Monday, December 02, 2019

Mark 6 1-6

and he went out from thence
and came into his own country
and his disciples follow him 



and when the sabbath day was come
he began to teach in the synagogue
and many hearing him were astonished, saying,
"from whence hath this man these things?
and what wisdom is this which is given unto him,
that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?
is not this the carpenter,
the son of Mary,
the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?
and are not his sisters here with us?"
and they were offended at him

but Jesus said unto them,
"a prophet is not without honour,
but in his own country,
and among his own kin,
and in his own house" 

and he could there do no mighty work
save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk,
and healed them
and he marveled because of their unbelief 

and he went round about the villages, teaching


This chapter begins a new cycle of Jesus stories. The exorcism, the storm, the bleeding woman and the dead girl are connected together in Mark's narrative. But I don't think "he went out from thence" means that Jesus left the little girl's sick room and headed straight for Nazareth. I think we have to imagine Mark pausing, and then starting again.

"And then there was that time he left Capernaum and headed for the town where he was born..."


*

So, Jesus goes home. And the home-town crowd is unimpressed. 

And that's pretty much all that happens. In Capernaum, Jesus is wildly popular -- he has to dodge crowds and keeps running away to places where nobody knows him. But back home in Nazareth, he meets with a much cooler reception. We aren't told quite what happens: but the congregation in the synagogue find him offensive, and there aren't even any good miracles to report. 

It isn't clear what follows from this. 

We learn some things. Jesus's mother is called Mary -- the only time Mark names her. Jesus came from a big family: one of at least seven kids. Back home he is known by his old job; he was a carpenter. Mum, four brothers and a couple of sisters are in the synagogue, or at any rate, in town, but glaringly absent is any mention of Jesus's dad. 

Adelphos means "brothers". It could probably include step-brothers or half-brothers if you really wanted it to; but there is no particular reason to think that it does. 

From a narrative point of view, we can say that Jesus's mission is expanding geographically. Capernaum is still base-camp, but Jesus is travelling a little further afield: the Gardarenes last week; Nazareth this week; the coasts of Tyre next week. Nazareth is about ten miles from Capernaum.

Mark doesn't tell us what Jesus said in Nazareth. But the people there react in the same way the people in Capernaum did: they are thundestruck, jaw-dropped, boggled. And they ask the same question that the disciples on the boat did. Who is this guy? 

There are stories outside of Mark's Gospel about Jesus's infancy and his childhood and his adolescence. There was a whole medieval industry creating Kid-Jesus fan-fic. (Remember that time he drowned two Jewish kids for saying his Mum was no better than she ought to be? He got a good slapping for that.) And the Victorians wrote hymns about his wondrous childhood; and there are art galleries full of paintings of Boy Jesus in the carpenter's shop with Daddy Joseph. 

Mark is in a different story world. This Nazareth story is hard to reconcile even with Matthew and Luke's canonical prequels, let alone all the apocryphal ones. No-one says "Aha, I knew you'd grow up to be a Rabbi after that time we went up to Jerusalem when you were a kid" or "Looks like those Magi knew what they were talking about after all." Mark makes it clear that the people in Nazareth think that something has happened to young Jesus; that he has changed since he went off to get baptized by John. As ever, we are in on the secret: but they don't know about the sky opening and the holy bird coming down. "How is that he learned all this stuff? And how can he do miracles all of a sudden?" 

The word for miracles is dunamis again; the same word for the "power" that flowed from Jesus to the sick woman outside Jairus's house. King James says "mighty works"; but "works of power" does the job better.

I really, really wish that Mark didn't say that Jesus could do no miracles at home. It makes it sound too much as if the Nazarenes' lack of belief somehow impeded the flow of Miracle-Juice. And what were they supposed to believe? The mere fact that Jesus is doing works of power? But they do believe that. The truth that he is the Son of God? But that's the big secret that hasn't yet been revealed.

St Matthew was obviously troubled by this too: when he retells Mark's story, he changes "he couldn't do many miracles" to "he didn't do many miracles.

[Unless it was the other way round. Perhaps Matthew's story, in which Jesus didn't do any miracles is the original one. Perhaps Mark heard that story and said "But that gives the impression that Jesus petulantly refused to help the sick folk because the synagogue crowd had been horrid to him. But I don't think it was like that. I think that Jesus would have helped them if he could, but their lack of faith prevented him." The question of who copied who is fantastically complex.] 

The annoying truth seems to be that different Jesus-stories have got different ideas about the nature of Jesus's healing power and how it functioned. Sometimes he has got intrinsic power inside him; sometimes the power depends on the faith of the recipient; and once or twice he seems to be performing a spell or a ceremony like a shaman or medicine man.

