By Jose Saramago. Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero from the 1991 O EVANGELHO SEGUNDO JESUS CRISTO.
New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994
Comments of Bob Corbett on the novel
Bob Galloway is a former Webster University student who studied Jose Saramago's book THE STONE RAFT with me in a course on philosohy and literature. When Bob heard a bit from me about GOSPEL, he read it and wrote his own comments before reading my own or before any further disucssion. I present his review here of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST to enrich our discussion of this novel.
From Bob Gallowayrobertcgalloway@yahoo.com
Jose Saramago's magical craft in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is a monolith of subversive fun even for the easily offended. Serious readers have once again been plucked from their "realities" or normative belief systems and injected into the grueling freedom of the human moment, the cringing sovereignty of choosing. This grueling and cringing of freedom is not some trendy oxymoronic whim the author wields to appeal to the post-modern reader's spiteful need for something new and heavy. Saramago's Gospel fictively recasts the New Testament with tongue-in-cheek and mind-in-matter. In The Gospel, the brunt of the human will burdens us with the blackest and bluest of self-inflicted back-lashings, leaving us shivering in the void of space and time with only the raw subjectivity of all supposed human knowledge as our only beacon. And although choosing this epistemic beacon is all we can do to make an inkling of sense sometimes, Saramago's artful yet honest confusion and seeming resolution of the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy often eclipses even that glimmer of hope. And he thereby more rightfully earns the title of The Gospel than anything previously published — especially that one dry old book found in every hotel room in the Western world.
This reconciliation of dualism via injecting prosaic human realism into a magical scenario occurs throughout the story. The entire story is recast about as close as a fundamentalist take could get before crossing the line from neurosis to psychosis. Through glorious prose and setting description, readers are astounded with no holds barred interior reactions, from Joseph's glorious planting of the seed of the Son, to Jesus's refuge in Mary Magdalene's carnality, to his last angst-ridden whelp of rebellion against The Father. In The Gospel, God only wants Jesus to die as a public -shock mechanism to deepen and further his reign as God (talk about the problem of evil, jeez!). Aside from having other world religions and the Pagan gods of Rome to distract the masses, here even God admits that even the Devout Jews have become tired of having only the old God — never mind the recent emergence of Jews For Jesus. The Gospel is less a bitter use of storytelling mechanisms to unpack a reactionary political agenda and more a serious arrival in the human moment. Circumventing any atheist jingoism, Saramago's gall here only raises fiction (and the original story, really) a huge notch, while getting away with near murder in the conventions of omniscient narration. We are briefly afforded the point of view of even the fish in the Sea of Galilee, let alone stones that remember — murder of the force-fed mythical base of Western morality. The greatest part: the narrator includes us and renders us the all-knowing with regard to the story: a far from gratuitous move. This narration test is grounded because it affords we the readers the most respect for the autonomy each of us deserves; we get an apt perspective on every character's limitations and conflicts through this omniscience. This is a making of each reader his or her own God in a serious sense, and it hints at what may be Saramago's hope that we may attempt to reach such a status in real life. But it also cares to show in its sharp-tongued comedic haste that it is easy to assume we already have deemed ourselves such fortuitously, simply because we are told or tell ourselves such. That considered, Saramago gives us much acknowledgment of the place of the other in epistemology — we can say we are God or that we know for sure where we stand, but others will inevitably decide to either listen or condemn us to the realm of misunderstanding.
