And Nothing Hurt – 2018
Oh, man. Have you heard the new Spiritualized album? Dang.

My opinion is that it’s the best work Jason Pierce has done since about 2003’s Amazing Grace. Mind you, the peak is still 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. If our scale is 1-10, then Ladies and Gentlemen is a sold flawless 10 (a 14 or 15 in comparison to even the best albums out there, just not in terms of this band). That’s the gauge. Let it Come Down from 2001 and Amazing Grace come in at 8 or 9. The goal with the latter was to pull away from the excesses of the previous two. (Let It Come Down, for example, took four years and 115 musicians to record.)

2008’s Songs in A&E was recorded in the aftermath of Pierce’s near-death experience with pneumonia and respiratory failure, though mostly written before that. 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light was mostly written on medication for liver disease and suffers, oddly, from both lyrical and arrangement-related excesses. Even still, these are both solid 7s on my Spiritualized scale.

But both are, in my opinion, fairly tame. The new album, however, nails all the best things about Spiritualized in one gorgeous package.

Spiritualized-And-Nothing-Hurt-1528723857-640x640Now, this is the thing about Spiritualized – They (Pierce and whoever he ropes in when he’s ready to work) do a crazy amalgamation of soft balladry, krautrock-inspired drone, psychedelic space rock, and straight-up rock and roll. Sometimes in one song, but usually over the course of an album. And they’re not the only band that takes this kitchen sink approach – but they may be the only one these days to do it so successfully. They’re sort of like the Grateful Dead – the only band to put all these disparate pieces of rock and roll history together and make it work. Anyway, And Nothing Hurt is the return to form I’ve been waiting for. From the ambivalent sweetness of A Perfect Miracle through the nearly eight-minute rampage of The Morning After, to the gospel closing of Sail On Through. Thematically, there’s love, lust, abandonment, road tripping, and suicide, but what’s most touching is the combination of themes in single songs. A Perfect Miracle and I’m Your Man both combine the desire to love and be the best partner with admissions of both past and future failure threaded through. ‘I could be faithful, honest and true…but if you want wasted loaded, permanently folded…I’m your man.’

Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go sounds from the title and the opening twist of an AM radio knob like it should be a tale of an actual road trip, but it’s simply directions to a partner to drive ‘a couple of hours’ to visit where ‘we’ll get stoned all through the night’. Looking about on YouTube, it seems this song dates from the Sweet Heart Sweet Light tour on which it was performed in pretty much the same arrangement. Musically, it’s probably my favourite song on the album.

Let’s Dance builds from a slow piano figure as the narrator tries to convince a girl to dance as the bar they’re in is closing up, ‘The hour is getting late / They’re putting all the chairs away’, but ‘if they’ve got Big Star on the radio, they’ll let us stay’. Gotta love a Big Star reference. And this is another one that’s been gestating for a while. There’s a little viewed live video from 2013 with somewhat different lyrics.

And with On the Sunshine, the album kicks into a higher gear. Yeah, it’s another drug song (‘you can always fix tomorrow what you can’t pull off today’) but powered by organs and horns and without much of a bridge, it just barrels into your ears as sweet as can be.

And then Pierce pulls it all back with the lullaby Damaged. Lyrically, it’s Pierce’s narrator (again – this is a theme across many Spiritualized albums) laying the blame for his unhappiness on a lover who’s left, ‘Darlin’ I’m lost and I’m damaged / Over you,’ but the combination of piano, strings, and fuzzed guitar behind Pierce’s sadness bring all his pain to the fore.

But, then there’s the rocker, The Morning After. Of course, the rock and roll is subverted by the lyrical subject, another Jane (see Sweet Heart Sweet Light’s Hey Jane, for example) who decides her parents are the problem and decides to ‘hang herself up by the bathing pool’. Musically, it kicks right in with a Velvet Underground riff, to which a horn section is added and by the song’s midpoint, it’s moving into free jazz territory.

