Posts Tagged ‘sin’

 

Well. It has been quite a while since I’ve written something personal here, but sometimes I read long books, and sometimes I read very long books, and I was in the mood for Chaucer, and nothing says springtime like eight hundred pages of Middle English poetry.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan that Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye –
So priketh hem nature in hir corages –
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

See? Nothing. This seems to be one of the earliest accounts of the Spring Break road trip, an urge that I still feel even though I’m in my mid-thirties.

One of the strange mental habits I have is to think of Decent People; generally, in contrast to myself. “It’s so nice driving on the interstates after midnight. There’s so little traffic. Yeah, all the Decent People are home in bed.” “It’s Friday night, and all the Decent People of the world are taking their families to Walmart. I guess I’ll go back home and watch Cary Grant and William Powell.” “You still haven’t changed the oil in the car yet? Decent People would have done that a thousand miles ago.” One of the interesting things about The Canterbury Tales is that it’s quite clear who the Decent People are, and one of the interesting things about the way we study The Canterbury Tales is that we more seldom teach the stories told by Decent People. I guess all of us who study literature professionally feel a bit indecent. It’s a good feeling.

In Chaucer, whether people work for The Church or not has little to do with whether they are Decent or not. Behold, my favorite image from the book:

“And now hath Sathanas”, seyth he, “a tail
Brodder than of a carrik is the sail.
Hold up thy tail, thow Sathanas!” quod he,
“Shewe forth thin ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place.”
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hive,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne drive
Twenty thousand freres on a route,
And thurghout helle swarmeden aboute,
And comen again as faste as they may gon
And in his ers they crepten everychon;
He clapte his tail again and lay ful stille.

I can’t say as I’m completely certain why I love the image of twenty thousand friars spewing out of Satan’s ass, swarming all over hell in their tonsures and long rough robes; I’m sure Freud would enjoy explaining that about me. As I enjoy analyzing The Host: He’s always complaining about his wife, and then he goes and flirts with clergymen:

But, by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,
Thou woldest ben a tredefoul aright;
For if thou have corage as thou hast might,
The were nede of hennes, as I wene,
Ya, mo than seven times seventeen!
Se, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,
So gret a nekke, and swich a large breest!

I guess the Prioress has good taste in priests. The Nun’s Priest’s mock-epic beast fable is one of the more entertaining, a bit like Aesop meets Alexander Pope and foreshadows Henry Fielding. The Host also has this to say about the Monk:

I pray to God yeve him confusioun
That first thee broghte unto religioun!
Thou woldest han been a tredefoul aright;
Haddestow as greet a leve as thow hast might
To parfourne al thy lust in engendrure,
Thow haddest bigeten many a creature.
Allas, why werestow so wid a cope?
God yeve me sorwe but, and I were a pope,
Nat oonly thow, but every mighty man,
Thogh he were shore ful hye upon his pan,
Sholde have a wif, for al the world is lorn!
Religioun hath take up al the corn
Of treding, and we borel men been shrimpes.
Of feble trees ther comen wrecched impes;
This maketh that oure heires beth so sklendre
And feble that they may nat wel engender.
This maketh that oure wives wol assaye
Religious folk, for ye mowe bettre paye
Of Venus paiementz than may we.

In our time, all the hot guys don’t become priests; but then, most churches don’t require celibacy of their priests any more. But really, there’s got to be some other problem with the time if all the wives are out offering themselves to men of the cloth. Judging by the less Decent Tales, The Host is not the only one to notice that women have an eye for a man in a cassock. They don’t always return it; The Monk’s Tale is a catalog of the Fall of Great Men, frequently (but not all) because of the women in their lives – Samson, Holofernes, Solomon, and many others.

In general, the less Decent stories are about sex, or at least the battle between the sexes. Perhaps that’s why we love them so – gender roles haven’t really changed that much in seven hundred years. We still want to figure out how to make people love us back. The Wife of Bath has it that men should submit to their wives, and The Clerk implies that women should submit to their abusive husbands, but I think the truth is this:

Love wol nat be constrained by maistrye;
Whan maistrye comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth hise winges, and farwel, he is gon!
Love is a thing as any spirit free.
Wommen of kinde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constrained as a thral,
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal.

The trick is to find someone that you love too much to control, and who loves you the same way. We want to feel free, and loved as we are. I’ve yet to find that person, but I’m still hoping. The hope is a bit foolish since I don’t like to go out and meet people, but only a bit because I still end up meeting quite a lot of people, just not gay men that I’m attracted to.

