Monday, January 20, 2020

Doomsday Clock #12

When I was a kid, my mum used to say "If you make a funny face and the wind changes, it will stay like that forever." 

When I write a critique I try to start with what I honestly felt about the book or film I am talking about. I try to catch what was in my mind when the credits were rolling or when I had just turned over the final page. First reactions may not always be right, but they are always true. "It grossed me out"; "it embarrassed me"; "I was bored"; "I didn't understand it" are the most truly true things you can ever say about a work of art. "I found the tunes catchy; I was singing them all the way home" is the best thing you can possibly say about a musical. If you say "I shouldn't think the writer meant me to feel disgusted. I probably misunderstood. I will try and manufacture a response more in tune with what I imagine the writer wanted me to think," then you are no longer providing an authentic response to the work. 

I try to apply this to my essays on the Bible and my essays on old comic books equally. 

"This shocked me," "This confused me," "I laughed at this" can't be the end point of a critical essay. But it should usually be the starting point.

This may be what the people who say that we should "accept Talons of Weng Chiang for what it is" have in mind. And they are not quite wrong. It is valid and useful and important to say "This is a tongue in cheek pastiche of a Victorian penny dreadful. It's awfully well done and I found it exciting and funny". You can then say "But the depiction of Chinese people in it was horrible," and then go on and ask the hard questions. Some of us feel that some kinds of critics jump straight into the exegesis without having spotted what kind of work we are talking about. I have myself more than once read essays on old 1960s Doctor Who and wanted to cry out "You do get that this was a Saturday tea time adventure serial for kids, don't you?" 

I get that someone's first reaction might be "The silly caricatures of Chinese people freaked me out so badly that I couldn't see anything else in the story." There is more than one authentic response to Talons of Weng Chiang, just as much as there is more than one authentic response to Paradise Lost or My Struggle. 

This essay is not about Talons of Weng Chiang. 

Imagine three stories. 

STORY ONE: A dead child is discovered, carefully laid out on a table in a Mayfair pub. The child is of European appearance, but is dressed in traditional Indian clothes. There are no marks on his body, and he has been dead for several months. Absolutely baffled, the police ask Mr Sherlock Holmes to investigate. 

STORY TWO: One evening while Mr Sherlock Holmes is in Sussex hunting for vampires, a news reporter -- in reality Moriarty in disguise -- offers Mrs Hudson a large some of money if she will provide incriminating evidence that Dr Watson is carrying on a clandestine love affair with Mycroft. 

STORY THREE: Sherlock Holmes starts to wonder how there can possibly have been such a large number of bizarre murders in a single city over such a short space of time. It gradually becomes clear that most of Holmes' cases have been created, or at any rate heavily fictionalized, by Dr Watson in order to help the public understand Holmes' methods. Holmes -- ventriloquized by Watson -- wonders whether, in the future, any of these fake cases will be turned into plays or even moving picture stories. 

For the sake of argument, let's call stories of the first kind "Open", stories of the second kind "Closed" and stories of the third kind "meta". 

A story of the first kind creates a new situation, and then shows the reader how an established character reacts to it or deals with it. The story is about the new situation much more than it is about the character. Sherlock Holmes can solve as many different murder puzzles as writers can devise; and the mystery of the Indian Prince could be perfectly well investigated by some other detective.

A story of the second kind generates a new situation from within a pre-existing structure: the writer looks at established characters and comes up with a new way for them to interact. "The baddie tried to convince the goodie that the goodie's friend was in love with the goodie's brother" is, of course, an intelligible narrative; but the particular interest of this story depends on us already knowing and caring about who Holmes and Mycroft are.  

A story of the third kind is a story about other stories; it is a piece of literary criticism masquerading as a narrative. "What if Watson was falsifying Holmes' career?" is only an interesting question if we already know and love the Holmes canon. "What if Some Guy's friend were writing inaccurate short stories about his career?" would be of hardly any interest.

Most series fiction on TV -- Doctor Who, Star Trek, Columbo -- deals with stories of the first kind. The writer creates a new monster, a new planet or a new crime and then imagines how the Doctor, Captain Kirk or Columbo would deal with it. Soap-operas, on the other hand, are almost by definition stories of the second kind: the established characters are the starting point, and the writers try to come up with new ways for them to come into conflict or misunderstand each other. And while stories of the third kind are rather rarer in mainstream fiction, anyone writing Sherlock Holmes stories or Superman stories or Doctor Who stories is sooner or later going to be very tempted to write a story about how those kinds of stories work.

Traditional, jobbing writers have tended to think that proper stories are always stories of the first kind. Fan fiction writers are much more likely to write stories of the second kind. But as culture eats itself and all writing turns into fan fiction, stories of the second kind become more and more common. In the olden days, Doctor Who writers were discouraged from using established villains as points of departure. The writer pitched an idea about time travelling terrorists or a funeral planet and the script editor said "Hey...we could put the Daleks in that as well." But fan pitches always take "what if..." questions as a point of departure. What if the Daleks went after the Key to Time? What if the Guardians and the Time Lords came into conflict about who controls the timelines? If Major Clanger and Papa Smurf had a fight, who would win? 

My honest and authentic reaction to the final instalment of Doomsday Clock is utter bafflement. I don't fully understand what is supposed to have happened; I don't fully understand why I am supposed to care. And I don't know who half the characters are. I have re-read it; and re-read the issues which preceded it; and even read the episodes of Batman and the Flash which form a kind of prequel; and I am still confused. So I cannot offer you an assessment: all I can do is share my confusion.... 

The final panel ends with a boy arriving at a house, claiming that a friend of his father has promised that the couple who live there will take care of him; and that "Jon" calls him "Clark". He looks a little like a young Clark Kent, but he has the Doctor Manhattan hydrogen symbol on his forehead. I had to spend several minutes flipping through pages to work out what was going on here. The child is the son of Mime and Marionette; the couple who adopt him are Dan and Lauire, Nite Owl and Silk Spector from the original Watchmen. One of the first questions raised in issue #1 was why Doctor Manhattan wouldn't kill Marionette while she was pregnant, when he has had no compunction about killing humans in the past. It turns out that his time sense told him that her child would make Laurie, who he used to love, very happy some day. In the space of two or three panels, Doctor Manhattan has taken the child of Mime and Marionette, brought him up, and transferred his powers to him. (Mime and Marionette also have another child of their own, so that makes it okay.) 

Doctor Manhattan understands that the Watchmen world is grimdark and that the DC Universe is hopeful because of the existence of Superman; and that what makes Superman a hero is having loving parents like Jonathan and Martha Kent. His tinkering with time -- including moving the power battery a few inches so Alan Scott never becomes Green Lantern and the Justice Society never comes into being -- has made the DC Universe grimdark like Watchmen. He is now making the Watchmen universe more hopeful by supplying it with a Superman. That's why he takes the child and gives it to Laurie and Dan. Why it had to be this particular child and why it had to be those particular parents I am unclear about. I get that Superman is a Hero because he was adopted and brought up by a good, salt-of-the-earth Smallville couple. But surely any empowered child and any loving couple would have done the trick?

Halfway through the comic we get to the meeting between Superman and Doctor Manhattan that we've been building towards since issue #1.

Superman confronts Doctor Manhattan on Mars. Doctor Manhattan admits that he's the one who has been editing DC continuity; removing the Justice Society from history and causing the death of Superman's parents and generally getting poor reviews from the fan community. "I am the one who you are going to destroy" says Doctor Manhattan. "Or I am the one who is going to destroy everything." "Maybe there is a third choice" says Superman. The third choice is, and stop me if you have heard this before, Love. Superman points to the picture of Jon and Janey at the fairground before the accident. 

So Doctor Manhattan destroys the universe.

