Everlasting Gospel? Philip Pullman, Jesus and Christ

The Catholic in me, however lapsed, cannot be but a little amazed by Philip Pullman’s latest book (which, of course, I have on order and expect to arrive soon), The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, having been released just in time for Easter. The journalist in me, however erratic, cannot but be impressed by Canongate’s marketing decision which has taken the title to number 5 in the Amazon charts just days after its release. Of course, for writing about it on Easter Sunday I shall probably burn in hell, but then while there I can walk “among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

Although not having had chance yet to read the full work, published as part of Canongate’s Myths series, some extracts were included in last weekend’s The Guardian Review section, and while I cannot comment on the full parallels between Blake and Pullman (which he will have invoked rather knowingly, being President of the Blake Society), the opening paragraphs evoke what is for me a strong – if perhaps for some other readers slightly obscure – connection:

At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel.

When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, she begins to cry:

She wept bitterly, and said “I’ve done no wrong, I swear! I have never been touched by a man! It was an angel that came to me, because God wanted me to conceive a child!”
Joseph was troubled. If this was really God’s will, it must be his duty to look after her and the child. But it would look bad all the same. Nevertheless, he said no more.

This particular passage reminded me immediately of the following lines from Blake’s epic, Jerusalem:

in the Visions of Elohim Jehovah, behold Joseph & Mary
And be comforted O Jerusalem in the Visions of Jehovah Elohim
She looked & saw Joseph the Carpenter in Nazareth & Mary
His espoused Wife. And Mary said, If thou put me away from thee
Dost thou not murder me? Joseph spoke in anger & fury. Should I
Marry a Harlot & an Adulteress? Mary answerd, Art thou more pure
Than thy Maker who forgiveth Sins & calls again Her that is Lost
Tho She hates. he calls her again in love. I love my dear Joseph
But he driveth me away from his presence. yet I hear the voice of God
In the voice of my Husband. tho he is angry for a moment, he will not
Utterly cast me away. if I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the Forgive[ne]ss of Sins! if I were holy! I never could behold the tears
Of love! of him who loves me in the midst of his anger in furnace of fire.
Ah my Mary: said Joseph: weeping over & embracing her closely in
His arms: Doth he forgive Jerusalem & not exact Purity from her who is
Polluted. I heard his voice in my sleep O his Angel in my dream:
Saying, Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven (61.1-19, E211-2)

It is slightly curmudgeonly of me to claim that Blake’s text is more radical immediately after the release of Pullman’s book (“they don’t write like they used to…” and so on), but that precisely, on the evidence of what I have seen, is my claim. Pullman has pulled off an astonishing feat, and reviews testify to the power of the simplicity of his writing, but to bypass the censors that still exist, however mild in our liberal times, he has to pass off Mary’s adultery as the entrapment of an innocent. Blake’s Mary, by contrast, has come close to that old, antinomian heresy of knowingly indulging in sin so that she can experience the pleasures of salvation through the forgiveness of sin – a doctrine that is, quite frankly, a dangerous, ranting one and never has found a place in polite society, secular or religious. I think Blake pulls up just short of this doctrine (in that Mary knows she has experienced sin, but is not necessarily wilfully sinful), but every so often when I look at these lines I am not entirely certain…

From what I’ve read, I rather like Pullman’s downtrodden, world-weary Joseph. Blake’s character, by contrast, is full of fury and anger before he, too, experiences the divine salvation that comes from forgiveness. And this, for Blake, is the miracle of the everlasting gospel: Mary is an adulterer, a harlot, and by the law should be stoned to death – yet Joseph takes her in through love. That is the miracle.

Pullman will no doubt attract outrage for his depiction of Christ sleeping with a prostitute (rather than the good man Jesus), but even here Blake goes one further in The Everlasting Gospel:

Was Jesus Chaste or did he
Give any Lessons of Chastity
The morning blushd fiery red
Mary was found in Adulterous bed
Earth groand beneath & Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love

Not only does this late text of Blake reiterate the adultery of Mary, but it also implies that Jesus learnt other lessons from his mother. Pullman appears to want to separate the rabbi, the teacher Jesus from the religious hypocrite, Christ, in his secular lesson – a reasonable task, and one with an honourable tradition from Shelley onwards at least. Blake’s divine humanism, by contrast, takes on all aspects – sexuality and sin included – of mankind, making them divine because they are experienced also by that most godly of men, that Jesus who is at the same time Christ, and whose words (as Blake wrote in his annotations to Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible), were perverted by the same church that Pullman criticises.

More thoughts on this when I have read the book in its entirety.

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