Alan Saunders: Hello, and welcome to The Philosopher's Zone. I'm Alan Saunders.
This week, a curious anniversary. Just 350 years ago last month, on July 27th, 1656, a proclamation in Hebrew was read in front of the ark at the Talmud Torah synagogue in Amsterdam. The congregation was Iberian: Jews who came, or whose parents had come, from Spain or Portugal. Their governing body, not the rabbis but the lay people who administered the synagogue, were known as the senhores of the ma'amad, and this is what they had to say.
Reading: The Senhores of the ma'amad having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavoured by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, they have decided that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Spinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation and in front of these holy scrolls; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law.
Alan Saunders: The object of all this fury was a 23-year-old man Baruch - or Bento or Benedictus - Spinoza was not yet what he was later to become: one of the most significant and, in his own time, one of the most notorious of philosophers ever. So what had he done to merit this sort of treatment?
Steven Nadler, Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is Spinoza's biographer and more recently, the author of an account of this event. But before we talked about that, I wanted to know from him why it matters. Why do we care what happened to Spinoza?
Steven Nadler: His importance for us today is merely as the most outspoken and radical proponent of democratic, secular tolerant society. Spinoza was extremely frightened by what he was seeing happening around him at the time, as the secular Dutch Republic was more and more becoming taken over by extreme ecclesiastic authorities, especially in the early 1670s. And the theological political treatise and the political treatise are pleas for freeing political authority from the reins of religious figures. And so you have this really deep cry that the most secure state, the most healthy state, will be one in which political authority is vested in the will of the people and it's free from interference by the church. And I think that there's no more important lesson today than that particular one; that society can achieve its most perfect form, its most secure condition when it's run in a tolerant, democratic and secular manner.
Alan Saunders: Well let's turn then to the cherem. This is a ban; it's normally referred to, not entirely accurately, as a ban of excommunication from the Jewish community. So what sort of Jewish community was there in Amsterdam at the time?
Steven Nadler: It was a very mutli-faceted one, with a very interesting history. Most of the Jews in Amsterdam in the 1610 to '20s and '30s, were Jews of Portuguese and Spanish background. They were families, or descendents of families that had been forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal some generations earlier, and finally emigrated to Amsterdam, either directly from Spain and Portugal, or more proximately, from Antwerp. And when they arrived in Amsterdam, they found they were able, with a bit of a wink from the authorities around 1604, 1605, they were able to actually worship openly, return to Judaism. Of course, having been separated from Judaism for so long, they also had to re-educate themselves in the norms of Judaism. And over the next 10 or 20 years, there were almost 600 to 800 of these Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam, many of them quite well off because they were able to carry on the same mercantile businesses that they had established back in Iberia. So these were fairly well off Jews, a bit unorthodox in their Jewish practice because of the generations of Catholic influence. So for example, on the Purim holiday, they celebrated what they called the Feast of St Esther.
Spinoza was born in 1632 into this community. He himself was not one of these conversos, that is somebody who had actually been forced to convert. His parents were, but Spinoza was born a Jew and by the time he was born in Amsterdam, the Jewish community had three good-sized congregations that had finally merged into one fairly large congregation, and there were learned and active rabbis running a very well functioning community. You're absolutely right to say that we shouldn't think of what happened to Spinoza as an excommunication, because Judaism doesn't have communion. I mean, the cherem is not exactly a religious act, in fact in Amsterdam it was not pronounced by the rabbis, it was pronounced by the lay governors of the community. And these Jews in Amsterdam used the cherem quite frequently as a way of imposing a kind of order and discipline upon the community. So for example, you could be put under cherem for showing disrespect to a rabbi or taking books out of the library without permission; women could be banned for cutting the hair of gentile women. You could be put under the ban for engaging in theological discussions with gentiles, and my favourite instance is one man who was put under the ban because he - according to the document, he circumcised a Polish man without permission. Well, we can only hope that it wasn't without the Polish man's permission.
But Spinoza's ban is on the one hand not extraordinary, because the ban was used quite frequently as a way of disciplining a community that was still kind of educating itself in Jewish ways. But when you compare the vitriol and the text and the curses in Spinoza's cherem with all the other cherems from the period, you're just immediately struck by the length and the depth of the anger directed at Spinoza.
