected partly with an eye toward reader accessibility. The American penchant for post-modern French theory probably never struck as deep in the UK, and some must have resented having to follow an American lead unquestioningly.

My reading of what Myers says in his essay — as well as in his short book of the same name from which the article was extracted (A Reader’s Manifesto, Melville House 2002) — boils down to this: The evaluation of fiction writing has been hijacked by an ideology that defines literature in a way that has nothing to do with traditional values like engaging characters, interesting plot or even simple entertainment. In fact, any writing that celebrates these elements is categorized as sub-literary or “genre.” The result of this hijacking has been the canonization of a mediocrity lavishly praised for what anyone with common sense would regard as obscurity, wordiness, and plain old-fashioned dullness.

But you couldn’t read the attacks on either Myers’s argument or his person without wondering not whether his attackers were wrong or right but what could be the reason for so much anger. True, he was questioning the fundamentals of the establishment’s esthetic, but he was doing so in a reasonable way. Why the campaign to discredit him personally? Why the attempt to question his nationality? Why the refusal of one of the better of their bunch, Michael Dirda, to even address the issues Myers raised, or apparently even to read his article?

These people had to have felt deeply threatened to react that way — threatened the way a religious fundamentalist feels threatened by a creed or life style that seems to flaunt the basic tenets of their faith. Myers seemed beyond the kind of fraternal dialogue they could accord to one of their own who had strayed into the foothills of heresy. He was Moloch, the Evil One — and a threat to their bread and butter, to boot. To allow him a legitimate voice was to open an artery in a closed system they had spent decades stitching together. Closed systems, whether physical like our bodies or social like the Soviet Union or the Catholic church, cannot sustain that kind of breach. A great deal of inward pressure is required to maintain them. Any insult is like sticking a pin into a balloon. The lit-crits knew this intuitively. So they closed ranks as instinctively and as shamelessly as bishops do around pederast priests, assuring themselves, if any doubts arose, they were doing so for the good of literature, not just to maintain their control.

I also got some insight into the reasons for the violence of the establishment’s reaction to Myers’s article from a recent reading of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, a genealogy of the West’s appropriation of everything Eastern not just physically but as the West’s intellectual “creation.” It is Said’s contention that the Orient/East exists only as a resource and cultural archive for the West, and it’s hard not to see theEdward_Said same kind of attitude at work in the American attitude toward indigenous foreign fiction. We are willing enough to read Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and any number of Spanish-speaking authors as long as their characters have an American connection and the landscape of their native lands is presented as appropriately exotic but easily accessible, the way our travel books make accessible the touristy landmarks and back-alley bargain spots of the dark continents beyond Coney Island and the Golden Gate. Africa—black Africa — in this respect, is virtually off the map, with rare exceptions. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is taught universally in our schools from elementary through graduate school. But the title of that novel indicates what kind of reader it has in mind, and the text itself, while worthy, is the work of a university man who has read his Iliad and his Shakespeare. Had he told his story, an historical novel of pre-colonial village life, without those Western literary frames of reference, would he still be at the top of the academic reading lists? Would he even be published in the West?

What we do not admit is the kind of fiction, even fiction written in English, that must be taken on its own terms where its references are largely intra-cultural– though very little fiction written in any language anymore entirely escapes some intrusion of Western culture, and probably takes it for granted. I am not talking about entering into exotic mentalities akin to the mysteries of deep Sufism. Said’s Orientalists assume that in the East—and the same can be said largely about Africa or Latin America—there is no there there until the Western mind and sensibility gives it form and context. Nothing, consequently, is be taken on its own terms, and no attempt is made to experience it that way, because the East is by definition without form, chaotic, lawless, excessive, crying out for the West to organize and dominate it.

A hundred years ago Western artists discovered traditional African art and, after giving it a European medium and theory, presented it as their own, probably without realizing they were merely imitating because until they presented it to Europe on their canvases it did not, in effect, exist. Western composers have been lifting Arabic themes and stories at least since the time of Mozart. Western science is builtOrientalism_Book on the back of an Islamic science that flourished when the capitals of Europe were still mud huts. The Renaissance grew out of the rediscovery of a Greek culture that had been preserved in the East by both Islamic and Christian scholars. Today’s American Neo-Con ideology of a world made over in the image of the United States, or as an imitative vassal thereof, was not born in the mind of a University of Chicago neo-Platonist professor. It belongs to a tradition that used virtually the same words and ideas two hundred years ago when Napoleon’s army “liberated” Egypt. The same ideological imperatives continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, propping up the colonial adventures of Europe and eventually spawning the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Paul Wolfowitz & Co. are just echoes of this same intensely chauvinistic tradition.

I was not surprised by the existence of this tradition as Said describes it, but I was amazed by its strength and respectability. In this light the excesses of fascism and Nazism make perfect sense, given the acceptance that was for so long accorded ideas of cultural superiority and the “racial” conclusions that follow. Authors like Nietzsche are frequently blamed, but the intellectual discourse was solidly in place by the time he came along. Both the British and the French established the East—everything from North Africa to China and, later, Africa—as areas of the world that existed culturally only in the deep past, if at all. In the present, they are like the primitive earth, void and without form, savage, irrational, incapable of self-government. The living people in those parts of the world were seen—and largely still are viewed–as degenerate as their cultures, without the European virtues of logical thought and self-restraint. There is no hope for them except through a benevolent European domination or, now, an American one.

The lit-crits see the world the same way. Literature does not exist until they recognize it as such, whether it’s a domestic product that does not conform to their literary ideology or foreign work that is the organic result of forces beyond the control of Western ideologues. Bush’s wars and the lit-crit’s imperial parochialism are of a piece. You are either with us or against us, good or evil, literature or “genre.” We all are losers in either case, except perhaps for the very rich who become even richer by war and the expropriation of foreign resources, but even they as human beings ultimately have to be impoverished by the narrow range of our cultural spectrum.

Big Brother, Big Daddy

The term “Orwellian” is common enough that it should be used without capitalization. His warnings about how language molds thinking, which in turn molds politics, is as true for our society as it was for the overtly totalitarian ones that existed in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But I’m beginning to wonder if a different cultural reference isn’t just as relevant as Orwell, perhaps more so….

My latest at

WHAT’S NEW? (2.0)

It almost always comes as a surprise to me, and I suspect this is true for most fiction writers, which of my stories — whether novels, novellas or short stories — are most read and best liked. Sometimes the reaction is downright incredible: a story I may have put into a drawer (actually onto a stack or into a box full of other stories) because I thought it had no chance of pleasing anyone, not even myself, eventually gets read and praised and very possibly published as well.