From the conception of Joseph and Mary's first-born son, we are thrust into the world of a meager carpenter and his new wife. This devoutly Jewish couple makes pious even their sex, for which they have the regular appetite we expect such newlyweds to have. However, Saramago's subtle eroticism never detaches emotion from intimacy, and this subtlety itself even remains subtle, saving the empathy of even the Devout reader while sparing us the smut. Just before Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph must make the trip from Nazareth to Joseph's native Bethlehem to be counted in the census of Rome. What immediately proves peculiar here is that, unlike the tendency in the Biblical account to center everything around Mary and Joseph (and every other character in their respective stories) by presuming their divinity a priori and just demanding dogma (in fiction, they call this "telling rather than showing"), Saramago respects the reader. This respect lies in his animation of the very real possibility that their journey was common among the many other Jews. And for this the census is a mechanism, but the real difference from the Bible in Saramago's Gospel is that the characters have a profound human dynamic and are clearly in our world albeit in a very different milieu. Mary and Joseph have a next door neighbor who watches their place while they are gone. They travel with a warm, hospitable group of Jews headed in the same direction for the census. The have a history (unlike Adam and Eve, Saramago jokes); no favoritism for the couple chosen incidentally by God for the vestibular belaboring of the Messiah! But in this Gospel, the characters have faces, real human desires, physical limitations and urges they deify rather than stigmatize.
And this time, for the over-the-road birthing, Mary and Joseph are offered a cave that is used as a stable, rather than a regular stable as in the original story. (To use classic Saramago humor, we don't want to invoke the power of the title The Holy Bible anymore than necessary, so we'll just say "the original story," but not to say anything for the original author/s). Saramago takes advantage of something like Plato's cave allegory and the interpretation of it that says it shows us we have a duty to bring our peers to ideal enlightenment. He brings Caesar's purge of the first-born sons who are under three-years-old to the context of the period immediately following the Jesus's birth rather than the house somewhere else with blood already on the door. Saramago rather has Joseph overhear the news of the slaughter while in town looking for work, which sends him frantically back to the cave to save his own. In so doing, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, in the solace of their dimly lit cave, manage to save their own. But they do this unknowingly only in exchange for peer guilt for not having saved the many other sons by simply warning their parents along the way home, or even turning in their own infant as the single one targeted. Thus, on top of the tender fulfilling of carnal desires and displacing of events from their accurate time (a widespread area of dispute in real life), we already have a gutting of the original story, but an innocent gutting nonetheless in light of all the radically different versions out there.
At the birthing, the midwife is a willing slave of the owners of the cave stable, and the three kings are just regular passersby who bring cheese and other party favors back to the birth to repay Mary and Joseph for previous hospitality. They don't nauseate us by following some predetermined divine star and offer weird shiny things and perfumes. What arises from Joseph's very normal reaction to the slaughter of infants, not knowing his son is the Messiah, is a nightly nightmare wherein Joseph is a Roman soldier killing his son — a "punishment" he attributes to his inability to serve the common good. This results in a lifetime of guilt, which he passes down to his son as can only be dictated by the dominating Western concern for the common good and the resulting collective guilt. Joseph is crucified as a member of the Jewish rebellion against Rome when he goes to the nearest city to free his neighbor friend from the concentration camp, and Jesus inherits the nightmare, but only from the victim's, his own, perspective. And this inherited guilt sends a pre-teen Jesus away from home with a handful of logical questions concerning religious faith, guilt, and his past, for Joseph did not reveal the slaughter story behind either the dream or his guilt before passing (as if Joseph knew them himself, even).