I have actually another example here of a cherem from the period. This is a man named Isaac de Peralta and he was put under a cherem because he had become angry at some of the leaders of the community and found them in the street, insulted them and assaulted them, and as a result of this violent act, here's the cherem that he was given. It says:
'Taking into consideration that Isaac de Peralta disobeyed the aforesaid governing board and that he responded with negative words concerning this issue, and not content with this, Peralta dared to go out and look for members of the board on the street and insult them, the aforesaid governing board, considering these things, and the importance of the case, decided the following:
It is agreed upon unanimously that the aforesaid Peralta be excommunicated because of what he has done. Because he has been declared under punishment of cherem, no-one shall talk or deal with him, only family and other members of his household may talk with him.'
Now this was for assaulting members of the governing board, and the anger here doesn't even begin to compare with what Spinoza received. I should say most of the cherems were easily removed by making an apology or paying a fine, but in Spinoza's case there is not even that hope of redemption offered.
Alan Saunders: And in Spinoza's case, and I should stress that this is a very, very young man we're talking about, it does seem to be 'his evil deeds and abominable opinions' that they're talking about. But this is before he's published any philosophical works, so what is going on here? What can we suppose might have happened? Because they say that he had abominable opinions, but they don't say what they were.
Steven Nadler: Yes, it's very clever of them, isn't it. On the one hand there's a mystery here; these words are ambiguous and we're not told exactly what he was saying or doing, we can be sure it was something more than simply going to a non-Kosher restaurant and eating. There's a view that used to be offered that it was ironic that Spinoza would be the victim of an inquisition in Amsterdam by men who had themselves escaped the Inquisition. But I don't think it was an inquisition. Some recent scholars have suggested that it was a purely legal matter. At this time Spinoza was seeking some protection from his creditors for debts he'd inherited from his father. And rather than going to the governing board of the Jewish community to resolve those debts, he went to the Dutch authorities, which was forbidden by the laws of the community. He was supposed to resolve it within the community.
I find it very hard to believe the depth of the anger in the cherem goes way beyond a mere legality. So on the one hand you have this mystery: what are the 'abominable heresies and monstrous deeds'? On the other hand, there's really no mystery if we read his later works and take a sampling of the opinions that are found there.
These are works that he began composing in the late 1650s and early 1660s, so it's not that far distant from the date of the cherem. And we also have some testimony of witnesses from around 1658, two years after the cherem, who say that they were in Amsterdam, they met this man named Spinoza and here's the kinds of things he was saying.
I would suggest there are four or five elements from Spinoza's mature philosophy that we have good reasons for thinking that he was uttering, even around the time of the cherem. At this time he was already educating himself in secular philosophy, of Aristotle, Descartes and others, and I find it perfectly plausible that the views, the theological and philosophical and political views that Spinoza lays out in his mature treatises, were already, at least in embryonic or not fuller form, in his mind around 1656. So for example, I think at this time, as he does in his work The Ethics', Spinoza denies the providential God of Judaism. Spinoza's God, (this appears in Part 1 of The Ethics) is a God who has no moral characteristics. God is neither good, nor perfect, nor just, nor wise, so God doesn't form plans; God doesn't judge things on the basis of how well they conform to his plans. Spinoza's God also has no psychological characteristics. His is not a God with a will and with desires or emotions. And by eliminating all these features, these anthromorphic features from God, Spinoza effectively eliminates the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: not something that would be looked upon lightly by a 17th century rabbi.
He also denies that there's any metaphysically or morally interesting sense in which the Jews are a chosen people. The only sense in which the Jews are chosen is that for a long time they enjoyed political good fortune with a well-established kingdom, but that's gone now and so there's nothing whatsoever that distinguishes the Jews from other people.
He also - and this is the kind of thing that drew the greatest wrath in the period - in the theological-political treatise, which is regarded as the most blasphemous and heretical work of the time, something that some contemporary critic claimed was forged in hell; in that treatise Spinoza denies the divine origin of Scripture. He says that the Bible is not at all the work of God, it's certainly not all written by Moses either, but what it is is a collection of writings by human beings that were compiled over time and finally put together by an editor after the first exile, and therefore we should regard this as nothing more than a work of human literature. This is an astounding opinion for somebody to hold at the time.
Fourthly, Spinoza denies that Jewish halacha, Jewish law, has any continued validity for contemporary Jews, that the law was basically created around the ceremonies of the temple, and with the destruction of the temple Jewish law has lost its whole raison d'etre, and therefore contemporary Jews are no longer bound to observe halacha or Jewish regulations.