Like, totally. Black page. Another black page. A whole page of black panels. And then blow me if we don't go into a whole "destruction of Krypton" sequence (drawn in the style of John Byrne) and lots of little panels of Superman arriving on earth in lots of different times and places. Because in every parallel world there has to be a Superman.We go right back to the scene in issue #1, where Pa and Ma Kent drive their car into a tree right after Clark's high school prom; but this time Superboy is there to save them. Because now Superman isn't the first Superhero on earth; he can be inspired by the heroes of the past; and thus become a much happier hero much earlier.

"Because the Justice Society exists again, so does Superboy and because Superboy exists again so does the Legion. As the metaverse reforms, time catches up." 

It goes on. "Every time there is a change in the metaverse, the multiverse grows. To preserve every era of Superman." In 1938, Superman was the only Superhero, and that had implications for his character. In 1968, he was one of thousands, and that had implications for his character as well. Over the years, DC has rebooted the character many times, giving us a singular version who can work in a contemporary comic. The DC:52 reboot, largely regarded as a failure, decreed that Superman was a relatively recent arrival on Earth, and that humans still treated superheroes with suspicion. Fans felt that this produced a version of the character too far from his roots. So: it was Doctor Manhattan messing with the timeline that created the DC:52 version of Superman; and now Doctor Manhattan has set things right. But that version, along with every other version, still exists as a parallel world. (Doomsday Clock, uniquely, takes place in "the metaverse"; the universe of which all the other worlds are copies. Future DC comics will, I suppose, take place in one of the parallels. The Clark Kent of mainstream continuity is never going to say "And then there was that time I met the big blue naked guy on Mars.") There are lots of parallel worlds we have never heard of. "On July 10th 2030 the Secret Crisis begins, throwing Superman into a brawl across the universe with Thor himself and a Green behemoth stronger than even Doomsday who dies protecting Superman from these invaders."

Please, please, make it stop.  

Final scene. Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias in front of the Washington Monument. Ozymandias thought that the only person who could stop the Watchmen universe degenerating into atomic war, again, was Doctor Manhattan. But he knew he couldn't ever persuade him to come back and do it. So everything which has happened has been a plot by Ozymandias to engineer a confrontation between Manhattan and Superman, because he, Ozymandias, could see that Superman would be able to persuade him, Doctor Manhattan, to save the world. By saying "all you need is love", apparently.

Doctor Manhattan destroys every nuclear weapon on earth and then "gives his powers" to the Earth, and to the boy, and then ceases to exist. The Watchmen universe has its own Superman. DC Continuity is restored to something like the Silver Age Multiverse. And we never have to waste any of our lives reading drivel like this as long as we live. 

In or about 1983, Roy Thomas decreed that Jack Kirby's Eternals should become a part of the Marvel Universe. Roy Thomas believed everything should become part of the Marvel Universe which is  why Spider-Man met Conan the Barbarian and SHIELD fought Godzilla. He put his plans in motion in Thor #283 under the headline "They said it couldn't be done!" To Marvel's credit, Thor #284 included a letter from a fan beginning "What they said was that it shouldn't be done..." 

The incorporation of Watchmen into the DC Universe is something which should not have been attempted. And no-one should have tried to tell us what happens after the final panel of the final page of Watchmen #12. Anyone who sees a novel with an open-ended conclusion and thinks "I know, let's close it off!" didn't ought to be writing fiction in the first place. But having made the bad call, it beggars belief that Geoff Johns could have written a comic so unremittingly, tediously boring. (The aforementioned Eternals/Thor crossover climaxes with the Destroyer walloping Arishem with the Odinsword, which may shit on two different Kirby koncepts but is nevertheless, kind of kool.) Characters called Ozymandias encounter characters called Luthor and someone called Batman meets up with someone called Rorschach but there is no sense of magnitude or audacity. Just pages and pages of exposition. No-one is having any fun. For goodness sake: if you are going to mix up incompatible settings, at least give us a double page spread of Superman with Captain America's shield in one hand and Thor's hammer in the other. 

Doomsday Clock is a narrative of the third kind: not a story, but an essay. It is completely uninterested in the themes and questions raised by Alan Moore in the original comic. But it doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say about the DC Universe. Superman's story has been told in lots of different ways over the years, and the different versions of him are all equally valid. We can like the muscular liberal pulpy version from the 1930s and the smiley campy cartoony 1960s version as well. Hold the front pages. 

A story which deconstructed the characters of the DC Universe in the same way and to the same extent as Alan Moore deconstructed his own Watchmen characters might have been worth telling. But while Watchmen leaves the whole idea of Superheroes in ruins; Doomsday Clock asserts the primacy of Superman (and therefore DC Superheroes) over everything else. 

I suppose that is what we would expect. On the last page of Watchmen, Alan Moore tells us that Ozymandias appears to have successfully saved the world from nuclear war; on the first page of Doomsday Clock Geoff Johns tells us that the ploy didn't work and the world got blown up after all. So naturally, the end result of Doomsday Clock is to reconstruct the idols that Watchmen had so comprehensively torn down. 

There could, in fact, be some interest in a Watchmen sequel of the second kind -- one which looks at the characters who Alan Moore left alive at the end of his epic; looks at the situations they were left in; and then imagines what would have happened next. Did Robert Redford really become president? What did Laurie do after Doctor Manhattan left earth? Did Ozymandias live out his days in peace? How was Rorschach remembered? What would it be like to be born ten or twenty years after the giant squid destroyed New York? 

And with very fine irony, the final instalment of H.B.O's Watchmen TV series came out in the same week as Doomsday Clock #12. It turns out that you can shit on Alan Moore's legacy but nevertheless create a compelling story. 

All the objections still apply. It is wrong to take over someone else's characters without their permission -- while, indeed, they are alive and begging you not to do so. It is silly to write sequels to works which require none. But "this should not have been done" and "this is artistically bad" are two different propositions. 

Yes: I know. Alan Moore is not the first writer to have been screwed by his publisher. Young writers often are. If there was a loophole in his contract then there was a loophole in his contract. 

When Len Wein created Swamp Thing, he knew he was creating a new entry in DCs roster of narrative workhorses. He must have fully accepted the possibility that other hands -- Alan Moore's not the first -- would take over his character when he was done with it. But still. Alan Moore had his first big success by dissecting someone else's creation. 

Jerry Siegel and Joe Simon could not possibly have envisaged anything like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? when they created Superman. But by 1986 Superman had grown way beyond his original creators; and DC Comics were paying them a moderately generous stipend. But still: one of Alan Moore's most fondly remembered works is the hypothetical final chapter in the life of a character he never created. 

Alan Moore did not, in the end, write a deconstruction of Captain Atom and Blue Beetle. But he  wanted to; and if he had done so, he would have been the last in a long line of distinguished creators who have ripped Ditko off. And of course, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a very interesting new thing created entirely out of already existing old things. There isn't a single character that Alan Moore hasn't borrowed from another creator. That's kind of the point of it.

It is wrong for H.B.O to "borrow" Watchmen to create a new artistic work of their own. It is equally wrong for DC to have done so. Doomsday Clock is a catastrophic artistic failure; H.B.O's Watchmen TV series is a resounding artistic success. But both are moral offences. What we said was that they shouldn't be done.  

Two wrongs. That was what my mother used to say. "Two wrongs don't make a right."

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

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Watchmen and Doomsday Clock are copyright DC Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni unótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
mi oromardi lisse-miruvóreva
Andúnë pella, Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
ómaryo airetári-lírinen.

Sí man i yulma nin enquantuva?

An sí Tintallë Varda Oiolossëo
ve fanyar máryat Elentári ortanë,
ar ilyë tier undulávë lumbulë;
ar sindanóriello caita mornië
i falmalinnar imbë met, ar hísië
untúpa Calaciryo míri oialë.
Sí vanwa ná, Rómello vanwa, Valimar!

