Impressions of “Orthodoxy,” by G.K. Chesterton

I previously read The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) and The Everlasting Man (1925) by G.K. Chesterton, so I was interested in Orthodoxy (1908), his description of Christianity. Chesterton falls short of the St. Augustine’s Confessions (400) and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (1952). Additionally, and oddly, his description of Buddhism is odd, and as this was repeated two decaldes later in Everlasting, I wonder if he relied on some treasured, if incorrect, source. Yet the book is thought provoking, and was not a waste of time.

Confessions is the psychological autobiography of a rich kid finding himself, and finding God. Mere Christianity is an easy to read introduction to very common Christian ideas. Orthodoxy is neither of these. Very little about Chesterton or his life is discussed, but the tone of elevated and somewhat archaic. It feels like a document from another civilization, with rhetorical techniques that seem both clever and artificial.

The best parts of the work are those that tease Chesterton’s later work, The Everlasting Man. There’s some really funny lines about the press, showing that fake news and the quality of news media as the hobbies of the rich were also true a century ago.

This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may think it liberty by comparison. People out of Portland Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty.

Unexpectedly, Chesterton also includes what appears to be an extended defense of the existence of ghosts, noting that the “scientific” conditions demanded by skeptics would fail to include many aspects of human society

The question of whether miracles ever occur is a question of common sense and of ordinary historical imagination: not of any final physical experiment. One may here surely dismiss that quite brainless piece of pedantry which talks about the need for “scientific conditions” in connection with alleged spiritual phenomena. If we are asking whether a dead soul can communicate with a living it is ludicrous to insist that it shall be under conditions in which no two living souls in their senses would seriously communicate with each other. The fact that ghosts prefer darkness no more disproves the existence of ghosts than the fact that lovers prefer darkness disproves the existence of love. If you choose to say, “I will believe that Miss Brown called her fiance a periwinkle or, any other endearing term, if she will repeat the word before seventeen psychologists,” then I shall reply, “Very well, if those are your conditions, you will never get the truth, for she certainly will not say it.” It is just as unscientific as it is unphilosophical to be surprised that in an unsympathetic atmosphere certain extraordinary sympathies do not arise. It is as if I said that I could not tell if there was a fog because the air was not clear enough; or as if I insisted on perfect sunlight in order to see a solar eclipse.

The exact same logic can be used ot defend the existence of “grey aliens” of course… who share many aspects with elves, or demons. This intersection between religion and the paranormal is a hidden theme of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (2015). Similar themes appear in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (1945) and Michael Heiser’s The Facade, and the first half of Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites (1967).

Near the end of the book there is a comparison of Buddhist and Christian art. Or there would be one if it was accurate. Chesterton argues that Christian saints are always shown with their eyes open, and that in “Chinese temples,” the saints are always shown with their eyes closed

Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike, there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art. I do not mean in its technical style of representation, but in the things that it was manifestly meant to represent. No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.

I’ve been in Chinese Buddhist temples, and this is simply incorrect. Buddhist and Catholic sculpture, in particular, often use the same trick of having the statue looking forward and down, so the viewer must kneel and look up to see the statue’s eyes. For example, consider Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy, an amalgamation of a traditional figure in Chinese religion with a historical disciple of the Buddha. The emotional impact to a Chinese Buddhist of looking up at Guanyin’s (the Goddess of Mercy’s) compassionate eyes must be similar to kneeling and looking up at the eyes of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Worse for Chesterton’s argument, just as Mary is often the character of dramatic performances (from nativity plays to more involved medieval passion plays), so is Guanyin. The extension of her many arms, to help every creature, is performed yearly in front of an audience of hundreds of millions on Chinese television (with her eyes open, of course).

Chesterton, attempting to show a difference between Christianity, raises a deeper question: why are non-Christian traditions so like shadows of Christian ideas?  One answer is that it is the devil mocking Christ. Another it is the King of the Universe making straight the way of the LORD. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argued that such non-Christian depictions of Christian themes are simplified hagiophanies, appearances of the holy, “good dreams” whispered by the Holy Spirit.

Yet that comment about “tradition” brings up another point, and one Chesterton does not spend enough time on. Tradition is the democracy of the living and the dead. In the same way a federal government with checks and powers aggregates different factions to promote the general welfare, preventing any one from being a tyranny, tradition is a block on the tyranny of the age.