The Wife of Bath rationalizes the existence of us Indecent People:

For wel ye knowe, a lord in his household
Ne hath nat every vessel al of gold.
Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servise,
God clepeth folk to him in sondry wise,
And everich hath of God a propre yifte,
Som this, som that, as him liketh shifte.

And there are some pleasures imagined by Decent People, like The Knight:

ne how the Grekes pleye
The wake-pleyes, ne kepe I noght to seye –
Who wrastleth best, naked with oille enoint,
Ne who that baar him best, in no disjoint;

Seriously? If my wake is going to have nude wrestling, I’ll hop out of the casket to watch.

When it comes to Decency, no one on this trip is as Decent as The Parson. He concludes the book with ninety pages of prose, mostly about the Seven Deadly Sins, how to avoid them, and how to repent of them. He likes lists, especially numbered lists, and if those lists can be long, even better. Like this list of little-recognized sins:

Now sith man understondeth generally which is venial sinne, thane is it convenable to tellen specially of sinnes whiche that many a man, peradventure, ne demeth hem nat sinnes, and ne shriveth him nat of the same thinges, and yet natheless they been sinnes soothly, as thise clerkes writen. This is to seyn, that at every time that man eteth or drinketh moore than suffiseth to the sustenaunce of his body, in certein he dooth sinne. And eek whan he speketh moore than nedeth, it is sinne; eek whan he herkneth nat benignly the compleinte of the povere; eek whan he is in heele of body, and wol nat faste whan oother folk fasten, withouten cause reasonable; eek whan he slepeth moore than nedeth; or whan he comth by thilke encheson to late to chirche, or to othere werkes of charite; eek whan he useth his wif withoute soverein desir of engendrure, to the honour of God, or for the entente to yelde to his wif the dette of his body; eek whan he wol nat visite the sike and the prisoner, if he may; eek if he love wif, or child, or oother worldly thing, moore than reson requireth; eek if he flatere or blandise moore than him oghte for any necessitee; eke if he amenuse or withdrawe the almesse of the povre; eke if he apparaileth his mete moore deliciously than nede is, or ete to hastily by likerousnesse; eek if he tale vanitees at chirche, or at Goddes service, or that he be a talkere of idel wordes of folye or of vileinye, for he shal yelde acounte of it at the day of dome; eek whan he biheteth or assureth to do thinges that he may nat parfourne; eek whan that he by lightnesse or folye misseyeth or scorneth his neighebore; eek whan that he hath any wikked suspecioun of thing ther he ne woot of it no soothfastnesse. Thise thinges, and mo withoute nombre, ben sinnes, as seyth Seint Augustin.

Wow. I personally have done a lot of these things, and yet I don’t feel bad about them. I mean, loving your children more than is reasonable? Check. Enjoying good food, a little better than is strictly necessary to choking it down? Check. Showing up at church late? Check. Having sex without considering conception? Check. Forgetting to skip meals when other people are? Check. I’m the sort of person who tells jokes and laughs during funeral services, so I guess that counts as speaking unnecessarily. This enormous weight of sin that The Parson dumps on us all seems excessive to me, and a bit ignorant.

Of leccherye, as I seide, sourden diverse speces, as fornicacioun, that is bitwixe man and woman that ben nat maried; and this is deedly sinne and agains nature. Al that is enemy and destruccioun to nature is agains nature.

Has he seen nature? How many species are monogamous? For that matter, how many species of mammals are strictly heterosexual? It seems to me that religious laws are themselves against nature. If working against nature is a deadly sin, then Christianity has a lot of repenting to do –

But war thee wel that swiche manere penaunces on thy flessh ne make thee nat bitter or angry or annoyed of thyself, for bettre is to caste awey thin heire than for to caste awey the swetenesse of Jesu Crist.

– not in chain mail on bare skin or hairshirts, because that sort of mortification of the flesh defeats the purpose. We have life so that we can enjoy it; whether that’s the sweetness of Jesus Christ or the sweetness of the love that The Parson can’t even name, we must find the goodness in life and taste it often. So much of what The Parson teaches seems to work against finding any joy in life at all, but even he admits that hating the life you live is a bad thing. And lest you think he’s a big old hypocrite, Chaucer says in the General Prologue that this Parson is the real deal. He contrasts him with the bulk of the clergy:

And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

Another phrase that I love.