“Pigeons,” one of my latest short stories, turned out to be just such a surprise. I liked it well enough, but that was partly because I had been highly motivated to write it, so intrigued was I by an encounter someone had related to me that occurred in a drug store when she was looking for something to…enhance her motility. I had to write the story (actually to bring forth the story the anecdote kindled deep in my imagination, which developed in its own way independent of the anecdote I had been told) for my reasons I at best only dimly understand. Stories get told because they demand to be, something drives one to write them. Others lie fallow for years or forever because whatever it is that causes one to express them never reaches a point of combustion.

Had I not chanced upon a magazine that solicited material from older writers (55 and up), “Pigeons” might still be lying in a box unread. But the story seemed tailor-made for The Feathered Flounder (since defunct, I regret to report; and there’s a good true-life story there), and it was accepted within days instead of the usual weeks or months. More importantly, it was immediately popular and I was told by more than one person who had read other stories of mine that it was my best work.

I found readers’ reaction to the story gratifying, of course, but also perplexing. The story seemed to me similar to others I had written — similar in the sense that even I can see I handle certain themes one way and others in another way, and that sometimes I succeed in making a story engaging and satisfying and sometimes I don’t. But I could see no special virtue to anything about this one, and still can’t, at least beyond the satisfaction that I achieved what I “intended” — whatever that may have been — in its creation.

Look at Me Now, my novel published in 2007, had a very different fate, though it too started from an anecdote, a series of anecdotes actually, though I was cautious at first not to assume it would amount to anything longer than a single short story, which became two, then three, then Look at Me Now Graphicclearly was turning into something that was going to stretch out much further, all told in the voice (it’s in diary form) of a woman in the process of leaving — escaping, really — her husband of twenty years.

I find first-person narratives the easiest and most enjoyable to write (as long as they are not autobiographical). They seem to be pre-written in my subconscious. All I need do is take dictation from that source with little active effort from my conscious mind. I write as much as I can on any given day for as long as I can — not all that much, really, and never enough to empty out my imagination, so that I can take up where I left off the next day — it’s amazing how easy it is to continue a story if I can recall what the next sentence is to be, and how difficult when I have to start without anything like that to prime the pump.

I tend to underestimate, though, what is involved in these relatively painless acts of creation. While the process energizes me in ways I still find surprising — increased confidence, a generally heightened sense of my environment, even increased libido — all that masks the drain I also experience. I sometimes think this is what a medium must feel like after a seance, assuming the medium is not a charlatan and actually does go into a trance, whatever the value of what s/he claims to communicate while in that trance. I also feel justified, made whole and unapologetic for my existence and for the life I have led — in a word, happy.

The initial reaction to Look at Me Now was encouraging. Two agents took it on, one saying the book had changed her life — which I took to mean she was undergoing some sort of marital crisis and was influenced by the way my character Deirdre dealt with hers. That reaction to the book was flattering, as well as frightening (I didn’t want to be responsible for the breakup of a marriage in real life, however indirectly; I knew someone who proposed to a woman because of some lines in a movie he had seen). But the agent’s reaction was also confusing because it seemed oddly unprofessional, like a doctor telling you about his youthful experience of STD, when all you wanted was some medication for a bladder infection.

But it wasn’t until later, after I had published the book with a writer’s collective, my two agents having failed to place the book, when I put the book up for review on LibraryThing, the online reader’s review site, that I got both positive and decidedly negative reactions that changed my entire mindset about the book and also divested me of what I will call my literary virginity.

Till then I naively believed that we all read the same book if the words are all the same, however much we may or may not like it. But the dozen or so members of LibraryThing who received review copies of Look at Me Now showed me otherwise, and since then I have been all too aware that once the creature of my imagination is let loose for anyone to handle or manhandle there is no telling what they will make of it. (One reviewer happened to share the name of a well-known British actress I like and had an address in London. I was hoping she really was that actress. I still don’t know if she is, but her review was long, thorough and devastatingly negative.) Between you and me and some sour grapes, I think the reviewers expected to receive finished copies of the book instead of the Advanced Review Copies I sent out — in some cases all the way to Australia. I had gotten more that 700 requests for a review copy, which LibraryThing whittled down to the twenty best matches.

There were many good reviews, at LibraryThing and elsewhere, but it was the negative ones that showed me how subjective we are in our reading and how much we read into as read. The less sophisticated readers (unlike my possible famous actress) simply wrote things like, “The narrator reminds me of my sister-in-law, whom I hate.” But all of the negative reviewers displayed real animus, an emotional reaction they sometimes explained like the woman with the detestable sister-in-law but usually did not, leaving me to wonder what could make someone so angry about a novel which they, after all, had got for free and only needed to write a few sentences about for their trouble — or do nothing at all, as some of those who received free review copies chose to do.

I didn’t want to consider the possibility that any of the reviewers, who were almost all women, resented the fact that the author is a man. I write mostly in the voice of or about women. I won’t pretend to know why. I do it well, or not, but I don’t think I need apologize for trying. I don’t believe I portray women condescendingly or otherwise in a chauvinistic way. And none of the reviewers suggested as much. But I do know some women, like some men, resent authors pretending to understand what goes on in the heads of the opposite sex. By that standard, I suppose I should never try to write about anyone but men who fall into the range of my own particular masculine background — an absurd suggestion, I would say.

But you can be the judge for yourself if you care to have a look at the excerpt from Look at Me Now on this blogsite. By way of pleading my own case, Look at Me Now is far and away my best-selling book, in its ebook form, though I have no idea in the great majority of the sales whether the experience of reading the novel was worth the .99 the readers paid for it or not. In a few cases they returned it for a refund, which makes the fact that so many others have kept and, hopefully, read it — having presumably sampled it enough before buying to realize it isn’t chick-lit or a “Woman’s Novel” —  all the more enigmatic….

For them what cares, all my published work is available at Amazon – still the largest pool of potential readers despite their increasingly autocratic ways — Barnes & Noble and, most recently, Smashwords (.com), the latter being the new good guy on the block, at least for the present. Samples of each book are available at each of those venues. The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories is still currently free at (available in eight different formats).

Happy reading.