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the
tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with
the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

So, Orthodoxy is an odd book. In some ways its as inaccessible as Confessions and as impersonal as Mere Christianity. But it is thought provoking. I didn’t expect my review to tough on both UFOs and political philosophy, though here we are. It’d recommend Chesterton’s other books first, and C.S. Lewis before them, but Orthodoxy should be preserved, lest it is forgotten.

I listened to Orthodoxy on unadbridged audible.

Impressions of “Exploring New Europe: A Bicycle Journey,” by Barry Wood

Recently I read Exploring New Europe, the story of the author’s trip from Estonia to Albania on bicycle. The trip occurs in several legs, of around a week each, between which the author returned to the United States to live and work. Unsurprisingly the easiest part of the Germany appeared to be on the modern and expansive biketrails created in the old East Germany… the hardest and most dangerous part of the journey was in Bulgaria, the “graveyard of cycling dreams.”

Most days the author journeyed between 45 and 50 miles, starting around 10 AM and finishing around 6 PM. This is a leisurely pace, and it’s inspiring to see how much of the world one can travel by bicycle. I personally appreciated the author’s use of almost no reservations in his travel — while AirBNB has changed this somewhat, the greatest adventures are the one’s you can’t find on google before hand.

Plus, the author released a youtube “trailer” for the book, which captures the spirit well:

This book was published after the recent elections, yet it feels out of time. It reminds me of the celebrations of globalization I read in the 1990s and 200s, like Tom Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World is Flat (2005). Long ago a called Friedman a genius, but Friedman and his followers have not transitioned to the post-crash world. There’s a breezy attitude toward “risk” that ignores optionality. Beyond “self-confidence” or “vision,” anyone whose experienced an old Empire crumble would be rationally nervous about the future of a new Empire

I’m sure [he] would have moved ahead if he owned by B&B. He would have gotten the needed permits and bank loans for development. [The actual owner], by contract, was just holding on. He didn’t have self-confidence or vision.

Likewise, the Euro-optimism doesn’t take into effect that the European dream is dying in the west, where Britain is soon leaving the Union, and the cause of dying in the East, and the War in the Donbas drags on

Some of the countries I crossed — Serbia, Macedonia, Albania — are still knocking on the door, and Kaliningrad as part of Russia is a special case. Make no mistake, the European dream is still alive.

I enjoy bicycling and liked this book of biking adventures. It was breezy to read and balanced discussing the countries with the authors own thoughts and some details on the biking. But it doesn’t match the current concerns of Europe, or even the feel of this period of globalization (if the world is still globalizing).

I read Exploring New Europe: A Bicycle Journey in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklinkgs,” by Philip and Carol Zaleski

On the recommendation of Mark Safranski, I recently read this history of the “Inklinkgs” literary society. The narrative focuses primarily on the group’s two most famous members, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The authors spend considerable time with two writers I was not previously familiar with, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams.

Mark’s review is more thoughtful and comprehensive than these impressions. You read should it.”

I was struck by the relationship between Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien was the more conventionally religious. Lewis had the more interesting path, including an early (and only literary?) interest in sadomasochism and an often quixotic (sometimes conveniently so) view of Christian doctrine and practice. The discussion of Barfield and Williams serves as a way of providing background between Tolkien and Lewis – who are perhaps as close to Christian literary prophets as the world has since the death of John.

The deterioration of their relationship seems to have had multiple causes. Tolkien was a perfectionist who tried to make a Middle Earth as internally coherent as possible, C.S. Lewis‘ Narnia was intended to be fun and easy to read. Tolkien seems to have become increasingly hostile to Protestantism, while Lewis never last an inner wildness. As neither was quite as humble as they presented themselves.

The sub-plot of Owen Barfield was interesting. For most of the book a minor hanger-on with an inexplicable interest in a quack German philosopher, he finds a kind of celebrity in the United States among both Christian and counter-culture circles. The book never mentioned Barfield in association with explicitly Christian counter-cultural groups (though it briefly does with dungeons-and-dragons and the drug subculture), and more would have been appreciated.

Intellectually, new things I learned of were an alternative reading of That Hideous Strength (one of my favorite books of all time), the bizarre “two Jesus theory,” and just how chummy the British academic system was. I regret the authors never satisfactorily explained Barfield’s “evolution of consciousness” theory, as the phrase is used over and over again, and never seemed to mean anything in particular.

On unabridged audible the Fellowship was more than 26 hours, but went very fast. (Compare it to the 33 hours of The Wise Men, which took me a year to complete).