It’s true that Chaucer didn’t finish his project, four stories for each of thirty travelers (and when the Canon’s Yeoman rides up he makes thirty-one), but I think he gives us a fairly good picture of what life is like in fourteenth-century England. There’s a lot of bigotry, a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of sex, a lot of love, a lot of hope and despair. It’s like seeing the entire world, or at least the world as they knew it.

I don’t believe the world or the flesh is here to be overcome, as the old Christian Fathers would have it; the world is here to be loved. We have life so that we can be happy in it. For some people, that means a life of perpetual decency; for others, it’s a little more free. We have to be reconciled to ourselves, we have to love ourselves, we have to find peace with who we are, we have to get in touch with our personal nature (which no one else can define) and live it completely. The Parson finds it one way, The Wife of Bath another. They’re different, nearly binary opposites, but the end result is the same. They each are who they are without shame or self-reproach. And if that is something I gain from spending the month of April with eight hundred pages of Middle English, the time will have been well spent.

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I come from a large family of people who are not especially kind. When I was young, I got angry quite easily, but I recognized how powerless I was to vent my frustrations on my older siblings, so I’d grip my little hands into fists and turn red and grit my teeth until smoke poured out of my ears. Those older siblings enjoyed the show so much that they spent all their leisure time making me angry for no other purpose than to watch me get angry. What does a child learn from this? First, he learns to conceal his feelings. I was so adept at this that I myself didn’t know what I was feeling for most of my life. Now, I’m shy enough that when people meet me, I seem not to have any personality at all, so they project their opinions, desires, and prejudices onto me as if I were a tabula rasa. It gives me a chance to try being different people, but the real me always surfaces eventually, often to jarring effect.

Second, he learns that the world is an unfair place, inimical to his own interests. Those with power make others suffer with impunity, and those who are responsible for keeping him safe are either too busy with other matters, too indifferent, or too powerless to do any good. Life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As I got older, I’d occasionally try to create some sort of justice, but I quickly discovered that I have no sense of proportion. Any attempt of mine to right the scales of justice leaves them leaning too far to the other side. When you don’t expect the world to be fair, you don’t try to make it fair. When injustice is normal, justice no longer seems like a goal worth reaching toward. As I’ve gotten along, I’ve tried to supplement my deficient sense of justice with moral rules, but everyone knows that rules only really matter in board games. This is why I try so hard to be kind; there’s a baseline of fairness that makes it possible for us to live in a society, that I am lacking. Though I often apply the principle inconsistently, I find kindness easier to manage, and I also find that people don’t mind if you’re unfair if you’re unfair in their favor.

I’ve enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s fiction for quite some time – The Blind Assassin was new when I first loved it – but this is the first nonfiction book of hers that I’ve read, and it is quite good. The reading goes very quickly, and the book takes stories and concepts that we are familiar with and presents them to us in a new light. Five chapters, forty pages each, but they don’t feel that long. If it were a novel, I’d try to read it as an Elizabethan drama, but it’s not a connected story. Well, maybe it is.

Part one, Ancient Balances. Humanity’s earliest laws governed the balancing of accounts, as did our earliest religions. The Egyptians believed that after death, a human heart was weighed against truth, and justice claimed the soul for either good or ill. This belief spread through the other pagan religions, as well as into Judaism and its descendants, Christianity and Islam. In fact, it seems to have predated our evolution into human beings, as primates also have an acute sense of justice. The interesting thing about justice, though, is that it’s always represented as being female. I think that it’s because our sense of justice comes from our mothers, the primary caregivers in most societies. My mother had too much of a temper to manage her children effectively; sometimes punishments were excessive, sometimes they were insufficient because they had been excessive, and sometimes they were nonexistent. I guess it’s easier to love some children if you don’t look too closely at what they do. The ex-wife is also a woman of quick temper who loves babies, but she has a rather extreme sense of justice, which occasionally makes me uncomfortable. By getting divorced, we kept her from having more children than she can manage, so hopefully my children will be more emotionally healthy, more human than I have been.