The Ancient Art of Backscratching

A recent discovery in an Anatolian (modern southern Turkey) cave has shed some light on the recent controversy about modern authors reviewing each other’s books, something those in the know have been aware of at least since Herbert Gold put himself on the lit-crit establishment’s blacklist back in the 1950s when he revealed how authors mutually back-scratch each other with favorable blurbs and notices.

The truth is, authors have always sought out good notices, especially from other writers whose reputation was at least as great as their own. The ancient scrolls found in that cave in modern-day Izafake only shows the practice goes back to ancient times.

The following is one of the first attempts at a translation at those scrolls, which apparently document a correspondence between an author in ancient Israel and one based on a Greek island in the Aegean. Some of the scrolls only exist as fragments, and some have parts too deteriorated to decipher. Where there is a gap the translator — Marc Eugenides at the University of Southwest Attica — indicates the missing text with points of ellipsis.

Greetings from the east bank (alas) of the Jordan to … most esteemed Hellenic brother.

It was with the greatest pleasure I read the manuscript you sent me. I am happy and honored to be the first to review it. We authors must support one another, especially these days when every other Philistine thinks he has a book inside him screaming to get out. I know all too well the frustration that comes of putting your heart and … into a creation, even one divinely inspired (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with books not so inspired), only to see it trashed by that small coterie of literary gatekeepers known as the scribal class.

My first book, a long saga recounting the early wanderings of Abraham, met such a fate. “Overwritten,” they complained. “Been done and done better,” was another barb they threw at it, though the truth was they were referring to Sumerian … of the story… which are, of course, not accessible to most people. But, count on the lit-crits to praise anything out of Mesopotamia rather than give a leg-up to a home-grown talent.

I think you’ll find the accompanying review satisfactory, though I did have a few cavils. No one takes seriously a review that is unreservedly laudatory, and in any case I personally believe the best review is one that is … and honest. That way the reader has the impression the reviewer has no bone to pick or back to scratch and is more likely to take the reviewer at his …

Your hero is great. Reminds me of that Gilgamesh character in the goyish epic that’s been rattling around this part of the world since way back when. Ditto for his Trojan counterpart, the “Trainer of Horses” (great epithet, but what’s a “horse?”). Great battle scenes. Great psychology. Fantastic use of dactylic … [probably] hexameter–why can’t Semites write in that meter?

But I do have a problem with your polytheism, my friend. Athena. Zeus. Hera. Aphrodite. And dozens more. I couldn’t keep them all straight. Why not just combine them into one all-powerful deity like our YHWH? Saves so much time and …

There’s a lot of smiting in your book. That’s good. My YHWH smites a good deal too. But your gods and heroes finish off the men okay but sell the women and … [children?] into slavery. Now, slavery is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But you know some of those women and children are going to end up having kids by their masters, which means you’re literally going to bed with the enemy and helping him to …  It’s not done that way in my part of the world. Over here everybody smites everything that moves, including farm animals.  We do it. Our enemies do it. It makes sense.

Okay, that’s enough for now. As I said in my review, you’ve got a hell of a book there, H. I wouldn’t mind seeing my own … on it (not really, they’d drum me even further out of Israel than I am already; hence my use of a pseudonym for my review). I wish I could be there to hear your scribe proclaim it in the market place. Mazel tov! as we say.

P.S. I’m taking this opportunity to send you a … of my own little opus, an account of the tribes of Jacob from the creation of the world up to the time when they were delivered from bondage in Egypt and entered the Promised Land (not by me, as it turned out). Part history, part something else. If you don’t find it too much of a bore, I’d be very grateful for any … words you can find to say about it. I’ve decided this is my last attempt at a literary career. If they don’t like this book (five “books,” actually; is that too much?) it’s back to my brick factory and Israel can kiss my you-know-what.

Homer the Poet to his dear friend and colleague MSS of Israel.

Many thanks, old man, for your review. The book is doing nicely, though, as I expected, it’s being pirated and sold to guys from the mainland who memorize it and make a nice piece of change declaiming it to the bumpkins up in the hills, while I get squat for my …

I love your “Torah.” It’s got all the elements of a great piece of …  An angry — I mean, really angry — deity, heroes, great female characters and a narrative that doesn’t stop holding your interest. I definitely think Genesis and Exodus are the best of it. In fact, you could devote a book of its own to each of the characters you just sketch out  in Genesis. But maybe I’m just expressing my prejudice as a Greek for … We can spin out hundreds of lines about a minor … that you would scarcely mention. But, like they say, that’s what makes the world go round (I hear it actually does go round; who knew?).

Okay. But I have a few negatives (not in my review either, of course). What’s with this circumcision thing? I thought at first, I must be reading it wrong (like you, I have to depend on my scribe’s … as a translator). But it comes up again and again. Sorry, but that would never fly over here. In fact, I’d advise you drop it from any future books. The Red Sea thing I was fine with. The plague of frogs, the sticks turning into snakes. That’s all very portable. But you’d be run out of town if you tried to make a case for cutting someone’s … I don’t even want to think about it.

I have some problems with the pork thing too (have you ever tasted roast boar?) Ditto with the garments made of two … fibers (we should be so lucky). The stoning thing also not so nice, but I could live with it. But the anti-homosexual thing is also a no-no in these parts. We like our boys. You’d be laughed out of town for that one. Better than being stoned, I guess.

But none of these issues are in … , of course. Anyway, I hope your Torah flies. You’re a hell of a writer, MSS. If they don’t like it, you should consider thumbing your nose at the bastards and come up here to live. We know how to show a guy like you a good time. You could even help me with the new book I’ve started about one of the heroes from the Trojan war who gets lost on his way home and has all sorts of adventures with witches and monsters and Zeus knows what else. We could have a blast.

Keep in touch. My best to the wife and kids.

Habemus Papam, or Be Careful What You Ask For

I thought the following excerpt from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov might be interesting to revisit the day after the election of a new pope in Rome.  If nothing else, “The Grand Inquisitor” is a masterpiece of Western literature and is even published separately from the rest of the novel. It certainly expresses the enmity felt by Russian Orthodoxy toward Roman Catholicism (it was only when I read Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba that I realized how keen that enmity is). But there’s more to it than diatribe. I leave it to you to decide how much more and what it’s value, beyond great literature, may be.

Note: I abbreviated the narrator’s (Ivan Karamazov’s) introduction to the tale, a brief history of Russian religious morality writings. The narrative itself is presented as a long poem that Ivan has an idea for some day writing. He’s relating it to his rather saintly younger brother Alyosha.

