«SUFFERING, VICTIMS, AND POETIC INSPIRATION Raymund Schwager University of Innsbruck Poetic inspiration has something to do with the divine. The Greek ...»
SUFFERING, VICTIMS, AND
University of Innsbruck
Poetic inspiration has something to do with the divine. The Greek
tragedies are classic examples of that. The poets regarded themselves as
inspired by the divine Muses, and in their works the gods are quite naturally
present in the lives of human beings. Sometimes the gods treat them in a
friendly way, sometimes they spur on conflicts or even inspire human beings to take revenge upon one another. At the end of some tragedies the gods appear as a deus ex machina who brings everything to resolution, or at least pretends to do so. Nevertheless, it is not these various gods, but rather human beings themselves, suffering human beings more precisely, who are at the center of this dramatic event inspired by the divine Muses. Human beings suffer because they come into conflict with each other and fall victim to the vengeful and violent acts of others.
In the Greek tragedies human beings do not act in a calm and sensible way. Rather, they are in bondage to their passions, and through these passions the gods speak to them. While performing a sacrifice of purification and thanksgiving, Heracles flies into a rage inspired by several of the goddesses and slaughters his own children. In a Dionysian frenzy Agaue and her companions tear apart her own son. Orestes, believing himself to be obeying a command of Apollo, kills his mother, who had committed adultery and murdered her own husband. And above all, the great, genocidal war of Troy did not so much originate in the longing of Paris for Helen, as in a dispute between the gods. In every respect human beings seem to be more the victims of the gods than themselves wicked persons who commit evil deeds—and they are above all the ones who suffer the most. Helen, the "cause" of the massive slaughter of the Trojan war, is exclusively depicted by Euripides in the role of one who suffers greatly, indeed even beyond the bounds of human endurance. Even Medea, who goes so far as to kill her own children, is not 64 Raymund Schwager depicted by the same poet as a moral monster, but as a woman overwhelmed by boundless grief.
The gods thus appear in a somewhat murky light: they are indispensable to the poets' purpose yet at the same time severely criticized. For Euripides they are often much worse than human beings. In his Heracles, he goes so far in his irony as to depict the goddess of vengeance herself criticizing Hera, who makes Heracles suffer in order to quench her thirst for revenge which was caused by the unfaithfulness of her husband Zeus. Euripides considers all these stories of gods to be humanly-contrived fables. Nevertheless, he also believes that there can be no drama without the gods. How could the mysterious depths of human passions be understood without the gods? If the poet had no one to indict except other human beings, his works would quickly become nothing but tepid moral tracts. The gods are indispensable and yet they must be criticized: the poetic inspiration in the Greek tragedies thrives on ambiguity. Suffering humanity is confronted with an incomprehensible fate which only the poet's ambiguous parables and images are able to depict.
The great suffering figures in the tragedies of Euripides find their echo in another tradition's suffering figure, whose fate is also depicted in poetic
words. A suffering figure who also both listens to and argues with his God:
Job. A misfortune has befallen Job, which he simply cannot understand. And while even his alleged friends torment him, he suffers even more from his God. Job feels persecuted by God, tormented and driven to despair. Job would like to argue with God and even take him to court. But he cannot do so. He experiences God as an invisible enemy who is present everywhere.
Nevertheless, he turns to this same God in his deepest distress and is confident of finding a savior in him. The God of Job is contradictory: this is a God on whom Job can rely but with whom he must also struggle. However, it is just this contradiction which turns his conception of God into such a fascinating symbol, a symbol vital to the poetry of Job's dialogues and debates with God. If today, even in secularized circles, the figure of Job attracts the attention of many, this may be due especially to the dramatic nature of the image of God in the Book of Job (see Steinwendtner). In the background story, which deals with a wager made between God and Satan, an attempt is indeed made to resolve the contradiction and ambiguity in God and in the fate of the person who suffers. And for this very reason the moralizing tone gains the upper hand over the book's poetic inspiration.
René Girard also attempts an interpretation of the dramatic dialogues, which tries to resolve the ambiguity in God. Does his interpretation, as a consequence, destroy poetic inspiration ? Can this inspiration still survive if making everything as unambiguous as possible is the goal? Are not the Suffering, Victims, and Poetic Inspiration experiences of those who suffer so incomprehensible that the ambiguities found in the works of poetry alone can do any justice to them?
Girard bases his interpretation not only on his own theory, he also considers the debates between Job and his enemy-friends in the light of the fate of Jesus. And as a matter of fact definite contrasts do seem to stand before us here. The God whom Jesus proclaims is a God of forgiving purified of the satanic masks, a God who lets the sun rise over the good and the wicked alike and who, full of mercy, seeks after his lost sons and daughters.
In the name of this God, Jesus prefers to be killed rather than to resort to violence himself. Light and darkness seem here to be distinguished from one another unambiguously: the light of the good God and the darkness of wicked humanity. Have then the ambiguous words of the poets given way as well to the unambiguous words of moralists and preachers?
In the Christian tradition many people have thought so. No less a person than Sören Kierkegaard speaks—in the name of God's Word which unambiguously separates marrow from bone—vehemently against painters and poets who only create images. Kierkegaard was himself a poet through and through.