Why were the people "offended"? The text says they were eskandalizonto which the Catholic Bible dutifully renders as "scandalized". The concordances tells us that skandalizo literally meant "stumbling block".

I think that the much maligned Eugene Paterson is on the money for rendering it as "and they tripped over what little they knew about him". For the people in Capernaum Jesus is a mysterious preacher, newly come from Jordan, who has shown up in their synagogue, shouting at demons and referring himself as the Son of Man. For the people in Nazareth he is young Josh who used to bathe in the pond and fix the back door and chase his little sisters round the garden. 

And perhaps that is a harder thing to get your head round. The fact that they had known the human Jesus was a stumbling-block. 


PEDANTIC DIGRESSION 


When Mark says that Jesus is a carpenter the word he uses is tekton. And the word tekton doesn't necessarily mean wood-worker. It could refer to any maker of dairy produce. 

We've all got a pretty fixed image in our heads of Jesus-the-Carpenter, even though we probably got it from Milias or Mel Gibson or the Ladybird Life of Jesus. It would probably be quite healthy to consider the possibility that he might have been a blacksmith or a stone-mason. But disappointingly the Old Testament tends to treat carpenters as distinct from other kinds of craftsmen. In the second book of Kings, for example, the temple is repaired by "masons and builders and carpenters". By the end of the first century, Christian writers were talking about Jesus as a maker of yokes and ploughs; by the third they were inventing Kid-Jesus fanfic about him helping Dad by magically making pieces of wood grow longer. 

A.N Wilson confidently tells us that at the time of Jesus, the word translated as "carpenter" meant "scholar" or "wise man". What the people in Nazareth really said, he assures us, was "Isn't this the scholar?" or "Isn't this the scholar's son?"

The evidence for "carpenter's son" ever having meant "scholar" seems decidedly flimsy. But even if the idiom did exist, A.N Wilson is offering us a conjectural text; a text which does not exist but which might have done, and asking us to read that instead of the text we have in front of us. 

In the book of Mark, "carpenter" cannot possibly mean "wise man". Imagine that the word tekton was obscure and untranslatable. 


Many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did he get these ideas? And what is this wisdom that has been given to him? What are these miracles that are done through his hands? Isn’t this the [REDACTED] , the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?” And so they took offense at him. 


We might conceivably think that the missing word meant "street sweeper" or " fishmonger" or "candlestick maker"; but we would never suppose that it meant "wise-man" or "scholar". In context it can only mean "the kind of profession that you wouldn't associate with great wisdom". 

And yet A.N Wilson's idea has already gone three times round the world. "Son of a Carpenter means Wise Man" has become one of those factoids which everybody knows.


I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Sunday, December 01, 2019

New Thing

I am writing short reviews of plays, music, TV programs and very likely movies if I ever go the pictures again in a new sub-blog. Have a look at it...

https://andrews-bristol-diary.blogspot.com/

Answers to Reader's Questions

Andrew Stevens writes: 


But it's still a mummy. That's true of anything that lasts long enough. He's just spray-painted the mummy in Day-Glo colors. This is great, I suppose, for people who have seen the mummy twenty times already and love the mummy. It gives them variety and interest. But there are still people who might love to see the actual mummy.


I strongly suspect the stagnation of the Moscow Theatre was caused, not because it was too true to Chekhov, but because it was too true to Stalin. After its degeneration in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequent liberalization, they reinstated Stanislavski's original acting methods (the ones used for the original performances) and, I think, Chekhov became popular again.

But then my sympathies are all with the old-fashioned theatre critics.


I suppose some people will respond, "You just don't want anything new or fresh or interesting!" I would respond A) for people not familiar with Shakespeare, he still is new, fresh, and interesting, perhaps even more than he was in his own time and B) by all means, let us have new, fresh, interesting art. You're not going to get that by doing Shakespeare though, no matter what you do.


....I am also not here commenting much on Jonathan Miller, about whom I know next to nothing, though I generally think actually changing the setting does violence to a work (probable exception: works set in the artist's own present day culture can often be updated since they were meant to be contemporary when they were written). But it does not elucidate Die Walkure to show Wotan and Brunnhilde as inmates in an insane asylum (real production!). As long as you're playing Wagner's music, it's probably going to do all right, but the production in such a case detracts and doesn't enhance. Adolphe Appia was a great and innovative director and designer without doing any of that nonsense. Wieland Wagner's minimalist stagings were acceptable; they were still true to the works.