The translation is by Constance Garnett. The entire novel is available for free at the Gutenberg Project.

Chapter V. The Grand Inquisitor

“Even this must have a preface—that is, a literary preface,” laughed Ivan, “and I am a poor hand at making one. You see, my action takes place in the sixteenth century, and at that time, as you probably learnt at school, it was customary in poetry to bring down heavenly powers on earth….

“He [Jesus] comes on the scene in my poem, but He says nothing, only appears and passes on. Fifteen centuries have passed since He promised to come in His glory, fifteen centuries since His prophet wrote, ‘Behold, I come quickly’; ‘Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, neither the Son, but the Father,’ as DostoevskyHe Himself predicted on earth. But humanity awaits him with the same faith and with the same love. Oh, with greater faith, for it is fifteen centuries since man has ceased to see signs from heaven.

“And behold, He deigned to appear for a moment to the people, to the tortured, suffering people, sunk in iniquity, but loving Him like children. My story is laid in Spain, in Seville, in the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when fires were lighted every day to the glory of God, and ‘in the splendid auto da fé the wicked heretics were burnt.’ Oh, of course, this was not the coming in which He will appear according to His promise at the end of time in all His heavenly glory, and which will be sudden ‘as lightning flashing from east to west.’ No, He visited His children only for a moment, and there where the flames were crackling round the heretics. In His infinite mercy He came once more among men in that human shape in which He walked among men for three years fifteen centuries ago. He came down to the ‘hot pavements’ of the southern town in which on the day before almost a hundred heretics had, ad majorem gloriam Dei, been burnt by the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, in a magnificent auto da fé, in the presence of the king, the court, the knights, the cardinals, the most charming ladies of the court, and the whole population of Seville.

“He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. That might be one of the best passages in the poem. I mean, why they recognized Him. The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments. An old man in the crowd, blind from childhood, cries out, ‘O Lord, heal me and I shall see Thee!’ and, as it were, scales fall from his eyes and the blind man sees Him. The crowd weeps and kisses the earth under His feet. Children throw flowers before Him, sing, and cry hosannah. ‘It is He—it is He!’ all repeat. ‘It must be He, it can be no one but Him!’ He stops at the steps of the Seville cathedral at the moment when the weeping mourners are bringing in a little open white coffin. In it lies a child of seven, the only daughter of a prominent citizen. The dead child lies hidden in flowers. ‘He will raise your child,’ the crowd shouts to the weeping mother. The priest, coming to meet the coffin, looks perplexed, and frowns, but the mother of the dead child throws herself at His feet with a wail. ‘If it is Thou, raise my child!’ she cries, holding out her hands to Him. The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at His feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips once more softly pronounce, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and the maiden arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.

“There are cries, sobs, confusion among the people, and at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal’s robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the Roman Church—at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk’s cassock. At a distance behind him come his gloomy assistants and slaves and the ‘holy guard.’ He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at His feet, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick gray brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead Him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on. The guards lead their prisoner to the close, gloomy vaulted prison in the ancient palace of the Holy Inquisition and shut Him in it. The day passes and is followed by the dark, burning, ‘breathless’ night of Seville. The air is ‘fragrant with laurel and lemon.’ In the pitch darkness the iron door of the prison is suddenly opened and the Grand Inquisitor himself comes in with a light in his hand. He is alone; the door is closed at once behind him. He stands in the doorway and for a minute or two gazes into His face. At last he goes up slowly, sets the light on the table and speaks.

“ ‘Is it Thou? Thou?’ but receiving no answer, he adds at once, ‘Don’t answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us? For Thou hast come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that. But dost Thou know what will be to-morrow? I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but to-morrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have to-day kissed Thy feet, to-morrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire. Knowest Thou that? Yes, maybe Thou knowest it,’ he added with thoughtful penetration, never for a moment taking his eyes off the Prisoner.”

“I don’t quite understand, Ivan. What does it mean?” Alyosha, who had been listening in silence, said with a smile. “Is it simply a wild fantasy, or a mistake on the part of the old man—some impossible quiproquo?”

“Take it as the last,” said Ivan, laughing, “if you are so corrupted by modern realism and can’t stand anything fantastic. If you like it to be a case of mistaken identity, let it be so. It is true,” he went on, laughing, “the old man was ninety, and he might well be crazy over his set idea. He might have been struck by the appearance of the Prisoner. It might, in fact, be simply his ravings, the delusion of an old man of ninety, over-excited by the auto da fé of a hundred heretics the day before. But does it matter to us after all whether it was a mistake of identity or a wild fantasy? All that matters is that the old man should speak out, should speak openly of what he has thought in silence for ninety years.”

“And the Prisoner too is silent? Does He look at him and not say a word?”

“That’s inevitable in any case,” Ivan laughed again. “The old man has told Him He hasn’t the right to add anything to what He has said of old. One may say it is the most fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism, in my opinion at least. ‘All has been given by Thee to the Pope,’ they say, ‘and all, therefore, is still in the Pope’s hands, and there is no need for Thee to come now at all. Thou must not meddle for the time, at least.’ That’s how they speak and write too—the Jesuits, at any rate. I have read it myself in the works of their theologians. ‘Hast Thou the right to reveal to us one of the mysteries of that world from which Thou hast come?’ my old man asks Him, and answers the question for Him. ‘No, Thou hast not; that Thou mayest not add to what has been said of old, and mayest not take from men the freedom which Thou didst exalt when Thou wast on earth. Whatsoever Thou revealest anew will encroach on men’s freedom of faith; for it will be manifest as a miracle, and the freedom of their faith was dearer to Thee than anything in those days fifteen hundred years ago. Didst Thou not often say then, “I will make you free”? But now Thou hast seen these “free” men,’ the old man adds suddenly, with a pensive smile. ‘Yes, we’ve paid dearly for it,’ he goes on, looking sternly at Him, ‘but at last we have completed that work in Thy name. For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. Dost Thou not believe that it’s over for good? Thou lookest meekly at me and deignest not even to be wroth with me. But let me tell Thee that now, to-day, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst? Was this Thy freedom?’ ”

“I don’t understand again,” Alyosha broke in. “Is he ironical, is he jesting?”

“Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy. ‘For now’ (he is speaking of the Inquisition, of course) ‘for the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men. Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? Thou wast warned,’ he says to Him. ‘Thou hast had no lack of admonitions and warnings, but Thou didst not listen to those warnings; Thou didst reject the only way by which men might be made happy. But, fortunately, departing Thou didst hand on the work to us. Thou hast promised, Thou hast established by Thy word, Thou hast given to us the right to bind and to unbind, and now, of course, Thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast Thou come to hinder us?’ ”

“And what’s the meaning of ‘no lack of admonitions and warnings’?” asked Alyosha.

“Why, that’s the chief part of what the old man must say.

“ ‘The wise and dread spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence,’ the old man goes on, ‘the great spirit talked with Thee in the wilderness, and we are told in the books that he “tempted” Thee. Is that so? And could anything truer be said than what he revealed to Thee in three questions and what Thou didst reject, and what in the books is called “the temptation”? And yet if there has ever been on earth a real stupendous miracle, it took place on that day, on the day of the three temptations. The statement of those three questions was itself the miracle. If it were possible to imagine simply for the sake of argument that those three questions of the dread spirit had perished utterly from the books, and that we had to restore them and to invent them anew, and to do so had gathered together all the wise men of the earth—rulers, chief priests, learned men, philosophers, poets—and had set them the task to invent three questions, such as would not only fit the occasion, but express in three words, three human phrases, the whole future history of the world and of humanity—dost Thou believe that all the wisdom of the earth united could have invented anything in depth and force equal to the three questions which were actually put to Thee then by the wise and mighty spirit in the wilderness? From those questions alone, from the miracle of their statement, we can see that we have here to do not with the fleeting human intelligence, but with the absolute and eternal. For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together into one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature. At the time it could not be so clear, since the future was unknown; but now that fifteen hundred years have passed, we see that everything in those three questions was so justly divined and foretold, and has been so truly fulfilled, that nothing can be added to them or taken from them.

“ ‘Judge Thyself who was right—Thou or he who questioned Thee then? Remember the first question; its meaning, in other words, was this: “Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread—for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.” But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth, if obedience is bought with bread? Thou didst reply that man lives not by bread alone. But dost Thou know that for the sake of that earthly bread the spirit of the earth will rise up against Thee and will strive with Thee and overcome Thee, and all will follow him, crying, “Who can compare with this beast? He has given us fire from heaven!” Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!” that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee, and with which they will destroy Thy temple. Where Thy temple stood will rise a new building; the terrible tower of Babel will be built again, and though, like the one of old, it will not be finished, yet Thou mightest have prevented that new tower and have cut short the sufferings of men for a thousand years; for they will come back to us after a thousand years of agony with their tower. They will seek us again, hidden underground in the catacombs, for we shall be again persecuted and tortured. They will find us and cry to us, “Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it!” And then we shall finish building their tower, for he finishes the building who feeds them. And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Or dost Thou care only for the tens of thousands of the great and strong, while the millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love Thee, must exist only for the sake of the great and strong? No, we care for the weak too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them—so awful it will seem to them to be free. But we shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name. We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again. That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.

“ ‘This is the significance of the first question in the wilderness, and this is what Thou hast rejected for the sake of that freedom which Thou hast exalted above everything. Yet in this question lies hid the great secret of this world. Choosing “bread,” Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity—to find some one to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find some one to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword. They have set up gods and challenged one another, “Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!” And so it will be to the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same. Thou didst know, Thou couldst not but have known, this fundamental secret of human nature, but Thou didst reject the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone—the banner of earthly bread; and Thou hast rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of Heaven. Behold what Thou didst further. And all again in the name of freedom! I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find some one quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born. But only one who can appease their conscience can take over their freedom. In bread there was offered Thee an invincible banner; give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread. But if some one else gains possession of his conscience—oh! then he will cast away Thy bread and follow after him who has ensnared his conscience. In that Thou wast right. For the secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance. That is true. But what happened? Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all—Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.

