The Brook Kerith, A Syrian Story
When a writer takes, as it would seem, every imaginable risk in subject, handling, plot…opening himself most widely to charges of triviality, sensationalism, imperceptiveness, impiety, and blasphemy, and yet incredibly triumphs over them all, another danger is incurred. The reader may become too curiously interested in how the feat has been accomplished to attend duly to what has actually been achieved. Wonderment at the ingenuity of his design, the adroitness of his transitions, the indirections of his presentation, his daring and discretion of invention at all levels, and what else has saved him from so many disasters can becloud our view of what in the end he has done. Not the least of his problems has been to keep all this technical management unobtrusive. Ars est celare artem. Yes, but this, as epigrams often are, is itself too showy to be just. The inquisitive and critical eye can usually search out more than a little of the means employed in even what may seem the least contrived performances. The need is, as Coleridge reminds us, to subordinate “our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.”
The reissue of George Moore’s The Brook Kerith fifty-four years after its first publication (1916) offers an exceptionally good opportunity to appraise these traditional reflections. An attempt to reassess the book after such an interval brings them into sharp focus. Lecturing and benefiting from an alerted and concerned audience’s written comments, I had both its dangers and the measures by which it fended them off brought home. But was the outcome, the attainment as much made clear? This new attempt must try to weigh both means and end.
When The Brook Kerith was being written Moore was one of the most talked about literary personalities alive. This was a position he hardly shrank from. Indeed in Hail and Farewell, three volumes of it, in Conversations in Ebury Street, in A Story-Teller’s Holiday, he happily and at times magnificently supported and adorned it. From his first Zola-inspired, packthread-stitched parcels, his Esther Waters and A Mummer’s Wife, which he grew fond of contrasting with his dewdrop gossamer style, he had repeatedly been a handler of controversial themes: censorship, the unmarried mother, drunkenness, and gambling. Schoolgirls had to lock themselves up to read about them. But he treated them with a sober and sympathetic discernment unexpected amid the frivolings of his public pose. In The Brook Kerith he seemed surely out to shock again: an easy misapprehension which could not be further from the truth. As may be learned from Professor Walter James Miller’s excellently discursive and informing Foreword, the imaginative creator in Moore sheltered behind the figure of Jesus he took pains to present.
The prime technical problem was to present Jesus through an eye which the reader could accept as adequately prepared, through a personality with which we could sympathize deeply enough to permit him to be our representative through whom we might provisionally perceive and respond, be captured, be bewildered, be despair-struck, agonized, overcome…ourselves. And yet the observer had to be a mind rich, wayward, and independent enough to protect our detachment fully.
This medium is Joseph of Arimathea, the member of the Sanhedrin who, according to the Gospels, gave the body of Jesus burial. We first meet him falling asleep on his grandmother’s knee while she is telling him of the prophet Samuel. Joseph’s grandmother, his father Dan, his teacher Azariah, Galilee, Jerusalem, the gorges through to Jericho, the Essene community, Joseph’s stay there, its Head, Hazael, its philosopher, Matthias, the prophets in the deserts about Jordan, Joseph’s tradings, journeyings, self-searchings, all his growth through the years before his first true encounter with Jesus—all this in a thousand ways prepares us to feel with Joseph when, as a dutiful son, he cannot become a disciple. At the same time, the incongruities of the disputing apostles exasperate his heartbroken estrangement from the Jesus he watches distantly through the entry into Jerusalem and meets again only in the night when, having begged Jesus’s body from Pilate and brought it from the cross to his own new tomb, he detects that the victim is still alive.
When Jesus has sufficiently recovered physically, Joseph accompanies him back to the Essene cenoby where, until his baptism by John, he had served as their shepherd. He leaves him there promising to return, but is killed by zealots in Jerusalem. And with that the second great technical problem arises: the transition as seekers from Joseph to Jesus. It is handled by the hill journey Jesus makes in search of the ram needed to restore the brethren’s degenerate flock: an absorbing narrative this, leading into the long years of shepherding, Jesus’s memories of old Joshbekasher “who had taught him all he knew of sheep,” and in the end the handing over of the flock to young Jacob—who, too, has had a long atonement to make for a fault.
All these years the brethren in the cenoby have known little or nothing of what happened between the baptism by John and Jesus’s return. And it is the evening of his handing over that Jesus is moved to tell Hazael, their aged Head, of the unparalleled sin he committed in the near two years of his life unknown to them. But before he can do so a wanderer is seen far off on the opposite side of the gorge making his hazardous way by the cliff path toward them. The brethren fear that he may be a robber and are loth to open the gate. It is Paul fleeing from his pursuers and it is Jesus who admits him, feeds him with ewe’s milk, and bathes his feet.