He made use of roles, played roles, and wrote under ever new disguises. He gave himself a pseudonym and later the pseudonym of a pseudonym. He played many "hide-and-seek games" and even turned his whole existence into a playing of roles. As an aesthetic writer, he strived, like other writers, to please his readers. Yet he nevertheless criticized this way of writing at the same time. As soon as he became even more unambiguously a religious writer, he also gave himself a new role and intentionally provoked the ridicule of the public.1 From 1848 onwards, he wanted finally to sacrifice the aesthetic completely in favor of the religious. However, he carried out this abandonment of the aesthetic once again in a highly poetic way. He depicted the respected Christians of his time and how they in all their roles turned up their noses at a humiliated Jesus. As a person who suffered himself, Kierkegaard discovered the impossibility of directly communicating the Word of God.
Only in his last attacks on the Danish church, which he castigated as a traitor of Christ, did his language become more one-sided and polemical. But even here biting comparisons and sparkling satires occasional flash through like bolts of lightning.
See Kierkegaard, "Der Gesichtspunkt" 58-65; also, Kleine Aufsätze. When breaking off his engagement Kierkegaard gave himself a role, too: "Kierkegaard opfert sein Ansehen, indem er sich als 'Schuft' ausgibt, um Regine von jeder Schuld zu entbinden" (Tschuggnall 70).
Raymund Schwager Kierkegaard, the critic of the poets and yet himself a poet through and through, influenced many poets after him. How was he able to do so? By taking manifold roles upon himself, but without ever playing them recklessly.
Rather, he entered as deeply as possible into the suffering which these roles entailed and by doing so was thus able to enter into the depths of human existence.2 Here he discovered anew the various roles of Christ and realized that the clearness (unambiguity) in the Word of God must not be confused with the clearness to be found among moralists or those who work out philosophical systems. The clearness (unambiguity) in the Bible can only be communicated through the experience of suffering.
Therefore let us now turn our attention once again to the figure of Jesus.
The prophet from Nazareth announced a God of loving kindness and uncovered the evil which lurks as a dark volition and mysterious passion deep in the hearts of human beings. These inclinations—as the judgement discourses of the New Testament, in contrast to the Greek tragedies, show—lead one not simply to kill, but even to Hell. Therefore murder is here no longer the last dark point of reference. Murder becomes itself a parable of an even darker world and of an even deeper suffering, and allows a world which is eternally closed-in-on-itself to show through.
That an atrocious deed deserves punishment is quite amenable to the moral sensibilities of most persons. Human action, however, is always limited and from this perspective therefore can only be punished in a limited fashion.
The image of Hell depicts an eternal punishment that goes beyond all limits.
The purely moral perspective is therefore surmounted and the word "Hell" becomes the symbol of a deeper dimension of evil before which every effort to master a problem is doomed to failure.
The discourses about Judgment and Hell,³ by which Jesus wanted to shake up the leaders of Israel, were rejected and with them the messenger of the message as well. The hidden will to commit violence, which Jesus had uncovered in the hearts of human beings, struck back at Jesus who himself had to bear the consequences of his own actions and preaching. Thus Jesus This is a struggle, moreover. that we are led to realize we share with the author—or, to be more precise, with one or more of the author's personae, the masks or pseudonymous authors through whose voices Kierkegaard addresses us and in whom he images for us not only his own subjective presence but ours as well" (Webb 226).
³ In the religious tradition of Israel there was a conception of hell even before Jesus.
This hell, however, was only destined for the heathens and apostates and, therefore, did not turn into a vital problem within the religious community as it only concerned those who were "out". In contrast to that, Jesus's preaching about hell was particularly directed at the leaders of Israel, which gave rise to deep problems in the center of faith.
Suffering, Victims, and Poetic Inspiration himself fell into different, apparently contradictory roles: The messenger of God's loving kindness became the preacher of judgement, and the one announced as the coming judge was condemned and judged himself (see Schwager 43-108). Did the God proclaimed by Jesus thereby become once again ambiguous as well? Was the God of loving kindness and forgiveness ultimately nothing but one aspect of an ambiguous image of God, to which the God of judgment, violence, and Hell also belongs?4 Jesus did not react with violence in turn against the violence which threatened him. He in fact commanded a disciple, who wanted to defend him with a sword, to desist from doing so. Jesus also did not—in contrast to the prophet Jeremiah5—curse his enemies before God, but instead prayed for them. Consequently, he remained absolutely true to his message about the God of enemy-love and of nonviolence even in extreme mortal anguish. For him as the acting and praying one, God always remained unambiguous, and his Abba never became, as Girard rightly stresses, a sacred divinity in the sense of a mixture of loving kindness and vengeance, of peace and violence.
Precisely because of his nonviolence, however, Jesus did become the victim and thus fell into the role of the one who suffers. As such he was bound to experience quite personally that which Job, the psalmists, and the prophets with their contradictory God had experienced. He too was able to cry out in deepest despair: "Eloi, eloi, lema sabachtani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). He did not receive a direct reply to this anguished question.