Impressions of “The Man Who Was Thursday,” by G.K. Chesteron

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is not out of date, but the Introduction of the Woodsworth Edition (1995) a friend lent me is. Thursday begins at a hipster gathering in London, where the protagonist is annoyed at an anarchist wannabe. “Fantastic though they may be,” begins the 1990s introduction, “but anarchists, assassins, and spies played a chilling role in the history of the early 20th century.” Given the deadly shootings, mass arrests, and mass rapes at riots caused by antifa and Islamist trouble makers, perhaps someone in the 2090s will be equally naïve.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a short page-turner. Every chapter ends wither at a cliff-hanger or a shocking revelation. It’s also really funny in the dry British sense (“He has a face that grows on one. It has already grown on him, and I am sure one day it will grow on me.”) and an interesting allegory. I can’t describe it much without giving too much away, but the title refers to the “Supreme Anarchist Council,” a secret society where the duly-elected delegates are given code-names.

Two consecutive chapters, “The Criminals Chase the Police” and “The World in Anarchy,” reminded me of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931). The allegorical and supernatural nature, the quick writing, the insanity of what should be peaceful rural life, brought back the best of that story. I wonder if there was a genre of “being chased through small tranquil towns” that has since vanished.

This is the first fiction I’ve read by G.K. Chesterton (I earlier read his popular history of the world, The Everlasting Man (1925)). It evokes later C.S. Lewis books, like The Screwtape Letters (1942) and The Great Divorce (1945).

The introduction to the edition I read was poor. So was the postscript, written by the author but not intended for inclusion in the book, is not in keeping with the tone of the work. Skip both.

Impressions of “The Mind Parasites” by Colin Wilson

The Mind Parasites is an odd book. Its an easy to read book whose narrative breaks down, and whose bizarre ending makes you think the author began taking mescalin half way through the composition. It’s a very clever Lovecraft homage. Its philosophy is terrifying.

First, to the writing style and story. I’d called The Mind Parasites a combination of The Third Policeman, by Brian O’Nolan, and A Colder War, by Charles Stross. Like The Third Police Man, it is a straightforward narrative that is presented as if it is an academic work from the future. The narrator, one of the characters in the Mind Parasites, is himself the object of study, so for example

You can see that it is all a problem of language. I am being forced to make do with one or two words when I need about fifty. It is not quite analogous to describing colours to a blind man, because no human being is entirely “blind”; we all have glimpses of freedom. But freedom has as many colours as the spectrum.

is footnoted with

The above passage comes from a manuscript written in 2005. (M.F.: WHA-3271). We have included it for the sake of continuity. This whole problem is covered in minute detail in Austin’s monumental Life, Being and Language (2025-2041), particular Vol. 8, chaps 7-9.

And The Mind Parasites is like A Colder War because it presents the Cthulhu Mythos as real. As the story begins, Unknown Kadath is discovered, buried in Turkey. Inscriptions to The Great Old Ones are found, “impossibly” old. And being the real world, the media overreacts. There’s a greatest archaeological discovery every, ever generation or so. And in that sense complaining about an implausible ending perhaps is unfair — I recall how A Colder War ended!

But the best part of “The Mind Parasites” the parasites themselves. It’s the most plausible modern presentation of demonology I’ve encountered. It is as vivid a depiction of the demonic influence as Evangelion Neon Genesis is to angels, or The Great Divorce is to purgatory.

A “mind parasite” is a non-physical creature that obtains energy by eating your thoughts. It replaces some thought or pattern of thought about a person, an action, or a thing with its own. For instance, it may replace a calculated desire for money with greed, or a desire to do more with sloth. The most evolutionary effective parasites are those that leave their hosts alive and in good health. The most successful mind parasite – the most effective demon — are those that would leave the soul in the highest level of purgatory, with the greatest access to the refrigerium.

The mind is considered to be a biological machine, which works around these parasites, and can even incorporate them into its own mechanisms. So the mind of the greedy man, in the example above, might incorporate this greed, using it to other virtues while embedded the parasite in a protective callous, limiting it influence to the business world. Yet while this preserves high mental functioning, it makes the mind parasite more difficult to extract later. Medical doctors use intersecting beams of radiation and chemical treatments to remove such embedded illnesses. God uses fire.