The album closes with two more slow pieces, The Prize and Sail on Through. The first of these is a lovely waltz in which our hero addresses his love over and over saying I don’t know if I should stay or go or if it’s too late to say goodbye. As is often the case, the objective listener is pretty sure the narrator isn’t himself a prize catch, but the intonation is so beautiful that it may not matter for a while. And in the end, Pierce brings it back to the opening with a direct admission that he doesn’t need the object he addresses:

I tell no lie, I tell the truth
You know I just don’t need to be with you
If I could hold it down
I would sail on through for you
If I weren’t loaded down
I would sail on through for you

There’s no more ambivalence, just resignation. Over the closing, notes, we hear the Morse code found on the cover for the album’s title. Having let go, nothing hurts anymore.

On the original issue of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the title track quoted Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love both lyrically and musically. The Presley estate objected and later pressings used a remix of the song without those references, though they’re restored on later pressings still. I mention this because the two-note phrase that opens A Perfect Miracle is also lifted from that song, a little gift for music geeks like yours truly who obviously live for that sort of thing.

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So I’ve reread James Joyce’s Ulysses in the last couple of months. I hadn’t read it in its entirety since I’m not sure when, but I grabbed a digital copy on Bloomsday this year and it’s been my middle of the night reading. I’ve got a couple of thoughts that probably aren’t original, but the novel has struck me rather differently at 51 than it did at 22 and 35, for certain.

Usually when I write something like this, I take the trouble to add citations and build a semi-cogent argument, but I’m not handing this one in.

Ulysses men by John Conway V2Coming to the end of the Ithaca chapter, I found Stephen’s departure more mythological than I used to. The assumption (or the presentation made by more than one college professor on the matter) is that Stephen leaves his encounter with Leopold Bloom in order to go into the world and become James Joyce. I think that while there’s pedagogical merit to stating it that way, there’s more of a mythical parallel here. Homer gives us the romantic conclusion to the story (Odysseus passes Penelope’s test by knowing their bed can’t be moved because one part of it is a tree trunk), and Tennyson extends it with Odysseus rallying his troops to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and engage once again the forces of the world. In the Greek myths that Homer retells, we never learn much of how Telemachus comes into his own. Stephen Dedalus, similarly, steps from the house of this strangely parental figure, Leopold Bloom, into the sunrise, and into his own mythology. As the last act before parting, Stephen and Leopold urinating in the back garden of the Blooms’ flat, one could argue that Stephen quite literally pisses off.

The entire effort of Ulysses is about bringing the loftiness of Homer’s epic poetry down to earth, and this is another symbol of it.

Molly Bloom’s urination and masturbation in the course of the monologue that makes up Ulysses’ ultimate chapter are redolent of this same earthiness. Leopold has his own reasons for not making love to Molly that are associated with the death of their infant son, so Molly takes her desire elsewhere. We get the impression from her recounting of her loves, that it’s also in her nature to express her desire where she will. I’m not the first to compare Molly with Emma Bovary, the difference being that Molly isn’t punished for her desire. More than one professor has argued that Joyce, through Molly’s soliloquy, has successfully portrayed women’s inmost feelings and desires. What hit me in this rereading, is that what Joyce seems to have performed more successfully is to project common fears about partner infidelity and assumed lack of respect onto Molly. Or perhaps Joyce simply represented an accurate projection of his own such fears about his partners’ inner lives.

What he’s also gotten right is the estrangement between partners who aren’t open about their desires with one another. Molly, in the last bit of her fantasy delves into topping Leopold and making him do dirty things to her. What she touches on in this fantasy is right out of Bloom’s fantasia at Bella Cohen’s brothel. While it’s hard to tell whether any of that fantasia actually happened from a story continuity point of view, we are, I think, supposed to believe that what Bloom is shown to experience is at least a projection of his own desire.

What’s disheartening is the realization that with a little discussion, Molly and Leopold could have a more mutually satisfying relationship. (The reader has this same feeling when they recognise the gap between Gabriel and Greta Conroy as The Dead shifts from the party to the time the Conroys have alone together.)