“ ‘So that, in truth, Thou didst Thyself lay the foundation for the destruction of Thy kingdom, and no one is more to blame for it. Yet what was offered Thee? There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness—those forces are miracle, mystery and authority. Thou hast rejected all three and hast set the example for doing so. When the wise and dread spirit set Thee on the pinnacle of the temple and said to Thee, “If Thou wouldst know whether Thou art the Son of God then cast Thyself down, for it is written: the angels shall hold him up lest he fall and bruise himself, and Thou shalt know then whether Thou art the Son of God and shalt prove then how great is Thy faith in Thy Father.” But Thou didst refuse and wouldst not cast Thyself down. Oh, of course, Thou didst proudly and well, like God; but the weak, unruly race of men, are they gods? Oh, Thou didst know then that in taking one step, in making one movement to cast Thyself down, Thou wouldst be tempting God and have lost all Thy faith in Him, and wouldst have been dashed to pieces against that earth which Thou didst come to save. And the wise spirit that tempted Thee would have rejoiced. But I ask again, are there many like Thee? And couldst Thou believe for one moment that men, too, could face such a temptation? Is the nature of men such, that they can reject miracle, and at the great moments of their life, the moments of their deepest, most agonizing spiritual difficulties, cling only to the free verdict of the heart? Oh, Thou didst know that Thy deed would be recorded in books, would be handed down to remote times and the utmost ends of the earth, and Thou didst hope that man, following Thee, would cling to God and not ask for a miracle. But Thou didst not know that when man rejects miracle he rejects God too; for man seeks not so much God as the miraculous. And as man cannot bear to be without the miraculous, he will create new miracles of his own for himself, and will worship deeds of sorcery and witchcraft, though he might be a hundred times over a rebel, heretic and infidel. Thou didst not come down from the Cross when they shouted to Thee, mocking and reviling Thee, “Come down from the cross and we will believe that Thou art He.” Thou didst not come down, for again Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle. Thou didst crave for free love and not the base raptures of the slave before the might that has overawed him for ever. But Thou didst think too highly of men therein, for they are slaves, of course, though rebellious by nature. Look round and judge; fifteen centuries have passed, look upon them. Whom hast Thou raised up to Thyself? I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou hast believed him! Can he, can he do what Thou didst? By showing him so much respect, Thou didst, as it were, cease to feel for him, for Thou didst ask far too much from him—Thou who hast loved him more than Thyself! Respecting him less, Thou wouldst have asked less of him. That would have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter. He is weak and vile. What though he is everywhere now rebelling against our power, and proud of his rebellion? It is the pride of a child and a schoolboy. They are little children rioting and barring out the teacher at school. But their childish delight will end; it will cost them dear. They will cast down temples and drench the earth with blood. But they will see at last, the foolish children, that, though they are rebels, they are impotent rebels, unable to keep up their own rebellion. Bathed in their foolish tears, they will recognize at last that He who created them rebels must have meant to mock at them. They will say this in despair, and their utterance will be a blasphemy which will make them more unhappy still, for man’s nature cannot bear blasphemy, and in the end always avenges it on itself. And so unrest, confusion and unhappiness—that is the present lot of man after Thou didst bear so much for their freedom! The great prophet tells in vision and in image, that he saw all those who took part in the first resurrection and that there were of each tribe twelve thousand. But if there were so many of them, they must have been not men but gods. They had borne Thy cross, they had endured scores of years in the barren, hungry wilderness, living upon locusts and roots—and Thou mayest indeed point with pride at those children of freedom, of free love, of free and splendid sacrifice for Thy name. But remember that they were only some thousands; and what of the rest? And how are the other weak ones to blame, because they could not endure what the strong have endured? How is the weak soul to blame that it is unable to receive such terrible gifts? Canst Thou have simply come to the elect and for the elect? But if so, it is a mystery and we cannot understand it. And if it is a mystery, we too have a right to preach a mystery, and to teach them that it’s not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience. So we have done. We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts. Were we right teaching them this? Speak! Did we not love mankind, so meekly acknowledging their feebleness, lovingly lightening their burden, and permitting their weak nature even sin with our sanction? Why hast Thou come now to hinder us? And why dost Thou look silently and searchingly at me with Thy mild eyes? Be angry. I don’t want Thy love, for I love Thee not. And what use is it for me to hide anything from Thee? Don’t I know to Whom I am speaking? All that I can say is known to Thee already. And is it for me to conceal from Thee our mystery? Perhaps it is Thy will to hear it from my lips. Listen, then. We are not working with Thee, but with him—that is our mystery. It’s long—eight centuries—since we have been on his side and not on Thine. Just eight centuries ago, we took from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Cæsar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, though hitherto we have not been able to complete our work. But whose fault is that? Oh, the work is only beginning, but it has begun. It has long to await completion and the earth has yet much to suffer, but we shall triumph and shall be Cæsars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man. But Thou mightest have taken even then the sword of Cæsar. Why didst Thou reject that last gift? Hadst Thou accepted that last counsel of the mighty spirit, Thou wouldst have accomplished all that man seeks on earth—that is, some one to worship, some one to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap, for the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men. Mankind as a whole has always striven to organize a universal state. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the more highly they were developed the more unhappy they were, for they felt more acutely than other people the craving for world-wide union. The great conquerors, Timours and Ghenghis-Khans, whirled like hurricanes over the face of the earth striving to subdue its people, and they too were but the unconscious expression of the same craving for universal unity. Hadst Thou taken the world and Cæsar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Cæsar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him. Oh, ages are yet to come of the confusion of free thought, of their science and cannibalism. For having begun to build their tower of Babel without us, they will end, of course, with cannibalism. But then the beast will crawl to us and lick our feet and spatter them with tears of blood. And we shall sit upon the beast and raise the cup, and on it will be written, “Mystery.” But then, and only then, the reign of peace and happiness will come for men. Thou art proud of Thine elect, but Thou hast only the elect, while we give rest to all. And besides, how many of those elect, those mighty ones who could become elect, have grown weary waiting for Thee, and have transferred and will transfer the powers of their spirit and the warmth of their heart to the other camp, and end by raising their free banner against Thee. Thou didst Thyself lift up that banner. But with us all will be happy and will no more rebel nor destroy one another as under Thy freedom. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us. And shall we be right or shall we be lying? They will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember the horrors of slavery and confusion to which Thy freedom brought them. Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!”

“ ‘Receiving bread from us, they will see clearly that we take the bread made by their hands from them, to give it to them, without any miracle. They will see that we do not change the stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it from our hands than for the bread itself! For they will remember only too well that in old days, without our help, even the bread they made turned to stones in their hands, while since they have come back to us, the very stones have turned to bread in their hands. Too, too well will they know the value of complete submission! And until men know that, they will be unhappy. Who is most to blame for their not knowing it?—speak! Who scattered the flock and sent it astray on unknown paths? But the flock will come together again and will submit once more, and then it will be once for all. Then we shall give them the quiet humble happiness of weak creatures such as they are by nature. Oh, we shall persuade them at last not to be proud, for Thou didst lift them up and thereby taught them to be proud. We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all. They will become timid and will look to us and huddle close to us in fear, as chicks to the hen. They will marvel at us and will be awe-stricken before us, and will be proud at our being so powerful and clever, that we have been able to subdue such a turbulent flock of thousands of millions. They will tremble impotently before our wrath, their minds will grow fearful, they will be quick to shed tears like women and children, but they will be just as ready at a sign from us to pass to laughter and rejoicing, to happy mirth and childish song. Yes, we shall set them to work, but in their leisure hours we shall make their life like a child’s game, with children’s songs and innocent dance. Oh, we shall allow them even sin, they are weak and helpless, and they will love us like children because we allow them to sin. We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated, if it is done with our permission, that we allow them to sin because we love them, and the punishment for these sins we take upon ourselves. And we shall take it upon ourselves, and they will adore us as their saviors who have taken on themselves their sins before God. And they will have no secrets from us. We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children—according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient—and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity. Though if there were anything in the other world, it certainly would not be for such as they. It is prophesied that Thou wilt come again in victory, Thou wilt come with Thy chosen, the proud and strong, but we will say that they have only saved themselves, but we have saved all. We are told that the harlot who sits upon the beast, and holds in her hands the mystery, shall be put to shame, that the weak will rise up again, and will rend her royal purple and will strip naked her loathsome body. But then I will stand up and point out to Thee the thousand millions of happy children who have known no sin. And we who have taken their sins upon us for their happiness will stand up before Thee and say: “Judge us if Thou canst and darest.” Know that I fear Thee not. Know that I too have been in the wilderness, I too have lived on roots and locusts, I too prized the freedom with which Thou hast blessed men, and I too was striving to stand among Thy elect, among the strong and powerful, thirsting “to make up the number.” But I awakened and would not serve madness. I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work. I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble. What I say to Thee will come to pass, and our dominion will be built up. I repeat, to-morrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if any one has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. To-morrow I shall burn Thee. Dixi.’ ”

Ivan stopped. He was carried away as he talked, and spoke with excitement; when he had finished, he suddenly smiled.