Namárië! Nai hiruvalyë Valimar.
Nai elyë hiruva. Namárië!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

There is no Nativity in Mark. This is my favorite Gospel song.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Did You Like Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker

There is a big bad. Exactly how he came to be there and where he came from is pretty much ignored. There is a dark lord on a dark throne on the planet of Exidor where shadows lie. That is all we know and all we need to know. 

There is a series of McGuffins which will eventually reveal the coordinates of the planet on which the big bad is hidden. There is a big metal eight sided dice which is very carefully not called a Holocron; and there is a magic dagger, possibly quite a subtle one. So a group of characters go off to find them. They are precisely the group of characters who have been the heroes of the previous movies. They are the only people who can undertake the mission because they are best friends. They love each other, but they only have 16 hours to save the universe. 

For two thirds of the movie, they bounce from exotic location to exotic location, falling into traps, getting captured and escaping. There is a festival on a desert planet; quicksand; sleazy backstreets; a high tech city out of Blade Runner; a possibly familiar forest moon; and an evil spaceship whose corridors feel suspiciously like the interior of the Death Star. Although the universe is going to come to an end in a few hours, and although their mission mostly looks kind of hopeless; all the player characters are clearly having great fun; bantering and scoring points of each other, laughing and joking their way to near certain oblivion. Goodies get killed off and get apparently killed off and get kind of virtually cybernetically killed off; but no-one really seems to mind or believe it. 

There is a deep heavy serious sub-plot. We have been building towards it from the very beginning. But it is sensibly kept in the background. One of the heroes is, to coin a phrase, a space wizard of uncertain and mysterious parentage; with a mysterious link to the evil space wizard who is now in charge of the evil empire. They keep kind of meeting and kind of having psychic sword fights and kind of revealing surprisingly unforeshadowed facts about each others' backstory. But none of that distracts from the Adventuring. 

The forces of evil are very much split. The evil space wizard is the enemy of the new dark lord and the evil empire contains a high level double agent passing information to the goodies. 

Two thirds of the way through the movie, all the McGuffins are secured. The good and evil space wizards go off to confront the dark lord as part of their personal development; everyone else gets into space ships to fight the dark lord's redundantly obscene stockpile of weapons. 

There is an absolutely huge battle and the goodies win. 

There is then a Jacksonesque fifteen minutes in which the film keeps doing call backs to all the previous films and completely failing to come to an end. There are brief Ewoks but no Gunganss. There is a final final scene which is really nice but which has pretty much no bearing on the rest of the movie. (I suspect it was filmed or at any rate scripted before anyone knew what Episode IX was going to be all about.) 

The best description of Star Wars I ever read was "a Saturday morning serial with Wagnerian pretensions". I don't think that the original Star Wars movie can quite support the sheer weight of Jungian psychology and fan-fictional universe building that has been piled on top of it. Somewhere along the line -- around the hundred and fiftieth minute of Empire Strikes Back -- Star Wars ceased to be about fathers and became about Fathers, or Father Archetypes. But Star Wars is and should always have been pulp adventure and space opera. Luke Skywalker is much more Flash Gordon than he is Siegfried. It should have been about heroes doing derring deeds. It's pulp. Since the Phantom Menace -- arguably since Return of the Jedi we've lost track of that. It's been too much about Darth Sidious telling Darth Vader about Darth Plagius during the ballet. 

I have argued elsewhere that a similar thing happens to Robert Galbraith's children's books. Volume 1 is a joyously ripping yarn about secret tunnels, school bullies, caddish teachers, unfair detentions and critical sporting fixtures; with just enough hints about a supremely evil wizard and the hero's mysterious heritage to give it some gravitas. By volume 7, the evil wizard has become the entire focus of the story. All the fun has gone away. 

There are some movie prequels which consist largely of elderly wizards sitting in boardrooms explaining the back story to each other, so the analogy actually works rather well. 

So with Star Wars. It isn't that the Jedi are not part of the magic of Star Wars. They are very probably the single most important element in the whole saga; the thing which distinguishes Star Wars from every other nine part Space Opera sequence you have ever seen. It isn't a coincidence that I started a Jedi Knights Club as opposed to a Rebel Pilots Club. But they are just not that interesting in themselves. The right place for them is in the background. Vader is the Emperor's henchman oh and by the way he used to be a Jedi Knight. Luke is a shit hot fighter pilot oh and by the way he wants to be a Jedi Knight. 

For many of us, the "real" Star Wars, the place where we encounter the joy and fun and excitement and exoticism and retro-nostalgia long-time-ago-ness at the heart of the saga has not been the increasingly flawed movies, but the mostly pretty good comic books, the very good cartoons, and the very, very, very good role-playing game. 

I have probably told this story before. (When nine hundred years you reach, tell the same stories again and again will you too.) Back in the day, when there were only three Star Wars movies, me and a group of gaming buddies put the video of Return of the Jedi into the VCR. (A "video" is kind of like an early version of Netflix, but with a choice of only one movie.) You remember the scene where Luke defrosts Han in Jabba's palace, and there is a brief exchange: "How we doing kid?" "Same as usual." "That bad?" All the role-players called out, as with one voice "I know that feeling"

We knew what it was like to be Star Wars characters. Luke and Han were just overgrown PCs. 

So please believe me that I am in no way criticizing Rise of Skywalker to say that it felt like a Star Wars role-playing game; like an extended episode of Star Wars: Rebels. Yes, sure, the entire universe is going to be over-run with evil, and yes, sure, the Emperor appears to have acquired a whole fleet of Death Stars and yes, one, several, or fewer beloved characters may or may not be mostly dead by the final scene. And yes, everything that Rey thought she believed about everything turns out to be wrong, again. But "Wheee----hayyyy" we're on a starship shooting along a trench and all is right with the world. 

I am totally in earnest here. The film may not survive multiple rewatchings; and I am not yet sure what it will do or has done to the Holy Franchise. But, to take just one example. When all the heroes appear to have drowned in the Lightning Sand but actually find themselves in a network of tunnels; and when they encounter a big scaly dragon Rancor thing, which Finn wants to kill but Rey wants to make friends with -- I could literally have whooped with joy. 

This is how it should always have been. Not hours and hours of Rey or Luke or Anakin talking to Luke or Yoda or Palpatine and approaching a dangerous time when they will be tested by the dark side of the Plot. Just a group of heroes. One of the heroes' Thing is that he is reckless; one of the heroes' Thing is that he is strong and furry; one of the heroes' Thing is that she is the Last But One Jedi. All together on one last adventure. Threepio gets some lines! Chewbacca gets to break things! No-one sings the Wookie Life Day Song! 

Obviously, they were going to figure out how to make Star Wars movies in the final volume of the ennealogy. That's how this stuff works.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Saturday, December 21, 2019

I had a weird dream last night.

I dreamed I went into a 24 hour shop on Stokes Croft. 

I dreamed it was mostly selling booze, but had some bread and milk and chocolate and polish cakes.

I dreamed there was a shiny electronic machine which said "Instantly By And Sell Crypto". 

I don't know what Crypto was: a drug? A friendly alien dog? But you could buy it and sell it instantly.

In my dream, I turned around, having bought some bread and some milk and some cheese (but no Cryptos) and saw a pile of tomorrow's papers. 

In my dream, the Prime Minister was a man named Boris. And the newspaper headline was "Boris Promises New Golden Age." 

I dreamed a dream my life would be so different from this hell I'm living. I see the English living in my houses and the the Spanish fishing in my seas. Bring me my amazing coloured coat.

Did you like Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker

You don't actually want to know whether I liked the Rise of Skywalker. You actually want to know what I will say early next year, when I have seen it a few times and feel ready to talk about Campbell and Canon and Continuity.