In the worst cases the mind parasites completely colonizes the mind, leaving the victim a zombie of shambling parasitical thought and behaviors. In The Great Divorce, a guide tells the narrator there is hope for a quarrelsome woman, if she is still a murmurer, and not just a murmur. There is hope for any mind infested by parasites, as long as there is a non-parasitical portion of the mind left.

I read The Mind Parasites in the Kindle edition.

The Second Book of Esdras

Recently I read — well, I’m not sure what it’s called. Let’s back up.

Traditionally the book I read would be called 4 Esdras, or the Fourth Book of Ezra. But Protestant, and then English-language Catholic translations, renumbered a series of books, 1 Esdras became Ezra, 2 Esdras became Nehemiah, 3 Esdras became 1 Esdras, and 4 Esdras became 2 Esdrass So 2 Esdras may either mean this book, or the Book of Nehemiah. Further, this book is so obviously a triptych that its parts are sometimes broken up, with the middle called 4 Esdras or 4 Ezras the first two chapters called 5 Esdras, and the last two called 6 Esdras. The part called 4 Esdras in that naming scheme corresponds to Ezra Salathiel in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Some churches call it 3 Ezras.

But the Revised Standard Version and the 1611 King James Bible both call it 2 Esdras. So that’s what I’m going with. The Second Book of Esdras.

The Second Book of Esdras is supposedly narrated by Ezra, whose inter-office memos with the Emperor of Babylon are recorded in the Book of Ezra and who is often considered to be the final editor of the Five Books of Moses. Most churches consider 2 Esdras to be Apocryphal. 2 Esdras even less accepted than the Prayer of Manasseh, though the core of bulk of 2 Esdras is at least more widely adopted than the Ethiopian-Orthodox-only Book of Enoch. There’s disputes over what portions were written by Christians under Roman rules, and what portions were written under Pharisees under Roman rule. Considering that many Pharisees, like Saul of Tarsus, considered themselves Christians, there may not be much of a difference.

There are three sections, each of which deal with God’s judgment on Israel. The first and last are apocalypses. The middle section — longest of the three — is a dialogue on the presence of suffering and the vision of woman.

Now, from the end the beginning. First, the last:

Many images in 2 Esdras are shared with the New Testament, such as the seeds in the field

Woe to those who are choked by their sins and overwhelmed by their iniquities, as a field is choked with underbrush and its path overwhelmed with thorns, so that no one can pass through
2 Esdras 16:77

Which recalls the parable of the sower

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
Matthew 13:3-7

But not all the parables are passables. Images of the Holocaust — the burnt offering — of the mid 20th century come to mind

As in an olive orchard three or four olives may be left on every tree, or as when a vineyard is gathered some clusters may be left by those who search carefully through the vineyard, so in those days three or four shall be left by those who search their houses with the sword…. They shall be like mad men, sparing no one, but plundering and destroying those who continue to fear the Lord. For they shall destroy and plunder their goods, and drive them out of their houses.
2 Esdras 16:29-31, 71-72

The author was not the first to use holocaust imagery in this way:

The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu (1928)

Within this context, the command not to be anxious of physical things

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
Matthew 6:31-34

Puts on the airs of an escape from a burning city

Hear my words, O my people; prepare for battle, and in the midst of the calamities be like strangers on the earth. Let him that sells be like one who will flee; let him that buys be like one who will lose; let him that does business be like one who will not make a profit; and let him that builds a house be like one who will not live in it; let him that sows be like one who will not reap; so also him that prunes the vines, like one who will not gather the grapes;
2 Esdras 16:40-43

There’s one line that I want to highlight. I’ll return to the theme later.

Just as a respectable and virtuous woman abhors a harlot, so righteousness shall abhor iniquity, when she decks herself out, and shall accuse her to her face, when he comes who will defend him who searches out every sin on earth.
2 Esdras 16:49-50

Next, the first:

The physical nightmare at the end of 2 Esdras is matched by promises of a nightmare at the beginning. God condemns Israel and announces a blood price will be due

Thus says the Lord Almighty: Have I not entreated you as a father entreats his sons or a mother her daughters or a nurse her children, that you should be my people and I should be your God, and that you should be my sons and I should be your father? I gathered you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But now, what shall I do to you? I will cast you out from my presence. When you offer oblations to me, I will turn my face from you; for I have rejected your feast days, and new moons, and circumcisions of the flesh. I sent to you my servants the prophets, but you have taken and slain them and torn their bodies in pieces; their blood I will require of you, says the Lord.
2 Esdras 1:28-32

But (in a hint at what the last section is missing), there is still time of repentance

Rise and stand, and see at the feast of the Lord the number of those who have been sealed. Those who have departed from the shadow of this age have received glorious garments from the Lord. Take again your full number, O Zion, and conclude the list of your people who are clothed in white, who have fulfilled the law of the Lord. The number of your children, whom you desired, is full; beseech the Lord’s power that your people, who have been called from the beginning, may be made holy.”
2 Esdras 2:38-41

And the Son of God himself will be coming with palms.

