THE PRODIGAL SON AND JACOB AND ESAU

“A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country;and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And they began to be merry.”

Gospel of St. Luke 15. 11-24 excerpt from the parable of the Prodigal Son (KJV 1611).

“And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold, Esau came and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. And he put the handmaids, and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost. And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept. And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said Who are those with thee? and he said the children which God hath graciously given thy servant….And Esau said I have enough brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. And Jacob said, Nay I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God and thou wast pleased with me.

From Genesis Ch. 33 KJV 1611

I have long been a lover of Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son much of which is transcribed above. It has, I think, been rightly reckoned one of the greatest short stories ever told. On Sunday’ s worship on BBC 1 I learned something I had never heard before in relation to that parable. It came from Holy Trinity Platt, Manchester where the priest, the Rev.Dr. Paul Mathole, in his address made the illuminating suggestion that Jesus in forming the parable of the Prodigal had in mind the great Genesis story of the reconciliation of the twin brothers Esau and Isaac.

I want to tell you of the background of that story from Genesis, that book so full of a wondrous treasury of stories of the patriarchs. From the beginning, from their emergence from Rebekkah’s womb the twins are involved in struggle on with the other. Already in Genesis there is another, perhaps related, background story of two brothers in opposition, that of the very early tale of Cain and Abel, in which the differences between the two brothers , one a hunter one a shepherd leads to the murder of Abel by Cain -a story, the significance of which is brilliantly brought to life by a Jordan Peterson lecture. With Esau and Jacob there is a similar contrast:

“and when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, there were twins in her womb. And the first came out all red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau. And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel… and the boys grew and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man dwelling in tents. The contrast is complicated by the rival favourings of the parents :And Isaac [by this time an old man] loved Esau , because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekkah loved Jacob.

I wont go into the detail of the two stories by which Esau is tricked by Jacob of his birthright and -aided by his mother- his dying father’s blessing which if you do not know I would very much encourage you to read. The consequence is that Jacob has to run away and while eventually he does very well marrying and building up his wealth he is conscious of Esau’s assumed enmity for his former treatment of him. The confrontation with Esau described at the beginning of the quoted excerpt, in Ch. 33, is approached by Jacob with dread. The last thing he expects is the kind of welcome he receives from his brother, just as the prodigal son does not expect the reception he gets from his father.

There is a further element to the story. On the night before the encounter with his brother Jacob has a vision:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said ,Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said Jacob. And he said , Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me , I pray thee, thy name. And he said Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Penuel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he rose over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

(Genesis 32: 24-31 KJV 1611))

In the story of the Prodigal we see the Father representing the love of God and the care of God for the lost. It is consistent with the view of God as Father presented throughout the gospels (“Our Father”). In Jacob’s vision, whether brought by fear for his life in encountering Esau or by his guilt for his past treatment of his brother, he wrestles with an opponent, who is perceived to be God, and whose blessing Jacob is conscious of needing. The blessing makes Jacob conscious he has been brought face to face with God.

When, however, Jacob experiences Esau’s loving reception he sees in Esau, God’s face (“I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me” Gen. 33.10). The two stories then -that of the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob and the reception of the son in the parable of the Prodigal Son- are similar in their dramatic interest. Both present characters whose repentance is expressed as fear they will be given their just desserts for their past actions, both show those characters forming prudent schemes for escaping full censure, both demonstrate a surprising reception expressing generous love, that both sweeps aside the faults of the past, and the proposed prudent settlement, for one of loving unity; in doing which both express a love that is seen to be the action of a loving God.

WHILST BROWSING: A NOTE ON DOSTOEVSKY’S DEMONS

“In the nineteenth century Russia under the influence of their progressive parents, a generation of educated young people was convinced of the illegitimacy of the Tsarist regime. Dostoevsky’s “Demons” (1871) is a vivid chronicle of the tragic and farcical process by which progressive liberals discredited traditional institutions and unleashed a wave of revolutionary terror. Not only tsarism but any form of government came to be seen as repressive. As one of Dostoevsky’s characters put it “I got entangled with my data…… shifting from unlimited freedom I concluded with unlimited despotism”.

From John Gray “The Woke have No Vision for the Future” Unherd.

Unherd is one of my favourite websites. It was set up to “push back against herd mentality with new and bold thinking and provide a platform for otherwise unheard, ideas, people and places”. This week there was an essay by the author John Gray quoted above which, within its argument, makes reference to Dostoevsky’s novel “The Demons” ( which when I read it a long time ago was translated “The Possessed”) in connection with recent troubles in the U.S following the George Floyd killing. The argument is complex and I shall not attempt to summarise it here though if interested I would recommend you to look at it on the site. However the discussion of Dostoevsky drew my attention. He is a writer whose big four novels I absorbed in late adolescence but to which I have seldom returned since. Reading Gray’s essay adducing “The Demons” to understand the state of our post-liberal world makes me want to read that novel again.