And anyway, you are going to go and see the movie over the weekend, and you'll decide whether you like it or not for yourself. If I liked it more than you (like Phantom Menace) that's probably because I'm overinvested in the product and can force myself to like anything with the Star Wars logo on it. Even the Holiday Special was "not quite as bad as I had been expecting." If I liked it less than you (like The Last Jedi) that's probably because I've been watching these movies for so damn long that I overthink them and worry about stuff that no sane person would even notice.

But still: I have to start off by doing a straight review. Saying if I liked it. It was a nice movie. It made me feel like I was ten years old again. It was a dreadful movie. I felt like someone had pissed on my childhood. And I have to to do that without giving away any of the twists, revelations, or surprises. I assume that you already know the big ones: the Emperor is still alive and Chewbacca is Rey's mother.

Rise of Skywalker has to justify itself as a mega-blockbuster, a blockbuster squared. (Star Wars invented the whole idea of blockbusters) There are nutters like me who went to see it in the middle of the night -- enough of us to fill at least three screens of the Bristol Showcase. And there are a lot of perfectly sane people who saw The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi and quite want to know what happens next. Never mind the dangerous doll decapitating nutters on YouTube: millions of perfectly sane not-especially-fannish people really care about what happens to these made up characters in the next two and a half hours. This isn't a niche interest any more. And they aren't just any made-up characters. They are iconic character; characters we literally grew up with; characters many of us can't imagine a world without.

Or, to be strictly accurate. These are some fairy nondescript characters; we first encountered them four years ago and we are still waiting for them to acquire back-stories. But there are cameo appearances by several iconic figures from the 1970s. One of the original actors has, very sadly, died: this casts a massive shadow over the whole endeavor. It is painfully obviously what Princess Leia's role in the movie would have been if Carrie Fisher were still alive; we have to watch Abrams tiptoeing around a script from which fate has deleted all the pivotal scenes He does a technically clever job of  pasting cutting-room-floor clips of Carrie saying "I don't agree with you" and "This is a very important mission" into scenes from the new script. But it still feels terribly awkward and conspicuous.

There are X-Wings and TIE Fighters and the Millennium Falcon. They are totally still iconical.

And this is not just any blockbuster event movie. This is the Last Star Wars Movie or at any rate the final part of the trilogy of trilogies envisaged by George Lucas.

Can The Rise of Skywalker pull all the threads together and answer the many outstanding questions?

Can Abrams provide payoffs to all the setups he created in Force Awakened while honouring some of the more outre detours introduced by Rian Johnson in Last Jedi?

Can Episode VIII generate a "sense of an ending" which feels big enough and significant enough to be the final destination of the journey we collectively embarked on in 1977?

No. No of course it can't. No one film could.

But it is still manages to be a  very, very, very good Star Wars movie.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

it's only a movie

these are only made up characters

the person writing the film isn't even the person who made them up

it also isn't even the person who made up the last film

if you like it that is cool

you liked the last one more than some people did

and you liked the three before the one before last WAY more than most people did

it isn't an exam you are going to take

it isn't sensible to feel nervous and apprehensive

not in a 'I am looking forward to this way'

but in a 'I hope I am not disappointed way'

in any event it will not be the biggest disappointment in the last week.

this is the way people who feel who were driven mad by the last one

mad to the point of cutting up dolls and demanding someone make it again

although maybe they were mad already

probably they were mad already

if someone makes a bad Batman film then there can still be a good Batman film

if someone makes a bad Spider-Man film there will be another one a long in a minute

but because of the funny way the rules have panned out; this film can never be made again

this film will define and redefine the universe and whether the universe continues

you do not break faith with the your younger selves if you do not like this film

this film does not break faith with your younger selves if it is not very good

all previous films and action figures and memories at 3am will be exactly as they were at 11pm

symbols and archetypes and flags and relics matter

either they became archetypes because we invested in them, or we invested in them because they were archetypes

it is possible to be overinvested

i wish this was something I could just sit back and enjoy

possibly taking it a bit too seriously

i wish this was only a movie

Monday, December 16, 2019

Mark 7

"This 'Jesus': the one who controls the weather and raises the dead and can out-Elijah Elijah. The one the King thinks is a beheaded man come back to life and the People think is a Celestial Prophet come back to earth. What did he do next? The whole 'walking on the water' thing must have been a hard act to follow."

"Oh: pretty much what you would expect. He met up with some religious lawyers and had a pedantic argument about dietary restrictions and the canonical status of oral tradition."

"Oh... right."

When you find something odd or troubling in a text, the best thing to do is focus on it. The oddness or troublesomeness is probably the point. Some people might look at this passage and say "Aha. So here we see the True Historical Jesus -- the reforming Rabbi who had some controversial ideas about ritual ablutions. The miracle stuff in the other chapters is just silly folklore we can ignore." And other people might look at it and say "Aha. For some reason, and way after the fact, someone has looked at a lot of stories about a cosmic world-saviour and rather clumsily added some Jewish stuff to make it look a bit more historical." 

But Mark was a human being and a story teller. If there are contradictions and clashes of register in the text, they didn't get there by magic: Mark put them there. If something seems odd, it is highly likely that he meant it to seem odd.

So let's keep both sides of the story in our heads. Jesus is accumulating titles like "Son of Man" and "Holy One of God". God (literally God) called him "my one-and-only Son." How does Mark want us to picture this One And Only Son of God?

Apparently, as a religious expert, having a pedantic argument with other religious experts.

then came together unto him the Pharisees 
and certain of the scribes 

which came from Jerusalem. 
and when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, 
that is to say, with unwashen, hands, 
they found fault. 
for the Pharisees, 
and all the Jews, 
except they wash their hands oft, eat not, 
holding the tradition of the elders. 
and when they come from the market, 
except they wash, they eat not 
and many other things there be, 
which they have received to hold, 
as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. 

then the Pharisees and scribes asked him 
"why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders 
but eat bread with unwashen hands?" 
he answered and said unto them 
"well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, 
as it is written 
'this people honoureth me with their lips, 
but their heart is far from me. 
howbeit in vain do they worship me 
teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.' 
for laying aside the commandment of God 
ye hold the tradition of men 
as the washing of pots and cups 
and many other such like things ye do" 
and he said unto them, 
"full well ye reject the commandment of God, 
that ye may keep your own tradition. 
for Moses said, 'honour thy father and thy mother' 
and, 'whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death' 
but ye say, 
'if a man shall say to his father or mother, 
"it is Corban (that is to say, a gift)
by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me" he shall be free' 
and ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 
making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, 
which ye have delivered
and many such like things do ye."

So. We have a debate between two approaches to religious law. In this corner, the pedantic, literalist approach which says that you achieve a state of holiness by rigorously following the Word as it is laid down in the holy texts. And in this corner, the more dynamic approach, which says that the law is a living thing and you must perpetually adapt it to the real life circumstances you find yourself in.

No surprise there. The awkward thing is that Jesus appears to be taking the rigorous, literalist approach; the Pharisees the more lenient, interpretative one.

The story has three different components. There is what Jesus said to the Pharisees; what Jesus said to the Multitude; and what Jesus said to his own Disciples. And then, cunningly concealed by the King James translators, there is Mark's comment about what Jesus meant, which, when we get to it, will make our jaws drop to the floor and our minds boggle in amazement.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that there is a regional conflict going on. Jesus is from Galilee in the North; he has not so far gone more than half a days ride from the lake. The Pharisees come from Judea in the South. The last time we heard from them they were conspiring with Herod's faction to have Jesus killed.