I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude, which I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, “Who are these, my lord?” He answered and said to me, “These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and they have confessed the name of God; now they are being crowned, and receive palms.” Then I said to the angel, “Who is that young man who places crowns on them and puts palms in their hands?” He answered and said to me, “He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord. Then the angel said to me, “Go, tell my people how great and many are the wonders of the Lord God which you have seen.”
2 Esdras 2:42-48

The Messiah, when he comes, will not change a single letter of the law, but apply it to all people

What shall I do to you, O Jacob? You would not obey me, O Judah. I will turn to other nations and will give them my name, that they may keep my statutes.
2 Esdras 1:24

Though perhaps not all promises are kept. The Father condemns…

Because you have forsaken me, I also will forsake you. When you beg mercy of me, I will show you no mercy. When you call upon me, I will not listen to you; for you have defiled your hands with blood, and your feet are swift to commit murder.
2 Esdras 1:25-26

… but the Son will intercede.

And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
Luke 23:33-35

The heart of the story:

The heart of 2 Esdras begins with Ezra complaining to God about cruelty and injustice. If God hates Israel enough to destroy Jerusalem (poetically by the Babylonians, and against by the Romans), He really just should torture her directly and stop using intermediaries:

If thou dost really hate thy people, they should be punished at thy own hands.”
2 Esdras 5:30

And in the darkest moments, as with Job, the “original” horror of Thomas Ligotti

No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. This is our curse alone. Without this hex upon our heads, we would never have withdrawn as far as we have from the natural—so far and for such a time that it is a relief to say what we have been trying with our all not to say: We have long since been denizens of the natural world. Everywhere around us are natural habitats, but within us is the shiver of startling and dreadful things. Simply put: We are not from here. If we vanished tomorrow, no organism on this planet would miss us. Nothing in nature needs us.”
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2012)

seems plagiarized

I replied and said, “O earth, what have you brought forth, if the mind is made out of the dust like the other created things! For it would have been better if the dust itself had not been born, so that the mind might not have been made from it. But now the mind grows with us, and therefore we are tormented, because we perish and know it. Let the human race lament, but let the beasts of the field be glad; let all who have been born lament, but let the four-footed beasts and the flocks rejoice! For it is much better with them than with us; for they do not look for a judgment, nor do they know of any torment or salvation promised to them after death. For what does it profit us that we shall be preserved alive but cruelly tormented? For all who have been born are involved in iniquities, and are full of sins and burdened with transgressions. And if we were not to come into judgment after death, perhaps it would have been better for us.”
2 Esdras 7:62-69

(Ligotti’s seconday claim in the above passage, that “We are not from here,” may also plagiarized, c.f. Philippians 3:20)

As in the Book of Job the question is not addressed: God emphasizes that Ezra does not understand all the facts.

And he said to me, “If I had asked you, ‘How many dwellings are in the heart of the sea, or how many streams are at the source of the deep, or how many streams are above the firmament, or which are the exits of hell, or which are the entrances of paradise?’ Perhaps you would have said to me, ‘I never went down into the deep, nor as yet into hell, neither did I ever ascend into heaven.’ But now I have asked you only about fire and wind and the day, things through which you have passed and without which you cannot exist, and you have given me no answer about them!”
2 Esdras 4:4-9

Just as angels do not understand all the facts

He answered me and said, “Concerning the signs about which you ask me, I can tell you in part; but I was not sent to tell you concerning your life, for I do not know.
2 Esdras 4:52

Though even here, Ezra’s reply is subversive

And he said to me, “You cannot understand the things with which you have grown up; how then can your mind comprehend the way of the Most High? And how can one who is already worn out by the corrupt world understand incorruption?” When I heard this, I fell on my face and said to him, “It would be better for us not to be here than to come here and live in ungodliness, and to suffer and not understand why.”
2 Esdras 4:10-12