I am going to respond to this in some detail, at risk of my blog comments spiraling out of control again:

  
Productions become mummified. Not texts; productions.

Some people think that you can "do" Hamlet in the way that Shakespeare "originally intended" or that you can and should retain the original Victorian production style of Pirates of Penzance on a 20th century stage.

The claim being made is that this is like working very hard to preserve a person in the condition they were in when they died. It is possible. But you don't end up with a still-living Chairman Mao. You end up with a more or less well-preserved corpse.

You can't go and see the first night of the Pirates of Penzance. The best you can have is a copy of a copy of a copy of that First Night at the Savoy Theater; becoming more out-dated and stylized with each copy. You can honestly try to re-imagine and recreate a Victorian show: which is to say, give the audience a 2019 producer's impression of what an 1878 production might have been like. Which might be very interesting, but it would still be an interpretation. 

Interesting fact: The Pirates of Penzance was first staged 5 years before the publication of Treasure Island. No-one in the original audience knew that pirates said "arrrr."

"But it's still a mummy. That's true of anything that lasts long enough. He's just spray-painted the mummy in Day-Glo colors."

You have misunderstood the metaphor. When you say that a new production is merely "spray painting the mummy" you imply that the play is the mummy -- irredeemably dead -- and the "new production" is something interposed on top of the corpse to make it seem fresh. But this is not the claim. The claim is that the text is alive, but that some kinds of production make it appear dead.

You can have an embalmed, dead, fossilized preservation of what someone imagines Shakespeare's Hamlet must have been like; or you can have a sequence of living reinterpretations of the play, some good, some bad, many indifferent.

What you can't have, ever, is Hamlet, pure and unmediated, with no pesky actors and producers coming between you and the Holy Idea. Dear dear Sir Larry's version of Hamlet, tights and ruffs and posh voices and all, is just as much an interpretation as the recent National Theater production set in a post-Orwell surveillance society. (And the National used Shakespeare's text which is more than dear, dear Sir Larry did.) 

There were people in the early 20th century who thought that you could avoid letting nasty production ideas into the Bard's plays by only permitting amateurs to stage Shakespeare, or by performing his works with a cast of very young children who could be coached in verse speaking without understanding the words. And there was a Victorian idea that no-one but qualified experts ought to be allowed to even read Shakespeare's plays, in case they found out that along with the Great Speeches there were also a lot of dick jokes.

This is great, I suppose, for people who have seen the mummy twenty times already and love the mummy. It gives them variety and interest. But there are still people who might love to see the actual mummy.

This is very interesting. You imply that there is a real thing -- "an actual mummy" -- to be got at. You imply that modern conceptual productions somehow obscure the "actual mummy". But that there is a kind of production available which allows us to see the "actual mummy" shorn of additions.

But this is not the case. Again, it is certain received ideas -- certain styles of production -- which are said to be like embalmed corpses. No-one is saying that the plays themselves have  been embalmed. And the idea that you can have a text without any production ideas is the same as saying that you can have 50 miles per hour without a car.  

That said; I think there are people who, in your words "love the mummy". That is, they like a particular kind of production, and think that any other kind of production is Not Really Shakespeare. There were D'Oyly Carte geeks who positively liked highly mannered and stylized productions. There were opera fans for whom part of the magic was not understanding the words and watching very fat singers who couldn't act being showered with flowers and taking endless curtain calls. And there is no particular reason not to keep those styles of production going as a sort of heritage event. The Mousetrap survives as a kind of historical reenactment of what theatre was like a hundred years ago. I myself enjoy the occasional panto. 

You are implying that it was the cognoscenti, the people who had seen many productions over many years and who craved variety and innovation and maybe something a little shocking who enjoy new productions of familiar works. The vast and overwhelming success of Miller's Rigoletto demonstrates that this is not the case. It wasn't only opera buffs who made it a sell-out. It was people who hadn't been to the opera before and didn't think they would like it.

The famous Broadway Pirates wasn't a hit because of all the G&S geeks flocking to it; it stood on its own two feet as a piece of contemporary musical theater. (It would now look very dated and dare I say it, mummified.) 

I strongly suspect the stagnation of the Moscow Theatre was caused, not because it was too true to Chekhov, but because it was too true to Stalin. After its degeneration in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequent liberalization, they reinstated Stanislavski's original acting methods (the ones used for the original performances) and, I think, Chekhov became popular again.