If we keep this in mind we can avoid a massive textual heffalump trap. Mark says that the Jews insist on all kinds of ceremonial ablutions. This suggests to some readers that he must be directing his Gospel at pagans, who may not know about Jewish beliefs. Some would take the as evidence that there is a racist element creeping into Christianity even at this early stage: "the Jews" are already seen as an alien tribe. But this leaves us with a text that makes no sense: a text which says that the Jesus who attends synagogue and talks about Moses is not a Jew; that Jesus at some level considered the prophet Isaiah to be not a Jew. If, on the other hand, when Mark talks about "the Jews" he means not "the Jews as opposed to the Christians" but "the Judeans as opposed to the Galileans" then everything falls into place. The Scribes have come up specially from Jerusalem to complain that Jesus's students don't wash up before meals. Mark points out that the Pharisees -- and indeed, all the Judeans -- have got a lot of cleanliness rules we Galileans in the North don't bother with.

The Pharisees, as we have seen, believe in an oral Torah which can modify and interpret the written Torah. Jesus treats "what Moses said" and "what God said" as synonymous. The Ten Commandments and Leviticus are "the word of God" and "the commandments of God"; the Pharisee's teachings are merely "the commandments of men" "the traditions of men" and "your own traditions". 

Christians have tended to see this passage as making a distinction between a purely internal, spiritual orientation towards God and a preoccupation with external cleanliness. But Jesus accepts the authority of the law of Moses. His complaint against the Pharisees is that they are operating a double-standard. They use their supplementary traditions to add obligations to the law when they want to find fault with Jesus's students; but they use those same traditions to subtract obligations from the law when they find them inconvenient.

It's a very lawyerly argument; and Jesus's language, at least in translation; has the whiff of the courtroom about it. "Thus do you make the law of null effect by your teaching..."

"Your disciples do not follow our Traditions, thus excusing themselves from certain onerous tasks!"

"Yeah! Well look at the way your lot use the same Traditions to excuse yourselves from onerous tasks when it suits you!"

The word for hypocrite is "hypocrite" which in English generally means hypocrite. But it literally means a person who wears a mask: an actor. The accusation is not "you don't practice what you preach" but "you are only playing at religion". ("You are nothing but show offs!" says the Contemporary English Bible.")

and when he had called all the people unto him, 

he said unto them, 

"Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: 
there is nothing from without a man, 
that entering into him can defile him 
but the things which come out of him, 
those are they that defile the man. 
if any man have ears to hear, let him hear." 

and when he was entered into the house from the people 

his disciples asked him concerning the parable. 

and he saith unto them, 
"are ye so without understanding also? 
do ye not perceive, 
that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, 
it cannot defile him; 
because it entereth not into his heart 
but into the belly, 
and goeth out into the draught, 
purging all meats?" 

and he said, 

"that which cometh out of the man, 

that defileth the man. 
for from within, 
out of the heart of men, 
proceed evil thoughts, 
an evil eye 
all these evil things come from within 
and defile the man"

"You don't put anything disgusting into your body; the disgusting stuff is what comes out." We would probably not regard this saying as a parable; but the disciples do. Jesus has stated an obvious fact about the world: if anything, earthy and a little bit vulgar. Food is nice; puke is disgusting. Smells good going in but bad coming out. The disciples are not being willfully stupid. They are saying "That much is obvious, Lord: but we do not see the application."

Jesus's explanation does not quite follow from the parable. Jesus says, in effect "When I was talking about yukky stuff which comes out of you, I wasn't talking about excrement. I was talking about what comes out of you: yucky behaviour." 

And now we come to a rather fascinating textual crux.

King James says that Jesus said that what you put in your body can't pollute you "because it entereth not into the heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats." The King writes "draught" or "drain" to protect our embarrassment, but aphedrona definitely means "toilet" (literally "the place where you go to sit by yourself"). Now, the English Bible runs the sentences together: "out into the sewer, purging all meats". That makes it sound like the sewer is doing the purging; which makes fairly good sense. "Food just goes through your body and down the toilet where we get rid of all the yucky stuff." At least one modern paraphrase takes "purged" to mean "flushed".

But katharizon panta ta bromata means "purifying all the food." When Jesus healed the leper a few chapters ago he said katharistheti. English Bibles render that as "be cleansed!" or "be purified!". Maybe we should imagine the Leper saying "If you will, you can flush and disinfect me." Maybe the world is a great big smelly latrine and Jesus has come to pull the chain.

Most translators now agree that "purging all meat" is an authorial interjection: Mark's words, not Jesus's. I am sure they are correct: but they have to use an awful lot of words to convey this in English. The Good News Bible has "In saying this Jesus declared that all foods are fit to be eaten". The New English Bible goes with "This means all foods are clean." And the Message, as ever, just makes something up: "That put an end to dietary quibbling." But a literal translation would have to run along the lines of " '...It goes into your tummy and then down the drain' (purifying all food)".

Mark wasn't a disciple. He didn't hear Jesus say any of this. But since the third century at least, Christians have said that Mark got his material from Peter. We know that Peter gave up the Jewish cleanliness laws only with great reluctance; he and Paul have a stand-up row over the issue. Is it possible that we should imagine Peter chiming in with the "purging all the food" comment?  In these confused and confusing passages, it is very easy to imagine the rambling voice of the old, old fisherman who perhaps still has problems with this aspect of his Master's teaching. "There was that time he walked on water. And then he had a big debate with the lawyers. Food makes no difference, he said. It just goes down the loo. (So everything's clean.) It's what we're like on the inside he cares about..."

When the Pharisees asked why Jesus' disciples weren't fasting, he said "they don't have to fast as long as I am here." When they asked why his disciples were breaking the Sabbath, Jesus said, in effect, "The Sabbath is whatever I say it is." Here again, the Pharisees think they have caught Jesus out. Jesus points up their hypocrisy and inconsistency; and then, in a parenthesis, wipes out the entire kosher system. Mark doesn't say that Jesus revealed that the idea of ritual purity was based on a terrible error which he could no fix. He certainly doesn't say that God has changed his mind. It's just "Jesus made all the food pure." 

Yesterday pig-meat was dirty: today it isn't. Because I said so. The godsplainers have been trying to quibble about the Law with the person who wrote the book. Jesus has indeed just done something more god-like than walking on the sea.

and from thence he arose,
and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon,
and entered into an house,
and would have no man know it:
but he could not be hid
for a certain woman,
whose young daughter had an unclean spirit,
heard of him,
and came and fell at his feet:
the woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation
and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.
but Jesus said unto her,
"let the children first be filled:
for it is not meet to take the children's bread,
and to cast it unto the dogs"
and she answered and said unto him,
"Yes, Lord:
yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs"
and he said unto her,
"for this saying go thy way;
the devil is gone out of thy daughter"
and when she was come to her house,
she found the devil gone out,
and her daughter laid upon the bed.

You know what I said above, about odd and troubling passages? Well, here is one of the oddest and most troubling of all.

Tyre is about 30 miles from Capernaum; in what we would now call Lebanon. Sidon is about a further 20 miles up the coast. This is the furthest Jesus has traveled from home-base. A Syro-Phoenician means a Syrian who was born in Phoenicia. Greek probably just means foreigner: Greek as opposed to Jewish. Probably we don't need to worry too much about the lady's triple nationality. For Mark's purposes, what matters is that she is foreign and we are a long way from home.

A foreigner asks Jesus for healing. Jesus doesn't want to heal her because she isn't Jewish. Instead of calling him a racist and challenging the whole idea of Jewish exceptionalism, she repeats her request, humbly and with wit. Jesus relents because of the way the question was asked. 

Moral: Little girls with clever mummies get healed. The rest of them carry on suffering.