It seems that while Molly loves Leopold, she neither likes nor respects him. The fear people have about what others feel about them is here writ large. Molly considers Leopold a failure at life, in terms of job security and home security, and something of a failure in the way he goes about expressing his desire. She especially mocks how he behaves around other women. While Leopold has an emotional response to Molly’s assignation on the day of the novel’s action, he also feels out of contention regarding the partners she takes on (which he enumerates in Ithaca, though possibly inaccurately) or has taken on.

There’s also the number of traumas they’ve suffered which haunt the space between them. Molly’s first lover, Mulvey, is killed in the Boer wars, and there’s the loss of their son Rudy, and Leopold’s father’s suicide. It doesn’t seem as though they have ever examined these events together.

Leopold has an intellectual, or pseudo-intellectual, approach to the world that Molly doesn’t appreciate and, in her thoughts, mocks, but which is essential to his characterization. We know a sentence or a thought of Bloom’s instantly because of its expression in his thought processes, especially in his (pseudo-) scientific examination of the world around him. Molly finds finds this ridiculous. On the other hand, when Leopold thinks about Molly’s less intellectual, more physical approach to the world, he seems to smile at it. He doesn’t berate her. He seems amused by her taste in smut, but may not even know of her love for Byron’s poetry. It’s another piece to the puzzle of their non-communication. And then there’s the matter that at the last, Molly blames her infidelity on Leopold’s redirected desire. He doesn’t want to lose another child, and so stops fucking her, and they have never yet found a way together around that.

As I said, just a few thoughts on it. Rereading Dubliners now and, again, getting a far different richness from it than I did in my first readings.

Of all David Bowie’s albums, Let’s Dance is one that’s had very little airplay in my headphones. Which might be a shame. I’ve been listening to it lately and trying to place myself in the shoes of someone giving it an honest listen in 1983. Fans had waited three years for a follow-up to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, his last album for RCA which had spawned minor US hits in Fashion and Ashes to Ashes. In the meantime, MTV had launched and given some airtime to videos from his previous albums. I recall seeing the videos for those two songs and DJ from 1979’s Lodger. That said, the title track from Let’s Dance landed like a bomb on MTV, followed by Modern Love and China Girl. Those three songs and a reworked version of Cat People (Putting Out Fire), originally recorded for the closing credits of Paul Schrader’s film of the same name and released in March 1982, comprise half of the album’s eight tracks. A fourth single from the album, Without You, didn’t get much airplay and didn’t chart.

db-ldThe problem, for me, is that by the time I listened the album in its entirety a few years after its release, those first three tracks had turned into background noise. Modern Love barely sounds like a Bowie song at all – the piano and horns driving the sound instead of the guitar, and lyrics that don’t seem to be about anything at all. The live video didn’t give a story to it. Mind you, that’s what was expected of 80s videos and even 35 years later, when I listen to the songs that did have story videos – China Girl and the title track – I still see the videos in my head. And by the time Modern Love was released as the third single in September, we’d spent the summer being bombarded with tracks two and three.

China Girl is a reworking of a song Bowie had written and produced with Iggy Pop seven years earlier and released on Pop’s The Idiot.

And then there’s the title track. I’ve heard those opening snares and Ah Ah Ahs hundreds of times and tried to feel that moaning ‘tremble like a floooow-ah’. But the album version is a different beast. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes (as opposed to the single/video at just over four), it takes the listener on a different journey. Dub elements which at the time were used to create club mixes sit right in the middle of the album mix and pull it into the fade out.

Without You relies on Bowie’s falsetto, and what sounds like plinking keyboards but is either Stevie Ray Vaughan or producer Nile Rodgers who shared guitar duties throughout. It doesn’t have the drive of the other songs on side A, but as a simple declaration of love it’s not without its merits.

Whereas side one has one song that’s not so well known to me, side two’s Ricochet, Criminal World, and Shake It are all tracks I’ve never listened to much.

