New books — From the September 2013 issue

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At the end of a chapter on Livia, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, in Confronting the Classics (Liveright, $28.95), the Cambridge scholar Mary Beard reminds us that when Masterpiece Theatre first broadcast the BBC version of I, Claudius, in 1977, the host explained to the American audience that Augustus “reconciled the old nobility and the new republicans and merchants and middle classes to a system of government that was fundamentally republican.”

Although, according to Beard, this is “historical nonsense,” it transformed Livia’s (rumored) murder of Augustus into the sort of act that could destroy “the political foundation of the American State.” The twelve episodes of I, Claudius evoked for U.S. viewers and reviewers not the corruption of the Roman Empire but the corruption of Washington, the detrimental effects of women gaining power, and other dangers to American greatness. It didn’t matter what the real Livia had done or not done (there is evidence that she took an interest in herbal remedies and “put her longevity down to drinking wine from Friuli”): she could not evade her posthumous incarnation as a symbol of political threat. Livia’s great-grandson Caligula gave his favorite horse all the perks of nobility, building him a palace and feeding him oats mixed with flakes of gold. Suetonius and Dio Cassius, writing close to a century after Caligula’s assassination, thought this equine pampering was evidence of the young emperor’s madness, but Beard explores the idea that the absurd gesture was meant to expose the nobility as a useless and expensive incubus on the Roman state.

In her compilation of reviews of scholarly works about Ancient Greece and Rome (with a nod to Asterix), Beard repeatedly cautions that the generally accepted classical stories are often based on rumors, fragments, malicious propaganda, and wishful thinking. Again and again she points out not only the scholarly predilection for filling in blanks (about the childhood of Cleopatra, for example) but also the broader enthusiasm for putting classical works to modern uses without regard for what they may have meant to their authors or in their own time. The damage done is not only to the original texts. In her chapter about recent productions of Greek dramas, Beard asks:

What of the argument, for example, that ancient tragedy is more the problem than the solution, and that part of the reason why Western culture deals so ineffectively with the horrors of war, or the inequalities of gender, is that it cannot think through these issues outside the frame established in Athens more than two millennia ago?

Modern politicians use the same stories to support opposing agendas; Beard cites a passage from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon that Robert F. Kennedy (mis)quoted in announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Richard Nixon felt that the same passage described his own fall. But the wisdom resides in the translation, not the original — an alternative translation makes no reference to Judeo-Christian personal salvation: “so men against their will/ learn to practice moderation./ Favours come to us from gods.

David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God (Yale, $25), dismisses those classical gods and goddesses. He is robustly convinced that there is only one definition of God, and that is his own:

one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.

Hart suggests that his book may be “extremely unambitious,” but apparently he has been goaded into writing it by the “crude,” “magical,” and “infantile” theories of such atheists as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. Like many theologians, he frames his arguments quite narrowly: he has limited patience for Bible-believing fundamentalists, though he considers them “poignantly pathetic” rather than “confused” like Hawking. In fact, Hart writes unequivocally, “there simply cannot be a natural explanation of existence as such; it is an absolute logical impossibility.”

How does he know this? Hard to say, because every time he might lay out his evidence he lays out his eloquence instead (and he is eloquent). Although Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar, he enlists Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Buddhism in his argument, and labels the three prongs of his proof after the Hindu concepts of Being (Sat), Consciousness (Chit), and Bliss (Ananda). He seems to believe consciousness is his ace in the hole — unexplainable by neuroscience. Subjectivity, he states, “cannot be denied without a swift descent into nonsense.” I was reminded repeatedly of Werner Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind (reviewed in this column in January), a persuasive model of how consciousness might have evolved in the quantum universe and a powerful argument against Hart’s assertion that “materialists” cannot explain what he calls “subjective awareness.”

One virtue of Hart’s argument, especially in today’s fragmented religious world, is that he is inclusive — but inclusiveness is finally proof of very little. As Rebecca Goldstein points out in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, the “Argument from the Consensus of Humanity” (the idea that if different cultures develop similar belief systems, then those systems must be true) is flawed because

Our beliefs arise not only from well-evaluated reasoning, but from wishful thinking, self-deception, self-aggrandizement, gullibility, false memories, visual illusions, and other mental glitches.