ON THE PICTURESQUE: JANE AUSTEN

From Sense and Sensibility

Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne’s attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him when Edward interrupted her by saying, “You must not enquire too far , Marianne- remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth , which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought to be only indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country- the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug-with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility- and I dare say it is a picturesque one too because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush-wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.

I am afraid it is but too true,” said Marianne; “but why should you boast of it?”

I suspect,” said Elinor, “that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration than they feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious, and will have an affectation of his own.

It is very true ” says Marianne, “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense of meaning”

I am convinced ” said Edward,” that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined,tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farmhouse than a watch-tower-and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at his sister. Elinor only laughed.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility Vol. 1 xv111

One of the delights of reading Jane Austen is coming across conversations like this-lively and clever bringing out character in its relation to the topic at hand as well as the thematic development of the novel. He points to the terminology he uses as opposed to that which he should use if pre-disposed to the picturesque (“bold” rather than “steep” for hills, and instead of”distant objects out of sight” what “ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere”) in a way that demonstrates amusingly that Edward knows a lot about the picturesque while disclaiming such knowledge. In doing so we appreciate the wit of clever judgement.

Elinor, with rational perceptiveness, recognises the discrepancy between what Edward is claiming and how he is doing it and she sees it as a way of avoiding “one kind of affectation” by “falling into another”. Such a claim points to the relevance for us of the way argument in general is conducted. It is not simply about an old aesthetic topic now irrelevant ( though in fact this argument continues to resonate for a population of scenery admirers where we are always engaged with the question as to what particularly raises or lessens our admiration for such a particular scene) it is about the way people argue. Marianne, with sensitive intelligence, recognises the general tendency to adopt particular terms or stereotypical notions disallowing nuance. So she often stays quiet rather than using language which is “worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning”.

Edward then furthers the debate by developing the argument he has earlier made based on an admiration combining beauty and utility (which word of course points to the philosophy Bentham was at that point developing and which will have a major effect on the nineteenth century and beyond in utilitarianism) with a more specific criticism of the picturesque: “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles” using contrasting illustrations-“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing.”

The theme of the novel, indicated by the title, balances sense with sensibility. Marianne is the character who represents “sensibility” which emphasises fine feeling. In a recent blog on the development of the word “romantic” we saw how its emphasis became associated not so much with the old romances as with suitable settings and attraction to these. The word developed strong subjective connection of how it looks to how I feel about its appearance. This prepared for a development of “picturesque” ideas distinguishing what looks good (“romantic”) at the expense of more objective ideas of value. To Edward the “cottage” is a ruin,its justification as a building is lost. Picturesque values might emphasise the cottage’s graceful appropriateness for overall effect of a view. And such internalised effects were thoroughly investigated, as Edward mockingly shows in his use of the vocabulary.

The argument concludes unresolved. Elinor keeps her balanced appreciation of the two sides of the argument by laughing. Marianne is too inclined towards a romanticism upholding the feelings to understand a counter point of view. With her primacy of the feelings commands her reason.

We can see in the movement from the rational minded Edward to the romantic Marianne the balancing centre of the Elinor who laughs- her laugh representing the wit and wisdom of the artist who could appreciate both points of view.

It is a wisdom of which we are sorely in need to this day. During Lockdown, after three months there is increasing sense of imbalance and lack of proportion. A widely respected professional novelist, mainly of children’s books, tweeted a witty ironic comment -not unworthy of Jane Austen- on a proposed definition of women, which was met with outrage. No considered argument -that I saw publicised- was used to answer the implied criticism. The author was simply traduced for not being on the side of approved opinion.

Oh, for the sense of balance a Jane Austen’s laugh might bring!

POPPIES

I love the time of year-mid May- when poppies first appear in our garden. I remember them so often as I passed them in fields scattered among the wheat on the road between North Berwick and Edinburgh. Here is a poem on poppies.

Poppies

You are not
simple indiscretions at a summer fete
shunned by suburban florists

You are
gregarious rebels
anarchists in Nature's hierarchy.

Inveterate guerillas against camouflage
You open reckless, bloody wounds
among fields of smug corn.

You will always be
a conflagration of heartache
reeking of drowsy Keats
emblem both of Remembrance and Oblivion.

My pets, my feral poppies.