Finally, and this is what I think really pushed the rabbis over the edge, in The Ethics, Spinoza basically denies the immortality of the soul. He says that there are certain eternal elements of a human being, basically the kind of knowledge we can acquire of eternal truths. That's something that will outlive us because these are eternal truths, and to the extent that we grasp them in this lifetime, they become a part of us and when we die, they will persist, but we don't persist. When we die, we're dead. This is a very metaphysical or speculative position and ordinarily wouldn't have brought one into trouble. There's a lot of latitude in Jewish intellectual tradition for your views on the afterlife, and even on immortality. But for a variety of historical and social reasons, Amsterdam was simply the wrong place at the wrong time, in the 1650s, to be denying the immortality of a soul.
Alan Saunders: Well, you say that this was what pushed the rabbis over the edge. Now as you've said, the cherem was the work of the secular governing board of the synagogue, but you're suggesting now that the rabbis were behind it. So perhaps we should talk about them, because the rabbis in Amsterdam at the time were a fairly impressive bunch of guys, weren't they. I mean, they weren't obscurantists.
Steven Nadler: Absolutely not, that's right. They were a learned group of men. If you look at the four major rabbis of the period in Amsterdam, there was Saul Levy Mortera, who was well-schooled not just in Jewish philosophy but also in Latin philosophy. He was a well-educated man who came to Amsterdam originally from Venice. He certainly did not have a ghetto mentality. Then there was Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, perhaps the most famous Jew in all of Europe, and somebody who more than any other Rabbi, made an effort to communicate Judaism to a Gentile public. He was regarded in Europe at the time as, in a way, the kind of Jewish public face. Then there was Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. He was given more to mysticism, but still not somebody who sought obscure doctrines, but rather who was engaged as a Kabbalist, nonetheless engaged in the welfare of the community. So I think you're absolutely right, that this is not an act of blind anger by an inquisitional committee. But I think that Spinoza's ideas here represented to these Rabbis, not the threat of modernity, because this was a very modern community. The Jews of Amsterdam in the 17th century, especially the Portuguese Jews, were in many says assimilated to Dutch mores. They dressed like the Dutch, they wore their beards like the Dutch, and they ran their businesses very often like the Dutch.
Alan Saunders: Yes, and we should say of course that if we want to look at names of the Jewish community in Amsterdam at the time, we can look at pictures by Rembrandt, for example.
Steven Nadler: That's right. This is not a ghetto, the Jews could live anywhere they wanted in Amsterdam, and they all tended to live in this neighbourhood because it was a newly built neighbourhood in a very crowded city, but this is not a closed, insular community. And so the cherem of Spinoza was not an attempt to keep out new ideas in general, because some of these Rabbis were very well read in new philosophy. But I do think that the Rabbis saw that these four or five opinions of Spinoza were possibly threatening to their efforts to maintain a normative Jewish community among people who were still coming in from Iberia and thus tempted by a kind of Catholicised Judaism, or a Judaism with rather unorthodox flavour. And I think that in one sense Spinoza's cherem was like the others, in that it was the attempt of the community to keep things under control, keep their house in order. But I don't think it should be read as an attempt to close off the minds of the members of the community. This was a highly educated cosmopolitan group of Jews.
Alan Saunders: And the Cherem, the expulsion, as far as we know doesn't seem to have meant a lot to Spinoza himself, does it?
Steven Nadler: Yes, I think his reaction was so much, you know, 'See you later'. One of his earliest biographers says that what Spinoza said was: So much the better, they don't do anything that I wasn't going to do myself anyway. It did make life a little bit more difficult for him from a business point of view, because with the ostracism in place he could no longer run his father's importing business within the community. But the evidence points to the fact that he wasn't a very good businessman to begin with and was probably happy to be done with that part of his life. So on the one hand, I think he saw this as a bit of a relief, potentially economically difficult, but probably spiritually he no longer had to keep up appearances - if he was even doing that at this time, I doubt that he was. And in a way it liberated him to become an independent philosopher.
Alan Saunders: Well, to what extent ultimately should we see Spinoza as a Jewish philosopher? I've heard it said that if you look at his book, '
The Ethics, the definition of God there, remote though it ultimately gets from the providential, judgmental God of Judaism, nonetheless the basic definition derives ultimately from the great mediaeval Jewish philosopher, Moshe Ben Maimon, also known as Moses Maimonides. So should we see Spinoza as a Jewish philosopher?