It is through this question of whether it was better never to have been, that we see the heart of the Second Book of Esdras. For the persecution fo all Israel prefigures the persecution fo the King of Israel, the nation of the Only Begotten Son

And now, O Lord, behold, these nations, which are reputed as nothing, domineer over us and devour us. But we thy people, whom thou hast called thy first-born, only begotten, zealous for thee, and most dear, have been given into their hands. If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will this be so?”
2 Esdras 6:57-59

And it is this, the persecution of Israel as prefiguring the suffering of Christ, that makes one think: who else was there

Here I return to that line from earlier, that a virtuous woman despise a harlot. For Ezra encounters a woman in a vision. Ezra sees her weeping over her son, who died on his wedding day. After praying for “30 years,” which are later explained to mean 30 centuries, the woman says:

And I brought him up with much care. So when he grew up and I came to take a wife for him, I set a day for the marriage feast.
“But it happened that when my son entered his wedding chamber, he fell down and died. Then we all put out the lamps, and all my neighbors attempted to console me; and I remained quiet until evening of the second day. But when they all had stopped consoling me, that I might be quiet, I got up in the night and fled, and came to this field, as you see. And now I intend not to return to the city, but to stay here, and I will neither eat nor drink, but without ceasing mourn and fast until I die.”
2 Esdras 9:46-47, 10:1-4

The preceding passage describing “my son” is not from the weeping woman, but from the Father

For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left. And after seven days the world, which is not yet awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish. And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it; and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them.
2 Esdras 7:28-32

To us the Second Book of Esdras is literature, not scripture, an ancient CS Lewis tale. So we don’t need to wonder if there’s an inversion going on, if the 3,000 years of prayer of the woman mean the 3,000 daylight hours of pregnancy, or if the 40 decades of the Messiah being revealed are the 40 months of Christ’s public ministry. (Though as most authorities believe 2 Esdras was written after the crucifixion, such an accounting does not require a supernatural intervention.)

Rather, we see that what appears to be a couplet (the mother of the Messiah, and the Father of the Messiah), is in fact interrupted by an explanation of an angel of what the image means. According to the angel, the woman is Zion, Israel, the mother of Jerusalem

This woman whom you saw, whom you now behold as an established city, is Zion. And as for her telling you that she was barren for thirty years, it is because there were three thousand years in the world before any offering was offered in it. And after three thousand years Solomon built the city, and offered offerings; then it was that the barren woman bore a son. And as for her telling you that she brought him up with much care, that was the period of residence in Jerusalem. And as for her saying to you, ‘When my son entered his wedding chamber he died,’ and that misfortune had overtaken her, that was the destruction which befell Jerusalem
2 Esdras 10:44-48

Israel is not ever-virgin. She’s a harlot. She’s whored after idols. Israel was sued for divorce by God in Jeremiah! There was a deposition!

“Lift up your eyes to the desolate heights and see:
Where have you not lain with men?
By the road you have sat for them
Like an Arabian in the wilderness;
And you have polluted the land
With your harlotries and your wickedness.
Jeremiah 3:2

The Messiah is associated with two women, Mary and Israel

One ever-virgin. The other a whore.
One Queen of Angels. The other beaten by angels.
One taken up to heaven. The other still dwelling on earth.
One saved from sin before time. The others sins paid for with blood.

But both women awaited the Messiah, Israel and Mary. Both were present at his death. The foreign men required the groaning of the earth to recognize the Son of the Man. The women knew it already

When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Matthew 27:54-56

Mary and Israel, Christianity and Judaism. Two sides of the triptych of the Second Book of Esdras, beginning and ending with Christianity imagery, but centered on the hope of the Son of David. The Lion will guide them both home

 “And as for the lion whom you saw rousing up out of the forest and roaring and speaking to the eagle and reproving him for his unrighteousness, and as for all his words that you have heard, this is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days, who will arise from the posterity of David, and will come and speak to them; he will denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness, and will cast up before them their contemptuous dealings. For first he will set them living before his judgment seat, and when he has reproved them, then he will destroy them. But he will deliver in mercy the remnant of my people, those who have been saved throughout my borders, and he will make them joyful until the end comes, the day of judgment, of which I spoke to you at the beginning
2 Esdras 12:31-34

As the Lord says

He said to me, “I shall liken my judgment to a circle; just as for those who are last there is no slowness, so for those who are first there is no haste.”
2 Esdras 5:42

Which is to say

So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Matthew 20:16

Impressions of “Dissecting Cthulhu: Essays on the Cthulhu Mythos,” edited by S.T. Joshi

I purchased this volume to read one piece recommended to me by a friend: “Higher Criticism and the Necronomicon,” by Robert M. Price. We had been talking about the higher criticism of the Koran,” and the subject of Arab poets receiving visions naturally came up. But while “Higher Criticism” is the stand-out piece, the soul of the book is its editing, as several strands of Lovecraft criticism comment on each other, and a few are notable by their missingness.