Jesus's interiority is delivered believably enough, but with such humor that the absurdity of collective or inherited guilt and the common good glare particularly bright. For instance, when Jesus first leaves home, he reveals his drive, which is really the drive of most of the Western system of morality that attempts to prevent collective guilt: that of Utilitarianism. In other words, Jesus suddenly wonders what the body count of the baby boys Joseph killed by his silence was — this figure is what he must match his own life up against. This is so absurd because the assumption is made that the number is magic or will reveal something, that this number can provide some direct information on how much good might have been done if Joseph had capitulated Caesar's slaughter plans to other parents. The problem with this hypothetical scale-tipping of events is that it occurs outside of time and far from any concrete situation (at best it's a math problem comprised of arbitrarily gathered numbers under the pressure to fit into the utopian schematic of a societal norm). That said, we are perhaps moved to ask how can we rule out that Jesus won't save many more lives down the road, or that the babies, if saved, weren't future genocidal maniacs? Things clearly do not work like that; we have neither a time machine nor a crystal ball. To go even further than the empirical criterion, which would mandate a direct witnessing of the event in order to assert a conclusive theory, can we agree that even if we could concretely arrive in one the above two alternative outcomes to the slaughter, we can hardly even know the past or future from those scenarios? Such predicaments are human consciousness in this view. Those who hold this critique of Utilitarianism cannot help but laugh when, at the young Jesus's decision to embark, he jumps from the fundamentalist view he shares with Joseph (that if the kids were killed it must have been willed by God) to the serious need to know how many were slaughtered. We may, on the contrary, side with Mary who holds that Joseph is innocent and who upon Jesus's pointing of the finger at Joseph (who Jesus at this point thinks was his real father) accuses him of being rotten. She says Satan may have a hold of his tongue, and appalling Mary, Jesus asks how she knows it may not be God. Jesus the "naive" youth, who is only but slightly steeped in a basic working knowledge of the trappings of the moral milieu he was born into, proceeds to say that only God may know the reasons and where those reasons come from, that we may never know these reasons. Wow! That comes dangerously close to Atheism! Or, more clearly, if that is not a blatant assertion that all things humanly known are subjective and therefore not known as objects, then who knows what is! This seems to assert that even having the empirical criterion met, we still don't really know because we do not even have the ability to witness this sensory witnessing of the phenomena. By the same token, the young Jesus would seem to quicker agree on the absurdity of the concern for the body count and the common good. The best part of this episode is that this tendency to question knowledge systems is common to youths and newcomers to knowledge systems. And Saramago admits as much in one of his ubiquitous philosophical commentaries — otherwise churches, denominations, priests, and pastors would hardly need to go the extremes they do (let alone branch into so many different sects, as the character God so wittily points out in The Gospel).
On his adventure, Jesus's first destination is the council of elders and scribes which gathers in the temple in Jerusalem. Here, after the council kicks around the notion of free will from out of the Book of Genesis, Jesus raises the issue of inherited guilt. They of course answer that because of Adam's original sin or free will to be punished, all of humanity inherits that guilt and God's original plan for humanity is forever lost. Funny is that Jesus is robbed before he gets there, losing what little money he did have, but is hardly phased. Is he not a fine representative of the natural man clashing with the rat race?
Then Jesus finds a job as a shepherd with a big strange man called Pastor, who we know visited Mary and Joseph as a beggar before Jesus was born, and who suggests Jesus have sex with a sheep. Pastor plays the skeptic who is spiritually apathetic and seriously cynical. Trying Jesus's religious fidelity at every turn, the boy seems to only reject Pastor's arguments out of spite; Jesus stays to learn the shepherding trade nonetheless. He tries to leave at the peak of his argument with Pastor, but only drops behind the flock for some momentary solitude.
From then on, Jesus decides not to do philosophy or talk religion with Pastor, although Pastor, who later Jesus finds out is actually Satan, loves to push the envelope, especially with regard to meat eating. Curious is why Jesus actually sticks around with Pastor for four years. The narration seems to attribute this to the loss of Joseph, but also hints at a more intimate relationship. Absolutely hilarious yet very believable. One year when Passover arrives, Jesus heads for the temple in Jerusalem in order to sacrifice a lamb to God like a good Jew, but first refuses Pastor's offering of one of his flock. An old man on the road gives him a lamb. Jesus runs into his mother and siblings near the gates to the city, and has already decided he wouldn't sacrifice the lamb. He pities the lamb and only wants to spare it for the flock (He may have even been more intimate with it than we are allowed to know.) Mary and his siblings cannot tolerate that, and Jesus returns to Pastor despite Mary's warning that he's a demon.