Steven Nadler: I think those two questions need to be distinguished. Is Spinoza a good Jew, and is Spinoza a good Jewish philosopher. The answer to the first question I think is clearly no, he was not a good Jew, and didn't see himself as a Jew at all. But does that not give us the right to say that he was nonetheless a good Jewish philosopher? And it all depends upon what your criteria are for deciding whether somebody belongs to the history of Jewish philosophy. Moreover, using the case of Spinoza's conception of God might be a bit misleading, because by denying the providential God of Judaism, maybe Spinoza isn't a good Jew, but the difference between religion and philosophy is that, unlike religion, philosophy never prescribes what the answers have to be, it only prescribes what the questions have to be. The minute philosophy starts prescribing the answers, you know, Jewish philosophy can't say, 'Here's what you must believe about X', because then it's no longer being philosophical, it's simply being dogmatic. I think to be a Jewish philosopher means two things:
First of all you're raising certain questions that are peculiar to the Jewish tradition. For example, the question of what is the status of Jewish law, and where does it derive its normative force? Why ought one or ought one not to obey Jewish law? Or another example: what is the status of the Jewish people? In what sense might they be described as 'chosen by God'? What are the origins of Scripture? And so on.
So, in this sense, Spinoza's certainly asking questions that are internal to the Jewish intellectual tradition. But here's an even more important sense in which I think Spinoza clearly belongs to the history of Jewish philosophy. Look at who he's in dialogue with: certainly contemporary thinkers like Descartes when Spinoza's talking about substance and nature, and the human being and the mind's relationship to the body. And he's in dialogue with another contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, when Spinoza's discussing the origins of the State instead of nature in the social contract.
But Spinoza's also in dialogue with the tradition that very few other major philosophers of the time can tap into, and that is the Jewish philosophical tradition. And when Spinoza starts talking about nature and its relationship to God and the connection between virtue and happiness, and the role that reason plays in contributing to our well-being, and his discussion of the eternity of the mind as opposed to the immortality of the soul, all of these issues in his moral philosophy from the later parts of The Ethics, are I think very clearly a dialogue with mediaeval Jewish rationalist thinkers, and especially Maimonides and Gersonides, but also people like Ibn Ezra and Sa'adia Ben Joseph. Spinoza knew these thinkers but because he's in this conversation with these Jewish philosophers on the same questions, I think that that makes him a Jewish philosopher; that he is philosophizing in a certain tradition, taking in a certain philosophical conversation over questions that are essential to these earlier Jewish thinkers.
So I would answer yes, we should think of him as not a good Jew but as a very good Jewish philosopher, and in fact why not think of Spinoza not as representing a break with all of the Jewish philosophy that's come before him, but on the contrary, as its ultimate culmination: that if you take Maimonidean rationalism, this notion that the key to human happiness is an understanding of the universe, and to understand and love God, is to know nature. If you take all of this to its ultimate logical conclusion, and push it as far as perhaps Maimonides was not willing to push it, I think we could get a Spinoza.
Alan Saunders: Steven Nadler, it's an endlessly fascinating topic, the subject of Spinoza and indeed the subject of intellectual life in The Netherlands in the 17th century. Thank you very much indeed for sharing it with us.
Steven Nadler: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies
The University of Wisconsin
Friday 06 April 2007
A conversation from 1996 - a sort of LNL Desert Islands Discs - with the veteran educator and social justice advocate.
Sister Veronica Brady
Educator, social justice advocate, Roman Catholic nun.
Story Researcher and Producer
Topic: Feasting on hope in an age of terror Speaker Biography Veronica Brady is a Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Institute of The Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto Sisters), who has taught for many years in the Department Of English at the University of WA where since her retirement she has been an Honorary Senior Research Fellow. She has held a number of public offices, including the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Library and Information Services of Western Australia, The Appeals Tribunal of the Department of Social Services in WA and Chair of the Older Australians Advisory Council in Western Australia. She has also published widely on Australian literature, culture and belief in journals in Australia and overseas. Her most recent book is “South of My Days”, a biography of the poet Judith Wright. Nun and academic, Born 1929, Melbourne Vic
Born in Melbourne in 1929, Veronica Brady became one of the first Australian nuns to teach in a university, broadcast on radio or join in socio-political debate. After teaching at Loreto Convent in Kirribilli, NSW, she moved to the University of Western Australia in 1972, becoming an Associate Professor in 1991.