Alyosha had listened in silence; towards the end he was greatly moved and seemed several times on the point of interrupting, but restrained himself. Now his words came with a rush.

“But … that’s absurd!” he cried, flushing. “Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of Him—as you meant it to be. And who will believe you about freedom? Is that the way to understand it? That’s not the idea of it in the Orthodox Church…. That’s Rome, and not even the whole of Rome, it’s false—those are the worst of the Catholics, the Inquisitors, the Jesuits!… And there could not be such a fantastic creature as your Inquisitor. What are these sins of mankind they take on themselves? Who are these keepers of the mystery who have taken some curse upon themselves for the happiness of mankind? When have they been seen? We know the Jesuits, they are spoken ill of, but surely they are not what you describe? They are not that at all, not at all…. They are simply the Romish army for the earthly sovereignty of the world in the future, with the Pontiff of Rome for Emperor … that’s their ideal, but there’s no sort of mystery or lofty melancholy about it…. It’s simple lust of power, of filthy earthly gain, of domination—something like a universal serfdom with them as masters—that’s all they stand for. They don’t even believe in God perhaps. Your suffering Inquisitor is a mere fantasy.”

“Stay, stay,” laughed Ivan, “how hot you are! A fantasy you say, let it be so! Of course it’s a fantasy. But allow me to say: do you really think that the Roman Catholic movement of the last centuries is actually nothing but the lust of power, of filthy earthly gain? Is that Father Païssy’s teaching?”

“No, no, on the contrary, Father Païssy did once say something rather the same as you … but of course it’s not the same, not a bit the same,” Alyosha hastily corrected himself.

“A precious admission, in spite of your ‘not a bit the same.’ I ask you why your Jesuits and Inquisitors have united simply for vile material gain? Why can there not be among them one martyr oppressed by great sorrow and loving humanity? You see, only suppose that there was one such man among all those who desire nothing but filthy material gain—if there’s only one like my old Inquisitor, who had himself eaten roots in the desert and made frenzied efforts to subdue his flesh to make himself free and perfect. But yet all his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it is no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery, that they will never be capable of using their freedom, that these poor rebels can never turn into giants to complete the tower, that it was not for such geese that the great idealist dreamt his dream of harmony. Seeing all that he turned back and joined—the clever people. Surely that could have happened?”

“Joined whom, what clever people?” cried Alyosha, completely carried away. “They have no such great cleverness and no mysteries and secrets…. Perhaps nothing but Atheism, that’s all their secret. Your Inquisitor does not believe in God, that’s his secret!”

“What if it is so! At last you have guessed it. It’s perfectly true, it’s true that that’s the whole secret, but isn’t that suffering, at least for a man like that, who has wasted his whole life in the desert and yet could not shake off his incurable love of humanity? In his old age he reached the clear conviction that nothing but the advice of the great dread spirit could build up any tolerable sort of life for the feeble, unruly, ‘incomplete, empirical creatures created in jest.’ And so, convinced of this, he sees that he must follow the counsel of the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction, and yet deceive them all the way so that they may not notice where they are being led, that the poor blind creatures may at least on the way think themselves happy. And note, the deception is in the name of Him in Whose ideal the old man had so fervently believed all his life long. Is not that tragic? And if only one such stood at the head of the whole army ‘filled with the lust of power only for the sake of filthy gain’—would not one such be enough to make a tragedy? More than that, one such standing at the head is enough to create the actual leading idea of the Roman Church with all its armies and Jesuits, its highest idea. I tell you frankly that I firmly believe that there has always been such a man among those who stood at the head of the movement. Who knows, there may have been some such even among the Roman Popes. Who knows, perhaps the spirit of that accursed old man who loves mankind so obstinately in his own way, is to be found even now in a whole multitude of such old men, existing not by chance but by agreement, as a secret league formed long ago for the guarding of the mystery, to guard it from the weak and the unhappy, so as to make them happy. No doubt it is so, and so it must be indeed. I fancy that even among the Masons there’s something of the same mystery at the bottom, and that that’s why the Catholics so detest the Masons as their rivals breaking up the unity of the idea, while it is so essential that there should be one flock and one shepherd…. But from the way I defend my idea I might be an author impatient of your criticism. Enough of it.”

“You are perhaps a Mason yourself!” broke suddenly from Alyosha. “You don’t believe in God,” he added, speaking this time very sorrowfully. He fancied besides that his brother was looking at him ironically. “How does your poem end?” he asked, suddenly looking down. “Or was it the end?”

“I meant to end it like this. When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all His answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more … come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”

“And the old man?”

“The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”

“And you with him, you too?” cried Alyosha, mournfully.

Ivan laughed.

“Why, it’s all nonsense, Alyosha. It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student, who could never write two lines of verse. Why do you take it so seriously? Surely you don’t suppose I am going straight off to the Jesuits, to join the men who are correcting His work? Good Lord, it’s no business of mine. I told you, all I want is to live on to thirty, and then … dash the cup to the ground!”

“But the little sticky leaves, and the precious tombs, and the blue sky, and the woman you love! How will you live, how will you love them?” Alyosha cried sorrowfully. “With such a hell in your heart and your head, how can you? No, that’s just what you are going away for, to join them … if not, you will kill yourself, you can’t endure it!”

“There is a strength to endure everything,” Ivan said with a cold smile.

“What strength?”

“The strength of the Karamazovs—the strength of the Karamazov baseness.”

“To sink into debauchery, to stifle your soul with corruption, yes?”

“Possibly even that … only perhaps till I am thirty I shall escape it, and then—”

“How will you escape it? By what will you escape it? That’s impossible with your ideas.”

“In the Karamazov way, again.”

“ ‘Everything is lawful,’ you mean? Everything is lawful, is that it?”

Ivan scowled, and all at once turned strangely pale.

“Ah, you’ve caught up yesterday’s phrase, which so offended Miüsov—and which Dmitri pounced upon so naïvely, and paraphrased!” he smiled queerly. “Yes, if you like, ‘everything is lawful’ since the word has been said. I won’t deny it. And Mitya’s version isn’t bad.”

Alyosha looked at him in silence.

“I thought that going away from here I have you at least,” Ivan said suddenly, with unexpected feeling; “but now I see that there is no place for me even in your heart, my dear hermit. The formula, ‘all is lawful,’ I won’t renounce—will you renounce me for that, yes?”

Alyosha got up, went to him and softly kissed him on the lips.