But then the lamb Jesus saved comes up missing, so Jesus searches the area and finds it in the dessert, where he also hears a voice in a cloud of smoke. This voice is God, supposedly, and He makes a covenant with Jesus that in exchange for Jesus's life He will give Jesus power and glory. Jesus is then commanded to sacrifice the lamb, which he does without hesitation. He returns to Pastor, actually eats meat, and then decides to return home to Nazareth. But first, he gives fishing a try. He is a horrible fisherman, but can actually fill the other fishermen's nets with fish by navigating. After a time he continues on his journey home. He stops at a house where Mary Magdalene lives. They roll around in the sack and share intimacy for about a week, and Mary M. decides to stop being a prostitute. When Jesus gets home, he tells his mother and the rest that he saw God, and they think he's crazy--and really, the possibility that he is a lunatic really exists in this book, for Saramago seems to at first leave all the supernatural antics as possible human psychoses or coincidences. Upset at his family's disbelief, he leaves and returns to Mary Magdalene, but not before he tests her fidelity to him by knocking at the door disguising his voice. During this test, he chickens out and gives his own name, thinking that the possibility exists that others may have his name. She does not open the door for a bit, and thereby sustains her fidelity in Jesus's mind. They unite for good and decide to burn her impure house to the ground and then leave for the coast. Mary Magdalene says she believes Jesus saw God and can make the fish swim into the net.
Meanwhile, an angel visits Jesus's mother in a dream and tells her that it is wrong not to believe what Jesus said. She subsequently sends the two next oldest of her sons after Jesus to tell him to return home, that maybe they were a bit harsh. They find Jesus with Mary Magdalene and the younger of the two has nothing but utter scorn for her: something about her he finds impure. Although the narrator points out how arbitrary this is as the young lad has not had enough exposure to the world yet to peg her as a whore. Anyway, Jesus's brothers are still starkly skeptical of him and do not even deliver the message adequately. The boys return home and the couple heads to the coast, where Jesus becomes the fishermen's hero. One morning, a mist hovers over the sea, keeping the fishermen at home. Jesus paddles out in a boat. In the middle of the mist, God appears as a rich old Jew on his stern and Pastor swims out and joins in the conversation. This is where the ultimate reconciliation of dualism occurs — God wants the power, which only increases Satan's power, as they admit good can not exist without evil; every thing implies it's opposite. God treats Satan more like a brother than an arch nemesis.
This scene is too fantastically real to do it justice here. Jesus realizes he is forced to carry out God's mission for power. And hereafter, he is forced to work miracles, but the situation is more like he realizes that his very constitution is God, and that if he does not commit suicide, then he knows he must responsibly accept his freedom to act. (Jesus really wants out of the covenant). The most hilarious part of the book occurs here, where God lists over three pages of names of folks who will someday be killed for Him and describes each egregiously torturous fate, and stops to appease what he expects to be Jesus's desire for mercy. But no. Like a good Roman, Jesus urges God on several times (while we good atheists fall on the ground gasping for air). Jesus then tries to escape the mist, but cannot, and succumbs to the will of God. He claims to want no part in God's power-trip which furthers Satan's grasp simultaneously, but then feigns to be swayed by the promise of power and glory--leaving a bad taste much like if, say, Mother Theresa went to work for Bill Gates) then he must choose to act responsibly. Therefore, Jesus willingly heals the sick (starting with Mary Magdalene's brother, of course), several of the fishermen become the apostles who he sends out to spread the word, and the book never fails to amaze. However, amazingly, Jesus refuses to raise the dead at Mary Magdalene's offering of insight that it would be worse for someone to have to die twice. Ah, Saramago is an utter marvel! And despite all that is given away here, we still haven't ruined the read. The main crux of the book is a fascinatingly illustrious development of the reality that when coerced into an embrace of a set of norms after being coerced into this world in the first place (birth), we often find only meaninglessness in the end if we have not been allowed to choose for ourselves. After witnessing what is only human in the supposed Savior of humanity (he is confronted with much banality in compulsorily working miracles, and thereby welcomes his own crucifixion) believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition would seem to inevitably have their faith shaken, agnostics would seem to be less puzzled, and atheists would seem to want to buy this masterpiece for their friends, so as to not give up their own copy. Anyone denying the possibility for the human subjectivity to run away with the truth after reading The Gospel just hasn't read carefully enough, which is just fine: they chose such an end at some level. Saramago's use of the words "According To Jesus Christ" in the title is no accident, but really points our attention in the right direction: that of a human in all his error.
Review by Bob Galloway
Some follow-up discussion of the novel with LJ LindhurstBob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com