Ricochet is proper weird Bowie. Sometimes, its underlying sax lines sound lifted from Low; elsewhere the song is much funkier. Lyrically, it seems to be addressing industrialization and fascism, some of those big themes that he’d explore in songs like Loving the Alien and Time Will Crawl later in the 80s. Moving on, Criminal World is a cover of a 1977 song by Peter Godwin’s band Metro – musically it fits with the rest of the album because Rodgers has arranged it (and the whole album, for that matter) to flow.

And then the album concludes with a throwaway piece of disco/funk called Shake It. Lyrically it doesn’t have much to say – the most interesting lines are ‘We’re the kind of people who can shake it if we’re feeling blue / When I’m feeling disconnected well I sure know what to do.’ In his catalogue, it seems most connected to the discofied John I’m Only Dancing (Again) released around the time of Young Americans. That’s not to say that it’s bad, just that it’s not worthwhile as a Bowie song.

My overall assessment is that it holds together or hold up not as a David Bowie album, but as a Nile Rogers or Chic album that just happens to have Bowie doing the singing and most of the words. Lyrically the album is half-baked and musically, it’s mostly disposable. According to interviews in a recent issue of Mojo, this is, on a certain level, what Bowie was after. At the height of New Romanticism, Bowie heard his own influence on new music and felt the current crop had drained the life from pop. Having not had a serious hit stateside in almost eight years (Fame), he made the leap, and spent the next six years barely involved, by his own admission, in his own music making at all.

This past weekend included a listen to Joy Division’s Substance (1988) and continued reading of bassist Peter Hook’s Joy Division memoir Unknown Pleasures. I first heard Joy Division in 1987 when I went out record shopping with my friend Natalie. She and I had a lot of overlapping tastes, but she was a proper goth and I was just into the music. I knew a lot of Joy Division-adjacent stuff, but hadn’t heard anything by them. She recommended their second album, Closer. I was 20, living in San Francisco, and (as I would for several years) spent a lot of my time not processing my father’s death the previous year. I was hard to reach and generally hard to communicate with. The thing Joy_Division_Closerabout Closer, and JD in general for me at the time – I knew a little of the history – I’d even seen New Order (the band formed out of the remains of Joy Division) perform. That would have been in 1985 at the Santa Monica Civic – hadn’t heard any of their music prior and the show was boring – listening to live recordings from that period now – yeah, they were a dull live act). I recall playing this album a lot that year, and feeling all kinds of despair associated with it, primarily because I knew of the untimely death of lead singer Ian Curtis. One of my flatmates at the time told me it was familiar and asked if he would have heard something else by the band. It’s possible, I probably told him, but this tastes and mine were quite different. Yeah, I listened intently to Closer, but I didn’t know (yet) their biggest hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart, which was a little weird. But this was before someone could send you an email saying ‘you’ll like this song’ and before you even read the next sentence, you could be listening to the song.

So, yeah, Lawrence probably had heard Joy Division before me, though hipster that I was, I was loath to admit it.

Anyway, Closer threw me into a funk that was hard to escape but I was compelled to listen to it more and more. I bought Substance the following year and found that I especially liked the post-punk stuff (Atmosphere, Love, Dead Souls, These Days), but really didn’t know what to make of the earlier, punkier tracks. Later I’d buy the Short Circuit compilation (which includes At a Later Date recorded when they were still a punk band called Warsaw) on the same day I purchased Iggy and the Stooges’ Metallic KO. The following week, a friend told me the apocryphal tale of Ian Curtis committing suicide on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour because he believed they’d never make a record as good as Metallic KO. A cursory search indicates that Curtis played Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and watched a Herzog film before taking his own life at the age of 23. His epilepsy wasn’t a secret to those nearest him, though in the late 70s, people didn’t know so well how to be supportive of an epileptic friend.