This could, for all I know, be true. But supposing the Moscow State Theater to be a poor example and a special case does not refute the central claim: that striving to reproduce some pure and original first-night version, unmediated by production ideas, is impossible, and undesirable even if it were possible. I saw Rupert Everett doing Uncle Vanya earlier this year; in a pretty modern, naturalistic production. It wasn't a piece of historical re-enactment, nor was it a radical reinterpretation. It was a play.

But then my sympathies are all with the old-fashioned theatre critics. I suppose some people will respond, "You just don't want anything new or fresh or interesting!" 


No. But we may be tempted to say "What you perceive as a neutral, unmediated production is in fact a very particular production style that you happen to prefer and want to privilege." 

I would respond A) for people not familiar with Shakespeare, he still is new, fresh, and interesting, perhaps even more than he was in his own time and B) by all means, let us have new, fresh, interesting art. You're not going to get that by doing Shakespeare though, no matter what you do.


Every production of Shakespeare is new, fresh and interesting. Some actors and a producer start with his words, and they work out how they are going to say the words and what they think the words mean. They come up with their own answers to a series of unanswerable questions. Why did Claudius kill his brother? why does Hamlet delay? is Hamlet really mad? does he love Ophelia or is he using her? where are the lines drawn between the personal and political? Every production has to find its own answer. Some answers may be bad or wrong: but there is no such thing as an answer-free-production; only a production which takes for granted the answers thought up by some other company fifty or a hundred years ago. 

I generally think actually changing the setting does violence to a work.


This is a metaphor. No-one is actually beating up the text. I do not know what violence in this context means. Does it mean "invariably produces a poor production"? But this is demonstrably not the case.

And anyway, what does poor mean? It isn't the case that audiences invariably have a bad time in shows which have changed the original setting of the piece; nor is it the case that critics invariably dislike them, nor is it true that they always lose the management money. What criteria are we using?

Or does it mean "the original text of Hamlet is violated if Elsinore becomes the White House or if the Prince played by a woman?" But what does violation mean? A production in which a punk Hamlet yells out "to be or fucking not to be" might be amusingly shocking or devastatingly boring or somewhere in between. I rather liked the nude Hamlet with Quentin Crisp. But at the end of the day, Hamlet is still there, un-violated in a nice neat Penguin edition, for some fellow in tights and a pudding basin haircut to read out genteelly, if that is really what you want.  

I start to wonder if what you are really saying is that Jonathan Miller was disrespectful to Sherlock Holmes.

(probable exception: works set in the artist's own present day culture can often be updated since they were meant to be contemporary when they were written). But it does not elucidate Die Walkure to show Wotan and Brunnhilde as inmates in an insane asylum (real production!). 




It might do; or it might not do. I would need to see the production.

If it was a production which did not work; then it was a production which did not work and not an argument against the whole idea of production.

I felt that Gotterdamerung was massively elucidated by drawing an analogy between Brunnhilde and a suicide bomber; I felt that Parsifal was hugely clarified by making the grail Knights modern/futuristic soldiers and the Pure Fool a native-American. I found Lohengrin re-imagined as an experiment with laboratory rats rather baffling; but in the end quite powerful. The Dutchman set in a disused telecommunications factory I could have done without. 

I would defy anyone who thinks that modern dress productions of Wagner cannot work to watch the footage of Act III of the Valkyrie being performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, and to pay particular attention to the audience's reaction to it. 

As long as you're playing Wagner's music, it's probably going to do all right, but the production in such a case detracts and doesn't enhance. Adolphe Appia was a great and innovative director and designer without doing any of that nonsense. Wieland Wagner's minimalist stagings were acceptable; they were still true to the works. 



Distracts from what? Enhances what

This is the whole problem. You think that there is some magical pre-existent thing called "the work" and you can validly judge a production according to some standard of "truthfulness" about "the work". I would call that -- what was the word you used? -- nonsense.

There is no "work". There is only ever this group of actors in this theatre. with this audience; and what matters is what works, today, in this particular setting. A bad production is one that doesn't make sense or is contradictory or obscure or (the only unpardonable offence) boring. 

I saw a gender-swapped production of Henry V last year, which conflated Princess Catherine and the Dauphin into a single figure. It didn't work, for me, on its own terms, because it asked me to believe in a world where women lead armies and serve alongside male soldiers, but can also be bartered by their fathers in dynastic marriages. The same company did a gender-swapped Dream a few months later, in which Hermia and Lysander are both men; and Helena and Demetrius are women; so the story became about two gay couples being unwillingly forced into straight marriages. This made sense; it added something to the humour of the piece. And it made it easier to keep track of who was meant to be in love with who. 

And it's always nice to see a female Bottom.