We can soften the passage in a couple of ways. "Cast it to the dogs!" may have sounded milder to Mark's listeners than it does to us. Kunarion is "little dog" or even "puppy". He isn't saying "doing miracles for non-Jews is like throwing good food on the rubbish tip." It's more like "We aren't going to feed the puppies until we are sure the kids have had enough." And he doesn't say that the gentiles won't be fed, only that they won't be fed yet.

The Jews are God's People. This isn't in question. God has a special relationship with Jewish people; and the Nations don't know the Law. The God of Israel, in the person of Jesus, has walked into gentile country. One of them comes and asks him a favour. His first answer is the one you would expect. The Jews are the special ones; God's children's. Everyone else -- well they can wait. They have lessor status. Not filthy hounds, but little doggies: less important than the kids. 

Very well: says the woman -- but little doggies do in fact get the kids' leftovers.

So she gets a little bit. A little crumb. Whatever the kids didn't want. Specifically a crumb of bread. Which pulls us right back to the crucial and unexplained story of the Loaves and the Fishes. The disciples gathered up the crumbs which were left; and what did they get? Loads and loads. Tons. Basketfulls. More than they could possibly want.

The foreign lady gets her crumb: and that crumb was precisely the very thing she most wanted; her daughter healed of an incurable affliction.

So the message is clear. We modern readers are universalists. We are surprised that there would even be a question about whether Jesus would refuse to help someone on the basis of their ethnicity. But Mark and Peter were Jews. They belonged to the chosen people. God's special favourites. They expected Jesus to say "no; definitely not". Not "okay; just this once."

We say "Only the crumbs? That's a bit mean." 

They say "The crumbs! That's incredibly generous"

God has plenty. Even his leftovers are more than you could possibly want. 

That is what I think this passage means. I think that my reading is superior to Mrs Govey's, who thought that Jesus said "let the children first be fed" with a "twinkle in his eye", a twinkle which the Greek woman immediately understood and played along with.

But it is still a very troubling passage.

and again, 
departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, 
he came unto the sea of Galilee, 
through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.
and they bring unto him one that was deaf
and had an impediment in his speech
and they beseech him to put his hand upon him
and he took him aside from the multitude
and put his fingers into his ears
and he spit
and touched his tongue;
and looking up to heaven, he sighed
and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.
and straightway his ears were opened
and the string of his tongue was loosed
and he spake plain.
and he charged them that they should tell no man
but the more he charged them, 
so much the more a great deal they published it
and were beyond measure astonished, 
"He hath done all things well: 
he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak."

There is near-universal agreement that this passage demonstrates that Mark can't have been Jewish, and certainly can't have been a Galilean, since going from Tyre to Galilee via Decapolis makes about as much sense as going from London to Edinburgh via Truro. 

To which my response is "Yes: he didn't go the obvious way, but took an indirect route. That is why Mark bothered to mention it." 

Similarly everyone tells me that this story is called "The Healing of the Deaf Mute in the Decapolis" even though the text says that Jesus went through Decapolis and ended up back at home in Galilee. I sometimes wonder if I am over-subtle, or a complete block-head.

This passage puzzles me. There is no twist or moral message and nothing unusual about the healing. Jesus has been curing hundreds of people every day -- they are literally lining the roads with them. What gives this fellow a story in his own right? 

"Because, in a very real sense, many thousands of people were healed but one of them is described in the Bible; because in a very real sense we are not just a crowd; we all matter to God and Jesus would have cured this one man of his stammer even if he had in a very real sense been the only stammerer in the world." 

That might make a good sermon. But it is not very good literary criticism. We are going to have to wait until the end of the next chapter to work out what is really going on. 

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn. I have no political opinions of any kind.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Friday, December 13, 2019

You Told Me So

A few minutes ago I cancelled my Labour Party membership. 

I have at no point in the last four years been an active member of the Labour Party and I do not want a vote in the forthcoming leadership election. I am still a member of a Trade Union. I forget if my membership of Unison allows me to vote for Jeremy's successor, but if it does I will not exercise it. 

If I had a vote I would vote for the socialist candidate. But if Corbyn is succeeded by another socialist, there will be a further decade of sectarian strife between the right-wing (or "moderate") parliamentary party and the socialist (or "hard left") leadership. This would not, in fact deliver a future socialist government. The person who defeats Johnson or his successor in 2029 will be a Centrist -- someone very far to the right of Blair or even Obama, but still slightly to the left of Johnson and Trump. I could not possibly vote for such a person to be leader of the Labour Party, although he is the kind of leader the Labour Party clearly needs. So the honourable thing to do is to waive my right to cast a vote. 

I urge other socialists and Momentum supporters to do the same; we have done enough damage already. I think that we are rather in the position of evangelicals in the Church of England: we are, as a matter of fact, in the right, but it makes more sense to go away and be in the right in our own church rather than spend the next hundred years fighting for control of an institution which is working perfectly well on its own terms. 

I voted for Thangam in Bristol on Thursday and she was deservedly returned with a massive, albeit reduced, majority. She occasionally holds her surgeries in my place of work, and she shows every sign of being a charming and empathic person who relates well to her constituents. Her open letter during the last leadership campaign was one of the few honest and honourable criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn I read during the whole sorry episode. 

However, I wish to be free to vote tactically against Johnson's far-right English nationalists in any future election and tactical voting is incompatible with party membership. I would be strongly in favour of Momentum breaking away from the Centrist Labour party and offering a socialist alternative but I would not personally wish to become a member of such a party.

People are going to come up with a lot of reasons for last night's extreme English nationalist landslide. Hardly any of them will be right. 

Corbyn might have been a better leader and he might have been worse. Some of us found his understated well-meaning geography-teacher what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality refreshing after the fake sincerity of t.c Blair. Some people found it weak and uninspiring. Some of the same people who found him uninspiring accused his followers of being in thrall to his personal charisma; some of those who found him weak also said he was dangerously authoritarian. Nigel Farage should never have been allowed to manipulate David Cameron into calling a referendum; but once the referendum had been lost, Corbyn's policy of a second vote with a straight choice between a known deal and cancelling the whole show seemed to me to be the best way of playing a very poor hand. 

A lot of people said that a strong anti-Brexit position would have won Corbyn the election, yet the Liberals fought an election on a fantasy Revoke platform and were annihilated. Obviously a Lib-Lab coalition could have kept Johnson out of Downing street, but the Liberal party hates the Labour party and the Labour party hates coalitions and everyone hates the Greens. 

Corbyn's reluctance to explain to Ken Livingstone why you don't put the words "Hitler" and "Zionist" in the same sentence even if it's true was clearly an example of weak leadership. Anyone who takes seriously the idea that a Corbyn government would have threatened the existence of British Judaism or would have ushered in a second Holocaust is simply in thrall to myth-making by an over mighty billionaire press. We discovered, late in the election, just how far the Sun is prepared to go in spinning conspiracy theories. The imaginary lines from The Political Correctness Brigade and the Liberal Media and the Social Justice Warriors lead directly back to the Frankfurt Group, a covert organisation of Jewish intellectuals who are secretly working for the downfall of civilization as we now know it. But that obviously isn't even a little bit anti-Semitic. Ed Miliband -- then a dangerous Red, now the greatest Prime Minister we never had -- was vilified by those same papers for a disagreement with a rasher of bacon. 

Corbyn's weak leadership and Corbyn's anti-Semitism are excuses. So, in fact, is the Parliamentary Labour Party's relentless under mining of him, although I am sure that didn't help. 

Jeremy Corbyn lost the election because Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist and the British People do not want a socialist party in government. 

There: I have said it. 

Put another way: Corbyn was unelectable. 

Not because of his jumpers or his jam or his bicycle. Because of his politics. 

I am not the kind of Marxist who is prepared to say "Those are my principles: if you don't like them, I have others." I don't think it is the job of politicians to find out what people believe in and then to pretend to believe what the people believe. I think it is the job of politicians to believe in the right things and persuade other people that those things are right. I agreed with Jeremy Corbyn's ideas yesterday and I still agree with them today. 