Before reading this volume, I did not realize the deep gulf that existed in interpreting the Cthulhy Mythos. H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was a pioneering horror writer whose writings have been an influence across the American horror spectrum, from Stephen King to Thomas Ligotti. In the same way that some Catholics and Protestants can loudly disagree after reading “The Letter to the Romans,” Lovecraft scholars (including the aforementioned Biblical scholar, Robert M. Price) disagree as to the heart of Lovecraft. Multiple pieces emphasize this passage as the hermetical key to his writings,

“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”
Selected Letters, Volume II: 1925-1929

while Lovecraft’s popularizer, August Derleth (1909-1971), often cited a qutoation based on the following line

Having formed a cosmos pantheon, it remains for the fantaiste to link this “outside” element to the earth in a suitably dramatic & convincing fashion. This, I have thought, is bets done through glancing allusions to immemorially ancient cults & idols & documents attesting the recognition fot he “outside” forces by men — or by those terrestrial entities which preceded man. The actual climaxes of tales based on such elements naturally have to do with sudden latter-day intrusions of forgotten elder fores on the placid surface of the known — either active intrusions, or revelations caused by the feverish & presumptuous probing of men into the unknown.
Selected Letters, Volume IV: 1932-1934

One paints a cosmos bleakness like that of Ligotti’s fictions, while the second is much closer to King’s fictional universes.

But beyond this axis, one can view the Lovecraft mythos as essentially romantic. This is the feeling that I was evoking in my now old post, A City of Lovecraftian Dreams. Two other lines, I think, might also be included, but they are beyond the debate of Dissecting Cthulhu. The passages that I remember most, that for me would form the basis of criticism, are

Remote in the desert of Araby lies the nameless city, crumbling and inarticulate, its low walls nearly hidden by the sands of uncounted ages. It must have been thus before the first stones of Memphis were laid, and while the bricks of Babylon were yet unbaked. There is no legend so old as to give it a name, or to recall that it was ever alive; but it is told of in whispers around campfires and muttered about by grandams in the tents of sheiks so that all the tribes shun it without wholly knowing why. It was of this place that Abdul Alhazred the mad poet dreamed of the night before he sang his unexplained couplet:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
The Nameless City (1921)

Lovecraft’s world to me extended from that cosmos perspective, that death itself will face the second death, to the world of love and adventure. I can’t be the only one to think that “Old Man Marsh” has the most interesting life of any of Lovecraft’s characters

That refinery, though, used to be a big thing, and Old Man Marsh, who owns it, must be richer’n Croesus. Queer old duck, though, and sticks mighty close in his home. He’s supposed to have developed some skin disease or deformity late in life that makes him keep out of sight. Grandson of Captain Obed Marsh, who founded the business. His mother seems to’ve ben some kind of foreigner—they say a South Sea islander—so everybody raised Cain when he married an Ipswich girl fifty years ago. They always do that about Innsmouth people, and folks here and hereabouts always try to cover up any Innsmouth blood they have in ’em. But Marsh’s children and grandchildren look just like anyone else so far’s I can see. I’ve had ’em pointed out to me here—though, come to think of it, the elder children don’t seem to be around lately. Never saw the old man.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931)

Dissecting Cthulhu is tilted toward the reading the first of these four passage as the essential Lovecraft. You’ll notice that I’m not describing the individual pieces in this book much. That’s because Dissecting Cthulhu transcends its constituent parts. The pieces are primarily rhetoric or strident academic argument. But editor S.T. Joshi’s accomplishment here is to show the reader that such debate exists, adn force for the reader to ponder for himself the meaning of these books many of us first read long ago.

The second best piece in the collection, “Toward a Reader-Response Approach to the Lovecraft Mythos,” concludes with a comment from the audience and an old World Fantasy Convention discussion. I’ll conclude with it as well

“I think that’s the magic of Lovecraft. I can still remember reading the first story; I didn’t understand who the creatures were, and the names were strange to me, but that’s what made it exciting.”