Thursday, March 24, 2005
This year, Purim and Good Friday coincide. It's an interesting juxtaposition. Purim is kind of the Jewish carnivale, with costumes, noisemakers, drinking and a general world-turned-upside-down atmosphere. It's not a blow-off before a Lenten season of abstinence (there is a roughly equivalent season: the counting of the omer, which stretches from Passover to Shavuot/Pentecost), but it is a bit analogous in that it begins a period of preparation for the commemoration of a Great Liberating Event: in the Jewish case, Passover, the season of our liberation from Pharaoh; in the Christian case, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the death that liberated mankind from death.
But it's crucially different in that Purim is a festival in its own right. And, as I say, it makes an interesting juxtaposition to the Easter season. The story of Purim, recounted in the Book of Esther, is - like the Christian story - a comedy. It is the story of the triumph of the forces of light over the forces of darkness, a triumph that, for all its worldly events, takes place fundamentally in an esoteric realm. But it is a very different kind of comedy: absurdist, even black in its humor, with an ending that is ambivalent on many levels.
Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Bible never to refer explicitly to God, either by name or by title. (There is one oblique reference to relief coming from "another place" if Esther does not take it upon herself to save her people; personally, I've always thought this referred to Princess Leia.) For that very reason, I suspect, it has become a seminal text, both to the traditionally Orthodox and to those alienated from tradition. Indeed, traditionally it is said that in the days of the Messiah the entire calendar of feasts and fasts will be abrogated - except for Purim, which will continue to be celebrated.
On the one hand, Purim is highly valued in part precisely because of God's absence: the Jewish people, as a whole, renew their faith in God and their fidelity to the covenant in the *absence* of any explicit or miraculous evidence of the divine presence on Earth. As such, the story speaks to the post-lapsarian or post-prophetic or simply modern condition: we, after all, have to see God's presence in a world apparently governed by the cold god of mechanics and statistics. It's also been given an interesting Zionist interpretation recently, according to which the book - because of God's explicit absence - gives religious warrant to pro-active human action against evil, as well as to a certain kind of collective Jewish action, an interpretation that one can easily understand as a rebuke to ultra-Orthodoxy's traditional quietism.
On the other hand, precisely because God is apparently absent from the text, the book has been interpreted as an esoteric parable of Divine Providence. The story must, it seems, be interpreted this way, or its presence in the canon becomes alarming. Think about the literal story. The Jewish people are threatened with utter annihilation because of Haman's fit of pique and King Ahashueros's utter obliviousness. They are saved because of Queen Esther's timely intervention . . . but she is Queen only because the drunken lout of a King fired his previous consort for refusing to dance nude for his buddies, and her intervention is successful only because she, in contrast, prepares a series of debauches to delight her clueless husband. And the King does not finally turn against Haman until he (mistakenly) believes he has caught him forcing himself on Esther in the King's own chambers. So if all this is the fruit of Mordechai's canny politics, well, then Bismarck could probably learn something from Harold Lloyd.
But, once you look behind the scenes, suddenly the story appears to be a marvelous comic allegory. Esther's name is interpreted to be a play on hester, which is not just a street on the Lower East Side but also the Hebrew word for "hidden" and a term in Kabbalistic theodicy (God hides His face from time to time, during which times bad things happen). The encounter between Esther and Ahashueros is understood as an allegory for Israel's relationship with God, or between the individual Jewish soul and God. All this is a way to reconcile Esther's absurdist realism - the world is run by madmen and drunks and wild contingencies determine the fate of nations - with the Bible's vision of an orderly world presided over by an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Creator: the apparent madness is a superficial understanding, but behind the scenes a hidden hand achieves a providential outcome.
The Christian story, culminating in Easter, takes such an esoteric interpretation of reality to a whole other level. It's not just that there's a hidden hand behind the madness of the world; the world itself is only part of the story, and not the most important part. Thus what would appear, on the surface, to be a pretty decisive defeat - the man Jesus, thought to be the Messiah, is rejected by Israel and nailed to a cross and killed - is turned into a profound victory with a resurrection that implies the triumph over the most basic fact of material existence: death itself. Pathetic tragedy becomes absurd comedy - but not of the gallows-humor type that dominates the Book of Esther but something altogether more fantastic.
I've long thought that an excellent text to place in counterpoint to the Book of Esther is Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. The play is comprehensively misunderstood by directors as a sermon against puritan repression. It is anything but. Rather, it is the greatest piece of absurdist theater in history. And I think it can be interpreted as a very subtle and wicked send-up not of the Book of Esther but of the esoteric interpretation of same, and of the notion of a hidden hand of Providence generally.