She has spoken out publicly against the Vatican stance on abortion, homosexuality and contraception, and has been involved in the Aboriginal rights movement and the anti-uranium mining lobby. She also supports the ordination of female priests in the Catholic Church.
Sister Veronica Brady is a member of many organisations including Amnesty International, the Campaign against Nuclear Energy, the Campaign against Racial Exploitation, the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Association for Study of Australian Literature. She is the author of several books including The Future People, The Mystics and Crucible of Prophets.
Topic: Feasting on hope in an age of terror
Veronica Brady is a Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Institute of The Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto Sisters), who has taught for many years in the Department Of English at the University of WA where since her retirement she has been an Honorary Senior Research Fellow. She has held a number of public offices, including the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Library and Information Services of Western Australia, The Appeals Tribunal of the Department of Social Services in WA and Chair of the Older Australians Advisory Council in Western Australia. She has also published widely on Australian literature, culture and belief in journals in Australia and overseas. Her most recent book is “South of My Days”, a biography of the poet Judith Wright.
Nun and academic, Born 1929, Melbourne Vic
Peter Kenna: A Hard God
by Sister Veronica Brady
Ireland is a hard land, for all that it is beautiful to look at. The green fields are very small and the rocks, picturesquely breaking the surface, make it very difficult to make a living. In the past it was even more difficult, since the British landlords owned most of it and what little the small farmers made, went to pay the rent. Bitterness, then, made the hard land more harsh. Bowling along on a bus, even today it is not difficult to imagine angry men hiding in the hedges waiting for the agent - the man who worked for the landlord and collected the rents - to set on him and 'teach him a lesson', which sometimes even meant killing him. The lesson, of course, which was learned on both sides, was violence and dogmatism, each side convincing itself not only that it was in the right, but that this right was absolute; God's right, as it were, not something relative to the present social political situation. So Irish and British, Catholics and Protestants not only learned to hate one another but to believe that they had every right to do so. The God they served was often, perhaps generally, a hard God, a tribal God who blessed those who belonged to the 'proper' tribe, ours, and brought evils down upon the rest, who were regarded as the enemy.
The people in this play, the Cassidy family, come from this kind of background. Even if they live in Australia their parents have handed down to them their memories, the memories of several hundred years of oppression and suffering presented and indeed enlarged and embellished by the fact that, even in Australia, the Irish tended to be somehow different. Partly they tended to be despised - the English thought them feckless and dirty; the Scots, drunken and disorganised - and partly they kept themselves apart, not only to protect one another against the prejudice directed at them but also to 'keep the faith'. For the Irish, Catholicism was tribal. It defined them and gave them their sense not only of identity but also of purpose, of being somehow peculiarly blessed. Being 'a good Catholic' meant belonging to a group with its own ways of behaving, believing and even taking its pleasures.
For young people like Joe, for instance, it involved going to the Catholic Youth Organisation and enjoying debates with topics like 'the age of chivalry is not dead', and boys and girls being much more reserved with one another - though equally it was expected that Catholic boys and girls would marry one another. 'Mixed marriages' - marriages that is between Catholics and Protestants - were to be avoided at all costs. Once married, it meant strict fidelity to the Church's rules against contraception and above all, no divorce. When Aggie, exasperated with Paddy's wife, Sophie, who has taken not only to gambling and neglecting him and the family, but now has another man, says to Paddy that he could divorce her for what she has done, he replies, scandalised. 'Aggie, we're Catholics. I wouldn't dream of disgracing the family with a divorce.' This would be a greater disgrace than anything Sophie has done.
To be Catholic meant going to Mass unfailingly every Sunday - Dan's first enquiry of his brother Paddy is, 'you're still keeping to the Mass, I hope'. It meant sending children to Catholic schools and paying attention to the Brothers and Sisters who teach there as well as to the priests. One of Paddy's worries about Sophie's behaviour is 'what the Christian Brothers (will) say when the boys go to school'. To be Catholic meant saying the family Rosary together at night. As Paddy remembers it from childhood on the farm, it is also an exercise in family discipline:
Father used to make us kneel as straight as ramrods on the hard stone floor. One sag at the knees and you'd catch it across the shoulders with the buggy-whip he held in the hand that wasn't dangling the beads. How he could watch us and concentrate on the Hail Marys was always a wonder to me.