Hook notes that everything Joy Division recorded was classic – something he credits to band chemistry, youth, and Curtis’ lyrical brilliance. With this in mind, I can probably say that everything JD recorded , especially after An Ideal For Living, supersedes everything on Metallic KO (much as that document of two late shows from the original incarnation of the Stooges, including their last show in 1974, is brilliant in its own twisted way). Whether JD’s work supersedes The Idiot, well that’s a bit subjective.

Later I would have a huge poster of the cover of Closer on my wall, next to a huge poster of the cover of Aladdin Sane. As usual, there’s no real conclusion to this story. Even the fact that I’m reading Hook’s memoir right now is a little random. I purchased it for the kindle months ago when it was probably on offer for 99p, about what it cost to see Joy Division open for the Buzzcocks in 1979. It simply came up when I was scrolling through to find what next to read.

Considering ‘Cleanness’, translated by Marie Borroff, amongst other things. Borroff has published translations of all of the works found in the manuscript containing ‘Gawain and the Green Knight.’ In this essay, I reference The Gawain Poet Complete Works, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

In her introduction to the collected translations, Dr. Borroff presents her credentials as deriving from her study of philology and her work as a poet. Her introductionborroffs and notes also evince a strong Christian background. Born in 1923, PhD 1956 Yale, English professor (first such at Yale). Does the fact that she was in her 70s when she undertook ‘Cleanness’ have bearing? Possibly.

Her translation of ‘Cleanness’ was first published in 2001 which, by my reckoning, is awfully late for such a work to be introduced and explicated with references to sodomy and sins of the flesh being the those things most abhorrent to G-di. The poet, she tells us, was ‘devout, deeply thoughtful, and offers a window on one version of medieval Christianity.’ii The issue isn’t that she’s explaining the poet’s position as such, but that she does so without much comment. To be fair, the first sentence of the poem’s introduction indicates that of the five available works by the poet, ‘Cleanness’ ‘is the least accessible to the modern reader.’ This might be her concession to the gap between medieval doctrinal Christian morality and modern acceptance of multiple sexualities.
After retelling the parable of the wedding feast from the Gospel of Matthew, the poet tells us ‘Uncleanness is the one sin that rouses G-d to merciless anger. Lines 193-204 earn no footnote, but set the stage for the main sections of the poem. Indeed, one could, as Borroff suggests in her introduction to the poem, read these lines as the poem’s thesis:

But I have listened long and hard to many learned clerks,
And in writings well reasoned read it myself,
That the peerless Prince who in paradise rules
Is displeased at every point appertaining to sin.
But I have never seen it set down in a book
That He punished so impatiently the people He had made,
No avenged Him so violently on vice or on sin,
Nor so hastily did harm in the heat of His anger,
Nor so severely and swiftly sought to destroy
As for filth of the flesh that fools have practiced.

The poet quickly addresses The Fall of the Angels, The Fall of Man, and The Corruption of Adam’s Progeny followed by a detailed retelling of the story of the Flood. Before moving on to a lengthy treatment of the destruction of Sodom, the poet provides another Warning Against Uncleanness. The warning concludes:

But when the folk fall into foul deeds of defiling lust
He loathes so that lewdness, He lashes out at once,
Cannot bear to hold back, but abruptly strikes,
And that was openly proven by a punishment once.

That last line obviously refers to the Flood. The poet does a very clear job of retelling the story of Lot, his daughters, and G-d’s angels at the gates of Sodom. He isiii quite clear that the desire of the men of Sodom for the angels is unacceptable in the eyes of G-d, but presents Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters without any judgment. Lot tells the men of Sodom, when they demand the angels a second time:

My abode here is blessed by two beauteous daughters;
They live with me alone – no lover has had them;
None seemlier dwell in Sodom, though I say so myself.
They are ripe and ruddy fleshed; they are ready for men;
To embrace such bonny maids will bring you more pleasure.
I bestow them with my blessing, that are buxom and blithe,
And lie with them as you like, and let my guests be.