Part two, Debt and Sin. As we saw with the Egyptian scales, the things we do in this life are often seen as a series of moral debts and credits, that great accountant’s ledger in the sky. I’ve mentioned before how incomplete this metaphor seems to me, how easily it can be used to justify acts of great evil by balancing them with a series of small charitable donations. However, Atwood points out that it’s not only the debtor who is seen as the sinner; the creditor is also morally damaged by the lending of money. Think of our culture’s opinion of pawnbrokers, a career so questionable that it seldom appears outside of Dickens novels or TLC programs. We see them as profiting by taking unfair advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, as if the pawnbroker forces them into sin. As if the act of borrowing money itself were a sin. My own debts make me uncomfortable; I’ve taken on a second job to try to pay them off. But they were also necessary; when I moved here, I needed some money for a security deposit on an apartment, and I was also in need of food. I got a new credit card because I couldn’t make it on my own. It’s like this: if I have a skillet, I can make healthy food for a few dollars a day. If I don’t have a skillet, I can eat unhealthy fast food at a rate of eight to ten dollars a day. So, it makes sense for me to buy a skillet. If I don’t have the money for a skillet, I’m stuck eating expensive food. I could decide not to eat for three or four days and so save enough money to buy a skillet, or I could borrow the money. I chose to borrow it. I don’t think that makes me a sinner, just a human being who values his health.

In this section, Atwood also talks about the importance of record-keeping. Remember Fight Club, when Jack/Tyler’s plan was to destroy all the credit card records? Apparently that’s a historical trend. Erase the record of the debt, cancel the debt without paying it. It’s what all we debtors really want, isn’t it? And what we refuse to do when we become creditors. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Part three, Debt as Plot. As Cecily points out in The Importance of Being Earnest, memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels one encounters. Specifically, memory of debts. The nineteenth century novel is full of debts and repayments. In graduate school, I once wrote about how Wuthering Heights is a rewriting of Byron’s “The Giaour,” where money has replaced religion. One of the strongest examples that Atwood uses is one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss. She also discusses the imaginative power of millers generally. In Eliot’s novel, life is a matter of inheriting and settling accounts; Maggie Tulliver tries to create a world where relationships are built on more than debts, and it eventually kills her. The next logical step is

Part four, The Shadow Side. Revenge. A good portion of this is about Shakespearean tragedy, which revolves around vengeance. There’s also The Merchant of Venice, which covers a humanized Shylock and his overgrasping vengeance. Atwood mentions a production that used a Native American actor for Shylock, which I think must have been quite compelling. For me, though, thoughts of Shakespeare generally turn to Twelfth Night, the play most interested in giving gifts, and the debts that gift-giving creates. Indeed, it’s a play about unwanted debts, where people become creditors against their will. Years ago, I decided that I would never lend money to a friend. I will gladly give, and if they want to return it that’s their choice, but I won’t give money to someone if I need it back. This practice can lead me into trouble, like when I gave money to someone who was a bad risk, and then he moved to a different continent while promising to pay it back. It would have come in handy a year later, when I was getting a new credit card instead of buying a skillet with my own money. Así es la vida.

I prefer to pay my debts off, but I will forgive any creditor who comes my way. Even those people who have repaid my love with violence and neglect. Let debts go, even those of emotion and soul. Let there be love and peace. Let forgiveness overcome our desires for war.

Part five, Payback. I believe that the human desire for payback leads to more unnecessary conflict than anything else. Jesus fuck, just let it go. It doesn’t matter if you have a right to exact vengeance; relinquish your rights and let it go. Clinging to your vengeance binds your debtor to you more closely. The only way to be free of him is to let go.

The bulk of this section is taken up by a rewriting of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, updated for our time. We can’t imagine a man so consumed by the love of wealth that he won’t spend on himself, so the Nouveau Scrooge does. But when he’s faced with the price of his wealth, the destruction of the earth led by the industrial age, he changes his mind and gives his money to support the preservation of nature. Atwood finishes her tale of human history with the renunciation of wealth, the reversal of the nineteenth century – a vision of a future where capital is used to benefit the earth instead of the individual, where species are saved, and we stop acquiring more than we need.

It may seem strange, to write a book about money and spend most of it talking about religion, fiction, and the environment, but it makes sense. Atwood has spent this book telling us who we are, what makes us human. Fair play, justice, getting into and out of debt, yes, but more importantly, we are the stories we tell. If we keep telling the story of capitalism, we will keep living in a world of more and more extreme capitalism. There are other stories to tell, though. Stories of community, stories of cooperation, stories of peace, stories of kindness. As the Barenaked Ladies once sang, It’s time to make this something that is more than only fair.