The plot is highly convoluted and not readily summarized. The Duke, realizing that his duchy has fallen to a low moral state owing to lax enforcement of the law, contrives a plan to reform the country without losing his own popularity. He will abandon the state temporarily, leaving it in the hands of his young and morally upright lieutenant, Angelo - who turns out to be, in fact, a thoroughly unpleasant and unimpressive prig. Angelo immediately sets about enforcing the old laws, and the first man trapped in his vise is Claudio, a poor fellow who has knocked up his girlfriend. Though he agrees to marry her (which you would think would make the problem go away), he is nonetheless condemned to death for fornication. Claudio begs his sister, Isabella, a young hysteric and would-be nun straight out of Freud's casebook (the play, by the way, is set in Vienna; it's coincidences like that make one wonder whether Shakespeare is, in fact, the hidden hand behind the scenes of history) to plead with Angelo for his life. Which she does, and her manifest virtue turns out to be the one thing that can corrupt the incorruptible Angelo, who promptly proposes to release her brother if she surrenders that virtue to him.
So far, so good, and so far the play is an interesting study in precisely what most directors interpret it to be: sexual repression and license. And it's not unreasonable to read Angelo and Isabella in that light, albeit Shakespeare evinces a lot more understanding of these personality types than directors who turn the story into a simple inverted morality tale of which Lucio (a cynical whoremonger) is the hero.
But the play is aiming at something much stranger than this. The Duke has not left Vienna at all; he's been hanging around in the guise of a friar, observing the results of his plan and even advising Claudio on how to prepare his soul for his impending execution. And then, as it becomes clear that his abdication has triggered a manifest injustice, the Duke - still disguised as the friar - intervenes. He has a plan, he explains to the terrified Isabella (who has just vented her fury on her brother when he concludes - ignobly but it's hard to fault him under the circumstances - that she should, in fact, sacrifice her virtue to save his life) whereby she can save Claudio's life and retain her virtue. There ensue a series of plot twists and turns far too complex to summarize here: swapped beds, swapped heads, all manner of ludicrous goings-on. In the end, Angelo is convinced he has slept with Isabella (he hasn't); Isabella is convinced her brother's been executed (he hasn't); and suddenly . . . the Duke returns. All the characters congregate to welcome him, and Isabella asks for justice. And the Duke, of course . . . sides with Angelo, his trusted lieutenant! At which point the friar is called for, so the Duke sneaks out the back . . . and returns as the friar! Now we have to go find the Duke. And it goes on like this for several minutes until someone pulls back the friar's cowl, revealing the Duke. Who now admits that he knows the truth about everything, and concludes the play by arranging a series of matches of increasing unlikelihood, culminating with his own betrothal to . . . Isabella!
It should be apparent why I call this (with some hyperbole, I admit, though I dearly love this play) the greatest piece of absurdist theater in history. My own favored way to understand the play is as a parody of the idea of God as the secret behind-the-scenes director of things. If in the Book of Esther God is apparently absent and unmentioned (directly), in Measure for Measure the "controlling authority" absents himself but (to the audience) his continued presence is clear. The hidden hand is revealed. And the consequence is that the absurdities of our world look . . . even more absurd!
In any event, as you can probably guess there's another meta-rung to this particular ladder. Measure for Measure has been interpreted by some Christian critics as an allegory, along much the same lines as the Kabbalistic interpretation of the Book of Esther. The Duke is understood to be Christ; Isabella is a prospective bride of Christ at the start of the play (she wants to become a nun) and thus the Duke's proposal at the end is the consummation of her wish. And the very visible (and, to my mind, absurd) machinations of the Duke over the course of the play are the mysterious ways of God, all aiming to produce a change in the souls of various characters to reconcile them to God's grace (Isabella in particular, who, it is alleged - plausibly, I might add - learns mercy, an attribute of God's that she did not particularly manifest at the start of the play, to say the least). What I have taken to be a particularly rich and complex satire, some critics have taken to be a pious allegory.
Which raises the question: what about the Book of Esther?
Well, I've strayed rather far from my original intent to juxtapose Purim to Easter. That's probably because I've been walking around with an Esther/Measure essay in my head for a while now, and bits of it wanted to come out. So I'll end with just one more observation on Esther/Measure: if you're determined to stage Measure for Measure as a simple moral story about the evils of repression, do the decent thing and stage it somewhere that message might be needed.
In Persia, say.