The men of Sodom reply that Lot is a newcomer, though in Sodom he has grown rich. Regarding Lot’s offer, Borroff makes no comment. Her omission suggests that the Sodomites’ rejection of the female is sufficient demonstration of how they have earned G-d’s wrath.

Without evidence, she also suggests that the punishment suffered by Lot’s wife has something to do with her salting the meal served to their guests. In a footnote (p.91), she writes, ‘According to the version of the story that most closely resembles the poet’s, the angels visited Lot during Passover, and that is why Lot insisted that they be served unleavened bread, containing neither yeast nor salt…It seems clear from the poet’s treatment of the story that he had read one or more of the Jewish commentaries on Genesis, presumably in Latin translation.’

Her assertion that Lot was entertaining the angels during Passover is as patently ridiculous as the presence of whole loaves of bread on the table of the Last Supper, a not uncommon sight in medieval/renaissance depictions. The story of Lot predates the Exodus by multiple generations. (Quickly: Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Abraham is the grandfather of Jacob who brought his entire household into Egypt at the end of the book of Genesis. At the beginning of the second book of the bible, Exodus, we learn that the generation of Jacob’s offspring (14 children) were all deceased, but their descendants had multiplied such that pharaoh was alarmed. This is the beginning of the story that culminates in the Jews’ escape from Egypt. It is this story that is told at Passover each year. The event that the Passover holiday commemorates hadn’t occurred at the time of the destruction of Sodom.)

But, listen. I’m an atheist bisexual and a non-practicing Jew. My passing interest in Christian doctrine derives from my study of English literature and a desire for accurate allusions in my own writing. I might be the wrong person to criticize Borroff’s ignorance or omissions with regard to her presentation of the work in question. I came of age in the 1980s and studied literature (including her go-to translation of ‘Gawain’) at San Francisco State at the height of the AIDS crisis, so I have a certain bias.

My own sense of morality enables me (and entrusts me) to side with victims of sexual assault, and at the very least look askance at those who commit assault or stand by when assault (or invitation to assault) occurs. Angel of the Lord or no. Consensual sex, regardless of parts, is up to those participating. I come at this poetry from the firm belief that we must be clear and open about who we are in order to give strength to those who are increasingly persecuted. These are treacherous bloody times in which to be dishonest and not open to the needs of those without choice. If being public about who I am comes by way of literary examination, so be it.

The question is perhaps, ‘Does the poetic translator bear a responsibility to question such a stark moral dichotomy?’ Does the editor bear some responsibility in this regard. I say yes to both, but only partly because the poems aren’t necessarily presented as doctrinal texts. In many ways they reflect doctrine, certainly. Borroff says that the poet’s suggestion that G-d taught sexual pleasure to mankind is outside Christian doctrine because it ‘omits…the intention on the part of both man and woman to conceive a child’ (p.41):

When two were tied together with true minds and hearts,
Between a man and his mate would mount such delight
That the pure joys of Paradise could scarce prove better

The blaze of love between them so bright and so fierce
That all the mishaps on earth could not hold back its heat.

I find ‘Cleanness’ to be problematic not only for its treatment of sexuality but for the implicit comparison of men to the holy vessels of the Temple. It’s no secret that women are responsible, biblically speaking, for the ills of the world (Do I need to rehash Eve giving the apple to Adam?), but the poet takes this assertion to the next level in his retelling of the story of Balthazar.

After an interlude instructing how to emulate Christ’s purity, nearly half the poem is spent retelling the story of the Babylonian exile. It’s a leap from the mythology of the first book of the bible to an event that is documented both in the bible and elsewhere, with a firm date in the 6th century BCE. We learn first how the last king of Jerusalem and Judea ‘used abomination, bowing to idols / And prized little the laws he should loyally have kept.’ G-d therefore uses Babylonian king Nabugodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar) to destroy Jerusalem, raze the temple, and enslave the Jews. Nabugodonosor is mostly loyal to G-d, and he never uses the treasures taken from the Temple of Solomon. When his son Balthazar inherits the throne, he orders the holy vessels of the temple be brought out during a drunken feast. In retaliation for this sin, G-d invites the Persians to sack Babylon and kill Balthazar, much as He had invited Nebuchadnezzar to sack Jerusalem and kill or enslave its inhabitants.