I believe in "from each according to his ability to each according to his need". But I am prepared to settle for "an honest day's pay for an honest day's work." My belief that people who have done the honest work ought to also get the honest pay is by today's standards monstrously radical. I think that everyone with a job ought to get paid enough to feed, clothe and house themselves and their family; to educate their children; to go to the doctor if they get sick; and to have a little bit left over for beer and comic books. I don't mind how we achieve that. We can make the beer so cheap that even the poor can afford it; or we can pay the poor a lot more so they can afford the expensive beer. We can set wages so high that everyone can afford books; or we can lower the price of books so everyone can afford them.  We can drop books on slum districts out of Zeppelins, or we can have free libraries on the ground. I think the best approach would be for the workers (by hand or by brain) to have a general strike and demand a living wage. I think the second best approach would be for the government to tax the rich and use the money to pay for hospitals and schools and libraries. 

Yesterday; I still thought that democratic socialism was on offer. Literally until 10 o'clock I honestly thought Johnson would get a very small majority and that a Corbyn led Liberal-Labour-Green coalition would form the government. This morning, I don't think that democratic socialism is a possibility: not in my lifetime. (I am not about to collapse due to advanced senility. but I'll be doing well if I cast 5 more votes.) The alternative then -- the only other way on offer of securing an honest day's pay for an honest days work -- is to kill all the rich people. This I put in the category of eating a whole box of Maltesers in one go or spending the entire weekend looking at certain very tasteful adult websites. It's in the category of things "one would like to do, but feels one mustn't". I would probably regret it in the morning. Neither democratic socialism nor revolutionary socialism are on the table. So I suppose I am not a socialist any more. 

So: you told me that Corbyn was unelectable; you were right. 

You told me that a party leader needed to be a handsome young guy in a smart suit; you were right about that as well. 

You told me that the people didn't want socialism; you were right about that too. 

You told me that we should concentrating on electing a leader marginally less wicked than Johnson. You are probably right about that. Like the entomologist trying to decide which bug to put in his collection, it is probably sensible to choose the lessor of two weevils. 

Probably the best we can hope for is that 2029 gives us a Prime Minister who is Slightly Less Evil Than Boris. I wish you good luck; I will very probably vote for you. But excuse me if my support is less than enthusiastic. 

I am sending my £5.99 a month to the Trussell Trust. There are probably all sorts of clever reasons why that is not the charity which most deserves my support, and I look forward to ignoring them. I will ask my accountant to work out how much of my champagne money would have gone in income tax had Jeremy been elected and add that to my standing order in due course. 

I have not looked at any news media since midnight last night and I don't envisage restarting any time soon. I am going to largely abstain from Facebook and Twitter for the next several weeks at least.

I will stay as far away from politics on this blog as I possibly can: but I have lots of interesting articles on other subjects up my sleeve. Come back on Monday and find out what euphemism Jesus Christ employed to refer to the lavatory, and why this is actually Quite Interesting from a religious point of view.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn. I have no political opinions of any kind.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Mark 6 30-56

and the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus
and told him all things
both what they had done
and what they had taught
and he said unto them
"Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place,
and rest a while"

for there were many coming and going
and they had no leisure so much as to eat.
and they departed into a desert place by ship privately
and the people saw them departing
and many knew him
and ran afoot thither out of all cities
and outwent them
and came together unto him
and Jesus, when he came out
saw much people
and was moved with compassion toward them
because they were as sheep not having a shepherd
and he began to teach them many things
and when the day was now far spent
his disciples came unto him
and said,
"this is a desert place
and now the time is far passed.
send them away
that they may go into the country round about
and into the villages
and buy themselves bread
for they have nothing to eat."
he answered and said unto them
"give ye them to eat."
and they say unto him
"shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread
and give them to eat?"
he saith unto them
"how many loaves have ye? go and see"
and when they knew
they say, "five, and two fishes"
and he commanded them to make all sit down by companies 
upon the green grass
and they sat down in ranks
by hundreds, and by fifties
and when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes
he looked up to heaven
and blessed
and brake the loaves
and gave them to his disciples to set before them
and the two fishes divided he among them all
and they did all eat
and were filled
and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments
and of the fishes.
and they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men

Nazareth is ten miles from the lake: I think that the disciples must have reconvened in Capernaum after their missionary trip. Jesus sets out in the boat to find a lonely place where they can all have a rest. We aren't talking about a literal desert: just somewhere a bit secluded. He can't have traveled far, because the crowds on land are able to follow the boat and get their first.

Some people say that eremos, "desert", specifically refers to the wild places around a town where shepherds could graze their flocks: in which case it makes sense that when Jesus sees the people he thinks of abandoned sheep. In the fourth century, Christians picked a place called Tabgha, about two miles from Capernaum, as the site of the miracle, which fits with the story well enough. 

This is the most famous of all Jesus-stories. It is in Matthew, Luke and John as well as in Mark. And everyone knows what it means. 

Miss Govey who taught R.E at my infant school knew what it meant. It is about sharing. There didn't seem to be enough food to feed the huge crowd. But a little boy went to Andrew (who was the nicest and most approachable disciple) and offered to share his packed lunch. This made everyone else feel bad; so they shared their lunches as well, and there was enough to go round. (Mark doesn't mention the little boy; neither do Matthew or Luke. He's only in John's version of the story.)  

A.N Wilson the novelist and acrostic-fan knows what the story means. It is about peace. Jesus told the crowd to sit down before the picnic started. And this is one of the most profound things anyone has ever said. Make the people sit down! The fighting men of Israel must sit down! The different sects, the sparring partners, the sectarians must sit down! Make the people sit down! (And so on, for pages and pages.)

John Wimber, the charismatic preacher knew what the story meant. It is about the gifts of the spirit. Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd. They have a ridiculously small amount of food -- literally just a crumb or two -- but because they trust Jesus the bread multiplies in their hands. And they get to take home what was left over -- a whole basket for each disciple! ("You know why most preachers get that wrong? It's because they have never experienced bread multiplying in their hands! They're only theoreticians!") 

Bible commentators know what the story means. It's about the Church. The twelve baskets represent the twelve sons of Jacob. So when the disciples gather up the fragments, they are really showing that God is going to gather together the Remnant of Israel. (Obviously.) 

And of course, with a lot more authority, John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, knows what the story means. It's really all about the Eucharist. Jesus feeding the crowd in the lonely place is a lot like God sending manna to feed the Jews in the wilderness. Jesus feeds the crowds with bread: but he himself is really the bread; and Christians are going to feed on his flesh; through faith or through the Mass, depending on your denomination. 

And none of that is remotely present in Mark's Gospel. Mark just recounts an amazing miracle. The crowds are hungry; the disciples only have a tiny amount of food; Jesus blesses the bread; a huge amount of food is left over. But although, so far as I can see, Mark does not provide us readers with any interpretation, he does make it pretty clear that it is a story which needs interpreting. A bit later, Mark will tell us that the disciples couldn't believe that Jesus had really walked on water because they hadn't understood the miracle of the loaves. Later, Jesus reminds them of the miracle: "When I fed all those people, how much food was left over?" he asks. "Twelve baskets", they reply. "But you still don't understand, do you?". 

There is something about this miracle which needs to be understood: a hidden truth to unpack. 