Christopher Morgan “Poppies” from “Stalking the A4″Edgeways The Brynmill Press 2009

The poem so wittily presents the contrasts and contradictions the flower represents. Offset against the decorous tidiness of the show flowers of the fete and against the fields of “smug corn” are the suggestions of the wild untameability of the flower against all our instincts to regulate and order nicely. How wonderfully right is that word “conflagration” ( the long four syllables containing the word “flag” which occasions the outburst of various feelings and associations the flower can set off as it spreads here and there in the fields).

Pets, of course, are not by definition feral but by our love of the flowers we seek to contain, while recognising we cannot contain their wild unpredictable manifestation of life.

But ignore me just go back to the poem and draw from its profuse richness!

For readers unaware of the allusion to Keats it comes from the second stanza of “To Autumn” where Keats is seeking to personify Autumn by representing the range of harvest activities.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on ahalf-reap’d furrow sound asleep

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cider-press, with a patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

 

 

LOOKING AT THE WORD “ROMANTIC”(1)

You all know the word “romantic” and it arouses all kinds of expectations. It is that kind of word. But where did it come from and how did it develop? It is an interesting story.

In the last blog while I used the word ” Romantic” I was very conscious how complex a word it is. After all the title “Making the Novel Romantic” would have encouraged many readers to imagine I was referring to Mills and Boon type fiction when I was really thinking, not about romance or passion at all, but the influence of romanticism on the Bronte sisters.

The word “romance, ” of course, is the connecting link. It developed from “romaunt” -a verse romance from Old French, as with “Romaunt of the Rose ” translated by Chaucer. But the connections of the word were ancient , going back to Rome and the development of verse in various “provincial” languages of the Roman Empire.

The word “romantic” suddenly appeared in the mid-seventeenth century in English. Since then, it has become a word which mixes ideas of aesthetic appreciation, of associations with romance or passion, of critical attitudes towards the word by rational thinkers and of the exaltation of certain qualities of feeling and imagination. Quite an assortment! Also, as we shall see, it has a complex history of cross-fertilisation with other European tongues, particularly French and German, both of which languages borrowed the word, developed it further and then returned it to English.

I went through much of my life, carrying this legacy of various meanings, without ever endeavouring to sort them out. Then I came across an old book, in a second hand bookshop, by Logan Pearsall Smith, a name I had heard mentioned with a high degree of respect by some critics I admired. This work Words and Idioms, published in 1925 included a chapter on the word “Romantic”, its history and development along with associated words, all of which developed their meanings dramatically, such as “originality”, “imagination”, “genius”, “creativity”. The chapter provided me a real education by showing how the understanding of the development of a new word -or cluster of words- helps us understand key movements of thought.

I would like to share some of Pearsall Smith’s explorations with you. If this wakens your interest I would strongly recommend you to try to get the book to read the chapter in full.

The word “romantic” was first used from the mid-seventeenth century indicating a spirit of critical detachment.:

Its appearance …is an indication of a change in human thought, and marks the moment when that change had become obvious enough to need a term to express it. Romantic simply meant like the old romances for which they were needing a name -that they were being critical of them, and had begun to view them with a certain detachment…. The special characteristic of all these romances, for which a name was now needed, was their falseness and unreality, all that was imaginary and impossible in them, all that was contrary to the more rational view of life which was beginning to dominate men’s minds. The growth of this conception of “order” and “nature”, this “dawn of reason”, as an eighteenth century writer called it, threw into relief certain groups of irrational elements which were opposed to it. The phenomena of religious fanaticism was branded “enthusiasm” and the fictions and imaginations of the old romances were labelled by the word “romantic”. The meaning of “false” “fictitious”, “imaginary”, implied by romantic was applied both to the supernatural elements in the medieval romances, their giants, magicians and enchanted castles; and also to the false, impossible, high-flown sentiments of the later romances; those “wild romantic tales” as a seventeeth century writer described them , “wherein they strain love and honour to that ridiculous height it becomes burlesque.”

It is noticeable also, that running concurrently with this deprecating tone towards the “romantic” there was also a devaluation of the word “imagination”. Imagination, of course, was to be exalted during the Romantic era by Blake and Coleridge as the supreme power of creativity. But to Hobbes the essential element in a poetry was Reason. “Judgement begets the strength and structure and Fancy begets the ornaments of a poem.” The imagination came to be regarded as la folle de logis, in Descartes’ phrase , or, in Dryden’s words as “a wild lawless faculty, that like a high ranging spaniel, must have clogs tied to it lest it outrun judgement”,”. (An Essay of Dramatic Poesie)

How then do we move from the denigration implied by the word “romantic”(and its associate “imagination”) to its exaltation leading us to Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Keats and on to what we looked at last time with Charlotte Bronte’s letter.