Hart seems to think that aggression mixed with passion will persuade the reader, but his disdain is off-putting and his argument circular.

If Hart is looking for converts, he might do better to adopt the strategy of James Goodman in But Where is the Lamb? (Schocken, $25). Goodman has no theological pretensions, only a long-standing fascination with the story of Abraham and Isaac. He modernizes the tale by shamelessly and amusingly imagining the original author: “Today he would be called a ghostwriter, though he did it for love, not money . . . In the spirit of the biblical scholars, I will call him G.”

G is more of a talker than a writer, though he is an obsessive rewriter. The Old Testament is being compiled, but “there was nothing to tie it all together. The editors wanted something . . . to connect the story’s past and the story’s future.” G turns in a draft, planning to revise it, but everyone loves it. G objects to their printing it as is — “ ‘You are overanalyzing,’ they said.” The result of G’s imperfect draft going out into the world is thousands of years of rewrites: Why is Abraham silent when God gives him his task? How old is Isaac? What does Sarah think? Do Abraham’s and Isaac’s (and Sarah’s) thoughts evolve as Abraham and Isaac make their journey? Did God really intend for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or was it just a test, and if it was just a test, hadn’t God already promised no more tests?

Goodman smoothly follows the ambiguities of the story through centuries of Judaic, Christian, Islamic, and secular interpretation, each of which construes (or rewrites) the events of the story to bolster its own strand of faith. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, writing in the mid-fourth century, maintained that because Isaac wasn’t killed, he didn’t suffer — crucifixion meant Jesus (and Christianity) superseded Isaac (and Judaism). Leonard Cohen, in “Story of Isaac,” used the tale to portray the sacrifice of sons by their fathers in the Vietnam War as unholy and worthy of retribution: “When it all comes down to dust,/ I will help you if I must,/ I will kill you if I can.” Even Woody Allen gets into the game: “the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.”

Over the centuries, proliferating interpretations have shown how difficult it is to parse the moral and religious ambiguities of what is a very short story. Goodman comes to his own conclusions. At the end of his book, he reports a friend saying, “One doesn’t have to be an in-your-face atheist to dislike this story . . . Or to be alarmed by your fondness for it.” Goodman responds, “It still turns readers into writers . . . It makes us add and take away.”

The title of J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (Viking, $26.95) might lead the reader to think that this is the novelist’s most ambitious effort yet, but both the tone and the plot of this book are modest. The place is a Spanish-speaking port town, Novilla; the time is something like now; and the child is named David, not, as one might guess, Jesus. David, aged five, and Simón, who is old enough to be mistaken for David’s father or his grandfather, are refugees from an undefined other land who have been rescued from a shipwreck. The instructive letter David was carrying has been lost, so he and Simón are operating entirely on intuition. Simón intends to leave David with the child’s mother, but after he finds her (she is not convinced of her maternity, but takes the boy anyway), he discovers that he is too fond of the boy to leave them.

Life is not easy. Simón works at the harbor unloading grain from ships; David has trouble in school. Simón’s main problem in this new world is that he does not understand the inhabitants’ abjuration of romance and passion, their acceptance of mere decency as the highest good: like all utopias, Novilla is a little suspect. The authorities are kind and helpful with David, who is both mildly irritating and a protosavior — although God is hardly mentioned or alluded to. In the end, the well-meaning authorities turn authoritarian, and David and his family must flee again.

The novel, which is involving and thoughtful, would work as well if the title were The Childhood of David; what Coetzee seems to be saying about being, consciousness, and bliss is that they are less interesting than the plot twists of everyday life. Is David the Second Coming? Is Coetzee just teasing? Is his publisher looking for an untapped market? Allegorical reconfiguration has worked well for Coetzee in the past — most obviously in Waiting for the Barbarians, an allegory of imperialism — but in this latest effort it is the title, not the text, that supplies the enigma.

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