“That’s plagiarism,” cried Ivan, highly delighted. “You stole that from my poem. Thank you though. Get up, Alyosha, it’s time we were going, both of us.”

They went out, but stopped when they reached the entrance of the restaurant.

“Listen, Alyosha,” Ivan began in a resolute voice, “if I am really able to care for the sticky little leaves I shall only love them, remembering you. It’s enough for me that you are somewhere here, and I shan’t lose my desire for life yet. Is that enough for you? Take it as a declaration of love if you like. And now you go to the right and I to the left. And it’s enough, do you hear, enough. I mean even if I don’t go away to-morrow (I think I certainly shall go) and we meet again, don’t say a word more on these subjects. I beg that particularly. And about Dmitri too, I ask you specially, never speak to me again,” he added, with sudden irritation; “it’s all exhausted, it has all been said over and over again, hasn’t it? And I’ll make you one promise in return for it. When at thirty, I want to ‘dash the cup to the ground,’ wherever I may be I’ll come to have one more talk with you, even though it were from America, you may be sure of that. I’ll come on purpose. It will be very interesting to have a look at you, to see what you’ll be by that time. It’s rather a solemn promise, you see. And we really may be parting for seven years or ten. Come, go now to your Pater Seraphicus, he is dying. If he dies without you, you will be angry with me for having kept you. Good-by, kiss me once more; that’s right, now go.”

Ivan turned suddenly and went his way without looking back. It was just as Dmitri had left Alyosha the day before, though the parting had been very different. The strange resemblance flashed like an arrow through Alyosha’s mind in the distress and dejection of that moment. He waited a little, looking after his brother. He suddenly noticed that Ivan swayed as he walked and that his right shoulder looked lower than his left. He had never noticed it before. But all at once he turned too, and almost ran to the monastery. It was nearly dark, and he felt almost frightened; something new was growing up in him for which he could not account. The wind had risen again as on the previous evening, and the ancient pines murmured gloomily about him when he entered the hermitage copse. He almost ran. “Pater Seraphicus—he got that name from somewhere—where from?” Alyosha wondered. “Ivan, poor Ivan, and when shall I see you again?… Here is the hermitage. Yes, yes, that he is, Pater Seraphicus, he will save me—from him and for ever!”

Several times afterwards he wondered how he could on leaving Ivan so completely forget his brother Dmitri, though he had that morning, only a few hours before, so firmly resolved to find him and not to give up doing so, even should he be unable to return to the monastery that night.

October Song

My new novel, Song of the Mockingbird, is now available as an ebook at Soon it will also be available for Nook and at Smashwords for all other platforms. It will be out in paperback via my publisher Savvy Press early next year.

You can read the first three chapters here.

From the “dust jacket”:

“SONG OF THE MOCKINGBIRD is the story of a mature woman’s self-discovery. Five years widowed but still bound to the man to whom she was married for thirty years, Doris gradually comes to discover her life not only is not over but is just beginning in a way she had never imagined possible. In the process, she also discovers a good deal about her marriage that contradicts the ideal image of it she has nurtured all her adult life.

Meanwhile, her daughter’s own marriage is breaking up. After her father’s death Evelyn willingly took over his role as her mother’s guardian. Strong-willed by nature, she is nevertheless at a loss when she is no longer able to control her husband’s will. Alone with a small child, she comes to discover that the mother she has treated almost as a second child is a source of strength where she had least expected one.

Doris’s odyssey includes close friendships with two women who despise each other, a love affair which awakens her to a sense of her own sexuality she had never thought possible, and a new relationship with the daughter she has previously seen as merely a female clone of her late husband.”

This is one of my longer (78,000 words) novels. Usually I write that many words and then cut about 20,000. This time, even after the edit,  the book is still hefty by my standards. That’s partly because I follow two story lines instead of one–the mother’s as well as the daughter’s–intimately connected, as you can see from the synopsis, but each treated fully as its own narrative. I typically don’t concentrate on more than one main character, but this time the material and my state of mind (on which I’ll elaborate shortly) were such that I felt like taking a shot at a more traditional novel form. It doesn’t quite match the four or five plot lines of a Dickens or Trollope, but following two characters in detail rather than one meant for me keeping a couple more balls up in the air than I typically do.

Now, to my state of mind while writing this book…

I think of this book as my “second symphony,” not because it was the second novel I wrote–I had written several before it–but because I wrote it in the kind of mood that I hear in Brahms’s second symphony and Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto.

Brahms labored long and hard on his first symphony, always hearing Beethoven’s 9th thundering behind him. When that first symphony, a great masterpiece in its own right, was finally out of the way, he seemed to revel in the sheer joy of creative freedom evident in his second. It seems to sing for the pure pleasure of singing. It’s as if it was written while the composer was on a well-deserved vacation, which he may well have been.

I hear a similar delight in Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto, the one so rarely performed, though his first is a war-horse of every symphonic orchestra, or used to be. In this case it’s not so much a question of Tchaikovsky’s getting out from under the deep shadow of the greatness that preceded him as his finally finding full confidence in his own massive talent and allowing himself to enjoy it.

I remember writing some chapters of Song of the Mockingbird in Prospect Park seated at one of the deserted picnic benches near the children’s playground. It was autumn, this time of year, chilly but sunny and pleasant to be out of doors. I too was in a relaxed, happy frame of mind, as sure of my story-telling abilities as I am ever likely to be and delighting in the pure pleasure of recording each new line of narrative or dialogue in longhand on yellow legal-size paper. Something must have happened to give me that wonderful mental freedom and creative confidence–it may have been the period when I had an agent enthusiastically shopping around the novel I had completed before this one. I don’t really recall. What I do remember is the sense of working at the very top of my abilities and enjoying every minute of it.

Which is not to say this book is the best thing I have written, or to make any judgment of what I did or did not achieve with it. I can’t make that call, and  in any case authors always think their last book, in my case My Bess (which also has a middle-aged woman as the main character, come to think of it), though my readers seem to prefer Look at Me Now, if sales are any indication. After a book is done, the author is just another reader, after all. What’s special to me about Song of the Mockingbird, though (all an author’s works are special to her/him in some sense, just as, to restate the cliche, each child is special to a parent), is that sense I had for the first time of being up to the challenge of writing a “real,” i.e. old-fashioned, multi-plot narrative like the Big Boys and Girls did back when the novel was the world’s greatest and most popular art form. That and the way the writing flowed as easily as the pencil did across the lined yellow paper as autumn leaves fluttered to the ground around me.