There grew in the eighteenth century along with the philosohical and rational distrust of imagination, the aesthetic attraction of the romantic setting. “Romantic” here meant “redolent or suggestive of romance; appealing to the imagination or feelings” (O.E.D).

“The word romantic then, from the general meaning of “like the old romances”, came to be used as a descriptive term for the scenes which they describe, old casles, mountains and forests, pastoral plains, waste and solitary places. In the earlier instances of the adjective the literary reference is more or less explicit; but by the eighteenth century it had come to express more generally the newly awakened, but as yet half-conscious, love for wild nature, for mountains and moors, for the “woods, Rivers, or Sea-shores” which Shaftesbury mentions as sought by those “who are deep in a this romantic way” ( Shaftesbury Moralists 1709) .

Dr Johnson the commanding literary figure of the mid-eighteenth century, the generation before the first Romantics, displays both meanings:

Dr. Johnson almost invariably uses the word [ie. “romantic”] with its depreciatory meaning ( “romantic and superfluous”,” ridiculous and romantic” ” romantic absurdities or incredible fictions” etc) was so influenced by the prevalent fashion as to try his unwieldy hand at a landscape of this kind.

When night overshadows a romantick scene, all is stillness, silence and quiet” (The Adventurer No. 108 . 1753.

When the French borrowed the word they at first translated it as romanasque or pittoresque. However, when Rousseau used it directly it as romantique, it was included in the Dictionary of the French Academy in 1798 being defined as Il se dit ordinairement des lieux, des paysages qui rapellent a l’imagination les descriptions des poemes et des romans.(Please excuse my French translation: “it usually refers to the places,the landscapes,scenery which appeal to the imagination in the descriptions of poems and stories” )

Pearsall Smith shows how the French definition underlines the subjective and also literary nature of the word. “In the first place romantic is like interesting,, charming, exciting one of those modern words which desribe, not so much the objective qualities of things, as our response to them, the feelings they arouse in the susceptible spectator. Secondly, it is nature seen through the medium of literature…..It is curious also to note the appearance and popularity of the word picturesque at the same time as romantique for just as romantique means Nature seen through a literary medium , so picturesque was used to descibe words that were like pictures and were seen through the medium of another art, that of painting. Painting and literature had been from ancient times judged and criticized by their relation to Nature; but his curious reversal of the process the projection of art into Nature through the coloured glass of art, and from a consciously literary point of view , is an element that must not be neglected”.

The entry into French then emphasised the subjective quality of the word. Equally interesting and perhaps more far-reaching developments took place when “romantic” was transported to Germany , as with France, in the late seventeenth century. Romantisch appears in a translation of Thomson’s Seasons. Romantic literature and poetry, the literature and poetry of the Middle Ages, were , in contrast with those of classical times, called romantisch ; and from this comparison and contrast the German philosophers and critics evolved that great bugbear of modern criticism, the famous opposition between classical and romantic”.

This was accentuated by the aesthetic differences between Goethe and Schiller but developed into a strenuous cultural dispute furthered by its entry into France from Germany during the revolutionary period. The result was

The romantic poets first in Germany , then in France, were the poets who, scorning and rejecting the models of the past and the received rules of composition prided themselves on their freedom from law, and on their own artistic spontaneity.”

So was developed the association of Romanticism with a scornful attitude to the application of the accepted conventions of art and a spirit of rebelliousness and individualism in his attitude to his art and his role in society.

To summarise on the various meanings we have found for”romantic” and to suggest very briefly their present relevance: on the popular level the connection of “romantic” with “romance means the word retains its association with the sentiment of love. The critical implication associated with “romances” ,however, is retained with the use of the word “romanticising”, always, I think, implying unrealism. The development of the idea of a romantic setting continues, as does the strong subjective attachment to such a setting. “Romantic” as a battle-cry in opposition to classical is less marked-though we are perhaps more conscious of it marking the change betwee the more formal classical music of the eighteenth century and the romanticism of a figure like Beethoven, after the French Revolution. However, the idea of the artist as a challenger and rebel, individualistic and scorning convention might be seen continuing in the twentieth century in the career of poet like Dylan Thomas and indeed it could be said to be the life-style to which the controversial rock star aspires. But perhaps that suggests the idea in its decadence!

(Topic to be continued)

MAKING THE NOVEL ROMANTIC

From Charlotte Bronte responding to G. H. Lewes (respected Victorian critic to become George Eliot’s partner) who had recommended her to read Jane Austen.

I got the book (ie. Pride and Prejudice) and studied it. What did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced garden with neat borders and delicate flowers-but no glance of vivid physiognomy-no open country- no fresh air-no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.