The poet implicitly equates Balthazar’s sin with that of the Sodomites and of Noah’s contemporaries; the poet equates the desecration of men through sins of the flesh with that of those cups from the temple. Men are the holy vessels and women are as nothing, even to the point of being raped by those same men. Is it any wonder women are repressed in the Church, and in orthodox Judaism for that matter?

Leaping forward a couple of centuries, Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry G-d’ (1741) exemplifies the same kind of disdain of those considered sinners as the poet of ‘Cleanness’, though Edwards spreads the damnation around. He also ascribes to G-d a kind of infinite wrath that the poet only hints at. It’s a guess that most faithful in these times would find that kind of wrath unlikely.

“And it shall come to pass, that…all flesh come to worship before me, saith the L-rd. And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24) It is everlasting wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty G-d one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains.iv

While the excesses described have been mirrored elsewhere (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example), it is reflected more obviously (in my reading) in works of cosmic horror and performed by creatures from outside the realm of Christian mythology. The eternal torments meted out by G-d to the unbaptised and unsaved in Edwards’ sermon are similar to those inflicted on the narrator of I Have No Mouth and I Must Screamv, forced to perform unspeakable acts by an omnipotent intelligence.

Assuming that the poems of the manuscript are all by the same poet, he presents a vision of heaven in ‘Pearl’ that offers biblical basis for the afterworld as earned by what the Puritans would later call The Elect.

‘Pearl’ sets forth what is essentially an ecstatic dream vision that assumes the dreamer and the reader will achieve, or can achieve, this heaven by staying on the path of righteousness. Borroff is clear and consistent in providing the biblical sources for the poem, specifying the translations used and obviously works from the assumption that the poet wasn’t being somehow satirical. From my perspective, being at this late date more familiar with the Old Testament than the New, I find the poet’s take on G-d’s perspective, even as Jesus was supposed to have been the answer to and resolution of Mosaic law, a little hard to take.

What we come away with is that while G-d can be forgiving and recognise the human struggle for grace, there are places where the L-rd’s ways are not our own, but distinctly reflect human prejudices. And, yes, we should be over that by now, except that they’re set forth in the holy books.

Occasionally I read, and utter, the opinion that those who preach against homosexuality should also heed the other dictates of the Old Testament, especially those set out in the book of Leviticus. Have you mixed cotton and linen in the same fabric, eaten shellfish (or cheeseburgers), had sex outside of marriage? These all earn punishments similar to those for homosexuality. The argument is that while Jesus is the way and the light and is the new embodiment of the law set down in the Old Testament, not all of the old sins hold equal weight. There seems to be a distinction drawn between what is immoral and what is simply illegal.

As I’m considering how to conclude this, I’ve come across an opinion in the NY Timesvi that suggests the prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus was originally a prohibition against homosexual incest, but later editors fudged it. Biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz argues that the glosses on a couple of sentences seem to contradict or subvert what might have been the more limited earlier prohibition. While it is nice to see this matter considered, what preachers old and new (including the poet of ‘Cleanness’) are elucidating is not the specific legal prohibition, but the evidence in the earlier stories that specifies what G-d Himself finds odious.

The problem is that all of our understanding of human biology; of the nature of love, lust, and desire; and of the importance of living in honesty with oneself goes head on with two thousand years of anti-gay interpretation of scripture. The power of that interpretation undermines any other way of looking at scripture and practicing most established versions of Christianity.

i I follow here the Jewish tradition of not spelling out the complete name of G-d or any of its synonyms.

ii I’m unable to find the reference – I’m pretty sure it was in the general introduction to the volume.

iii I operate from an unfounded assumption that the poet is male.