Next day, while Jesus is away arranging a search for Timothy, who has somehow parted from Paul on their journey toward Caesarea, Paul tells the Essenes the story of his life, of his vision on the road to Damascus and of his ordeals and triumphs in preaching Christ crucified and the resurrection. (An astonishing replaying, this, of the Acts.) The Essenes tell him in return what little they know of Jesus of Nazareth—by which Paul is more deeply disturbed than he knows. When Jesus comes in with news of Timothy, Saddoc, one of the brethren, relays some of Paul’s story to him while Paul gazes in bewilderment. “A great persecutor of Christians. Of Christians? Jesus repeated. And who are they?… Christ is a Greek word, Manahem said, for it seemed to him Saddoc was speaking too much….”
When Paul mentions that his Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed in a garden, “at the words, who was betrayed in a garden, a light seemed to break on Jesus’ face” and he asks permission to tell the brethren what had happened in those two unknown years. It so interests them that when Paul suddenly cries, “A madman! A madman! Or possessed of an evil spirit!” and rushes out “nobody rose to detain him; some of the Essenes raised their heads and, a moment after, the interruption was, forgotten.” Jesus continues his account. When it is ended, Manahem relates Paul’s story in full. Jesus is “overtaken by a great pity for Paul.”
Jesus leaves to tell the truth in Jerusalem but on the way he finds Paul lying under a rock with foam on his lips and just coming out of a great swoon. Jesus revives him and guides him through one of the strangest journeys ever told all the long way to Caesarea. When Paul arrives there and meets Timothy again he is about to tell him of the “madman with a strange light in his eyes…but was stopped by some power within himself.”
So much for samplings and sketchings of the technics, the handling. Can one generalize at all? Perhaps to the extent of noting how continually the chief interest—what it is all about—is forwarded through other, often almost competing, interests: refractors and reflectors of that. As a physicist studies his particles and their interrelationships not immediately but through what may seem devious indications, or as we catch at our own thoughts and feelings through words they play with and hide behind, so what this book is primarily concerned for is advanced through differing minds whose idiosyncrasies are in the utmost degree realized, displayed, allowed for. Joseph, Dan, Peter and his fellow fishers, Nicodemus, Esora, Matthias, Hazael, Jesus, and Paul are as different as people can be. Yet they are all, to a compelling degree, living and comprehensible. And this is certainly a condition of our being able through them to grasp a little of the mystery within which they, with other living minds, play their parts.
As to the little which we may grasp, a thousand readers would be likely, if required, to find a thousand different ways of trying to indicate it. Unless cruelly pressed few would try to utter it; the book in its own unimaginably complex way manages to do that. Apart from examinations, those relatively recent monstrosities, there is little reason why the attempt should be made. What a book does, if it is good enough, can hardly be done otherwise and talking about it is seldom helpful. In contrast, how it manages itself is an eminently discussible and interesting matter. Questions of how are, as it were, anatomy, physiology, and, warily speaking, psychology. But what is done is a moral issue, or better, one of those recognitions out of which moralities arise.
Now that the dust cloud has settled it is easier to think about what Moore was here doing. He was writing a novel about the religious quest. (He had written on a related theme earlier in his Evelyn Innes and Sister Teresa.) He was not taking part in any doctrinal or historical discussions, not saying his or anyone else’s say about the “historicity” of Jesus or about the role of a belief in the Resurrection in a Christian life. The demands of his novel required him to keep it clear from all such concerns; entanglement with them was indeed the most to be feared of all the dangers my first sentence alludes to.
Questions of Biblical exegesis had above all to be avoided. In taking the greatest and most familiar religious figure as his hero he was exposing his work to endless interferences from the preconceptions and imaginative routines of his readers. How insulate it? How not affront? How, in fact, prevent confrontations? We can study his problem concretely by noting how he deals with the little actually said in the Gospels about Joseph of Arimathea. Matthew (27:57) says simply that he was a rich man and a disciple; Mark (15:43) makes him “a councillor of honourable estate who also himself was looking for the Kingdom of God”—as member of the Sanhedrin he could not, perhaps, be very openly a disciple? Luke (23:50) adds that he was “a good man and righteous (he had not consented to their counsel and deed)”; John (19:38) says that he was a disciple, “but secretly for fear of the Jews.”
Moore uses all this but so leads the reader into Joseph’s mind (or Joseph into the reader’s) and so builds up the strain that by the time Mary and Martha are telling him how they “found the stone rolled away and a young man in white garments in the sepulchre” we are listening to them with him and alive with his apprehensions. Jesus is unconscious, precariously hidden in the gardener’s empty cottage and at any moment a house to house search may begin. It is characteristic that Joseph should fall to “wondering at the answers he would make to Pilate, and at the duplicity of these, for he had never suspected himself of cunning. But circumstances make the man, he said, and before Jesus passes out of my keeping I shall have learnt to speak even as he did in double meanings, as Pilate did—as indeed all men do.”
Few come nearer to their own thoughts than Moore’s chief characters. It may be the roominess and richness of their awarenesses of their own thinking that allows the book to retell such a story with impunity. In the end it is the book’s resourcefulness and honesty with itself that protects it as a critique of religious passion and reflection.