The Old Testament, the book of Kings, tells a story from a thousand years before Jesus, about Elijah: 

and there came a man from Baal-shalisha 
and brought the man of God bread of the first fruits 
twenty loaves of barley 
and full ears of corn 
and the husk thereof 
and he said 
"Give unto the people that they may eat" 
and his servant said 
"What should I set this before an hundred men?" 
he said again 
"Give the people, that they may eat 
for thus saith the Lord 
they shall eat, and shall leave thereof" 
so he set before them 
and they did eat 
and left thereof 
according to the word of the LORD

The two stories are clearly parallel: the people are hungry; the holy man has only a small amount of bread; he tells a servant to distribute it anyway; everyone has enough; there is some left over. I am not entirely sure how miraculous Elijah was being: a fifth of a loaf per person is a perfectly good snack. 

We have just been told that there is a tale going round to the effect that Jesus himself is Elijah, come back to earth. So there is one possible Secret Meaning. Jesus does the same tricks as Elijah; only more so. Elijah fed a hundred with twenty, and there was some left over; Jesus fed five thousand with five; and there was loads left over. The Old Testament passage suggests that it's the "some left over" which is the point. The feeding illustrates the oracle that "The people shall eat and shall leave thereof."

But I am not sure that this helps me to understand Mark's story any better. The disciples did not believe that Jesus had walked on water, because they did not understand...that he was an even greater prophet than Elijah?  

I have said that we shouldn't infer connections between stories which do not exist: when Mark says "after this happened, that happened" he is probably not implying any meaningful sequence of events. But in this case, Mark does draw a direct link between the mission of the Twelve and the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus has taken the disciples to a lonely spot because they are tired after their journey. So we can reasonably think of the two stories together. 

Once you put the two stories side by side, the meaning of the loaves and the fishes starts to look a little less obscure. The feeding of the five thousand and the mission of the twelve are the same story, told in two different ways. I was surprised that Mark showed the disciples going off on their journey, but told us very little of what happened while they were away. I think that was a deliberate dramatic decision: he holds off showing what happened in each individual village because what happens in the wilderness is a much better example of the same principle. The mission to preach the word and the mission to hand out the bread are two aspects of the same mission; the one is a picture of the other.

Jesus and the disciples are supposed to be having a rest, but instead, they spend the day teaching. At the end of the day Jesus asks the disciples if they have any bread. No, of course we don't. You told us not to take any food with them. Money to buy bread? No: you told us to leave our wallets at home. (I suppose this is why John introduces the little boy with the five loaves: not to make a trite moral point about sharing, but to underline the fact that the disciples are mendicants: they have nothing of their own, not even half a dozen bread rolls.) So Jesus tells them to go ahead and give the food out anyway. And there is plenty. Everyone gets what they want, and a ton of leftover food bounces back for the presumably famished disciples.  

Jesus sent his apostles out to preach with nothing -- not even a clear understanding of his message -- and they came back saying that they have preached and healed and performed exorcisms. Jesus sends his apostles to feed the crowd with hardly anything -- just a few crumbs of bread -- and everyone is full of food and the disciples get a doggy-basket to take home for supper. And that's a bit like what happened to Elijah, when it looked like there was only three slices of bread per person, but actually there was as much as anyone could eat.

So, there's your secret message. You think you have nothing. Actually, you have much more than you need.

and straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship
and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida
while he sent away the people
and when he had sent them away,
he departed into a mountain to pray
and when even was come,
the ship was in the midst of the sea,
and he alone on the land.
and he saw them toiling in rowing
for the wind was contrary unto them
and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them
walking upon the sea
and would have passed by them.
but when they saw him walking upon the sea,
they supposed it had been a spirit,
and cried out:
for they all saw him,
and were troubled.
and immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them,
"be of good cheer
it is I;
be not afraid."

and he went up unto them into the ship;
and the wind ceased
and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.
for they considered not the miracle of the loaves:
for their heart was hardened.

It is already early evening when the feeding starts. It must have taken some time to distribute the food—each disciple had 416 people to serve. I suppose "when evening came" means "when it got dark". For no immediate reason, Jesus sends the disciples—who only returned from their preaching engagement that morning, and still haven't had a rest—over the lake to Bethsaida. 

No-one knows where Bethsaida is. I don't know whether we should assume that because Mark says that the disciples have gone "to the other side" that it is on the East bank of the Lake (where Capernaum and Tabgha are on the West). Perhaps "on the other side" just means "somewhere you can get to by boat".

Before the invention of digital watches "an hour" did not have a fixed length. Day was divided into twelve hours and night was divided into twelve hours and the hours got longer or shorter depending on the time of year. (This was presumably a lot more trouble than just putting the clocks back in October.) The night hours were divided into four vigils, each lasting for three variable hours. "The fourth watch of the night" means the tenth hour; just before dawn; three in the morning. The disciples have spent nine hours rowing against the wind. 

There is an absurdity, a comic element, to this story. Jesus tells the disciples to take the boat to the other side of the lake, and they dutifully row off, and row all night without getting anywhere. And Jesus follows them—on foot! He walks past them, walking on the sea, and pretends that he hasn't seen them, or that he is going to ignore them. They don't call out to Jesus: I think we have to imagine them screaming. "Yikes! It's a ghost". The word is specifically phantasma : they aren't mistaking Jesus for something "spiritual" or for one of the unclean spirits. Jesus tells them not to be scared; comes on board; and the weather changes. 

There is a temptation to spiritualize this passage. (Matthew will turn it into a full-blown gnostic parable.) "You may feel that you are being tossed and turned in a very real sense by the vicissitudes of the world but once Jesus comes on board into the ship of your life everything will be calm." But I am trying to keep focused on the narrative. The disciples really didn't ought to be amazed that Jesus is walking on the water: but something is preventing them from seeing what is going on. If only they could work out the secret meaning of the loaves and the fishes they would understand. But they can't. 

The word "miracle" is King James' addition, incidentally: Mark simply says that they were boggled by Jesus walking on the water because they "didn't understand the loaves". 

and when they had passed over,
they came into the land of Gennesaret,
and drew to the shore.
and when they were come out of the ship, straightway they knew him,
and ran through that whole region round about,
and began to carry about in beds those that were sick,
where they heard he was
and whithersoever he entered,
into villages,
or cities,
or country, they laid the sick in the streets,
and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment
and as many as touched him were made whole

Genneserat was a city about 4 miles south of Capernaum, and the area around it. The sea of Galilee was sometimes referred to as Lake Genneserat; so it is possible that "the region of Genneserat" just means Galilee. Jesus has resumed his mission on his old stumping ground. 

The chapter begins with Jesus going home and finding that he can't do many miracles there; it ends with him moving into a new part of the country and everyone flocking to him for healing. Perhaps the feeding of the five thousand has pushed his reputation as a miracle worker to the next level; perhaps the people flocking to Genneserat are coming from the villages where the Twelve preached. They seem to be mainly interested in Jesus as a healer: he is now turning up in towns and finding the streets lined with sick-beds; and people chasing him to touch his clothes. At the most superficial level, this must be why Jesus doesn't want stories about his healing powers to be spread too widely: the more people know, the more his miracles will be in demand. 

Jesus has walked on the water and reproduced Elijah's trick with the loaves. The disciples have been out preaching and word has got back to the King. And I think at this point Mark takes a step back. We're in a new town. There are crowds. And Jesus is healing everyone. And so it goes on ...

Pull back. Aerial shot of cripple-lined streets. Jesus walking slowly through streets. Deserts beyond the city walls; maybe slow aerial pan to Jerusalem in the far distance, with ominous music in the background. Some pharisees packing their books and getting on the horses. And...fade. 


King James translates the Greek denaria as "a penny". In the pre-decimal English currency "one penny" was abbreviated to 1d where the d stood indeed for denaria. But a Biblical penny is worth a lot more than 1d. It seems that "one penny" was a fair wage for a day's agricultural labour. That means (based on the present minimum wage) that two hundred pence would be worth about £10,000 in today's money.  So the disciples are budgeting at a very reasonable £2 a head. 

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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