All this may sound narrow and constraining, almost a prison, and in some respects it was. But it did give ordinary lives a dignity, a sense of mattering somehow, being part of a larger order of things and having a purpose within it. At times, this made for melodrama, even fantasy. Martin, for example, may not be particularly happy in his marriage - he is married to Monica who is something of a religious fanatic. He may have to work as an ordinary labourer building one of the big darns that were part of the large-scale construction projects of the 1950s, even though he has dreams of being a writer. But he sees the world split into two camps: good, whose champions are the Catholics; and evil, the Communists (whom he believes to be everywhere), seeking to undermine society in general and take control of the trade unions in particular. As a good Catholic, he sees it as his task to oppose the 'Commies' everywhere, especially at work. So he involves himself with the secret movement of Catholics, inspired by B A Santamaria, which works not only against the influence of Communism on the worksite but also against the left wing generally, and against any changes in traditional ways of thinking and behaving. This gives him the feeling of being something of a crusader. 'God's with me Dan. It's his fight I am fighting', he tells his brother. But it also makes him quite paranoic. He sees the influence of 'the Comrades' everywhere, though 'it's difficult to prove anything unless you actually catch them at it.' He sees their hand in an attempt to pull his tent down, for example, though there may of course have been other reasons for that event. People who keep as much to themselves, and disapprove so much of the world they live in, do tend to become unpopular, especially when their preoccupation with sex makes them so intolerant. The greatest charge against Russia, for instance, seems to be that 'they have free love' there. In contrast with his brother Dan, Martin will bear nothing good about his enemies. When he tells Dan about the 'free love' in Russia and Dan asks him what it is, he defines it as 'cohabiting outside marriage'. But even though Dan is shocked, he keeps his sense of proportion, remarking, 'I hear we've got some of that out here as well.' Martin, though, insists on the difference: Russian society is by definition wicked. In Russia, he declares, free love is a 'rule of law. That's the difference.' In the long run then, it is not entirely surprising that he is killed in an accident at work. The family believe that he was pushed over the cliff by the 'Commos' and is thus a kind of martyr; some of his workmates suggest that he has committed suicide, and others that he slipped. Whatever the truth may have been - and we never find out what it is - Dan is an example of someone who lives melodramatically and dies in the same way.
In his case, this belief makes for a kind of fanaticism, no doubt influenced by his wife. (It also probably seems rather silly to many people today, especially when, under Gorbachov, Communism, the kind practised in Russia, is beginning to seem at least as much dedicated to peace, though not perhaps human rights, as our system). Nevertheless, the Cassidy family's kind of belief does have a heroic, even noble quality about it - and this, of course, is one of the many things which make it so interesting dramatically. First of all, it does represent an attempt to defend themselves, to preserve some kind of dignity in a society inclined to despise them. Think, for instance, of their memories of the times when they were all together on the farm when they were able to live as they would have liked to have lived in Ireland. Land is nearly as important for Irish people as it is for Aborigines. As Dan remembers it: 'Things were much simpler there. There weren't as many decisions to be made. If you had a crop to sow there was time to do it and that was the only time. It either rained or it didn't and when the crop ripened you harvested it.' They had a way of life which still kept them in touch with forces beyond themselves, the forces evident in the rain or, indeed, in the lack of it, which they were able to associate with the God they worshipped at Mass and in saying the Rosary and also in keeping the rules they believed to be laid down for them.
This God was not always comfortable either. Marx's famous criticism of religion, that it is merely the 'opium of the people', a figment of the imagination, a kind of projection of their needs for comfort and consideration, does not really apply to them. The crop was not always harvested, their belief does not make them prosperous and they do not really believe that they have a right to experience success, esteem and influence. What their belief does give them, rather, is a deep sense of belonging together and of being able to trust that what happens will be, if not good, at least bearable. Fanatical as he is in many ways, Martin expresses this sense in his memory of the 'good old days':
When the crop was harvested, do you remernber those Saturday night dances ... the word went out and it was understood everybody was to be there. If you played an instrument you brought it with you, and if you didn't, you collected a few gum leaves on the way. When everybody danced the dust rose up off the floor and they had to open the windows and then all the insects of the night swarmed into the light and the girls cried because they'd spent the entire day starching their petticoats and ironing the ruffles on their dresses, and we'd been at it for hours as well, scrubbing our toes and plastering our hair down. But another reel came up and the dust and the insects were forgotten. (p36)
This in contrast to the fear of nature often expressed in Australian writing: by Catherine Martin, for example, in The Incredible Journey, first published in 1926:
Nature so often terrifies us, in the guise of a power that is no more concerned with the good or ill of human creatures, than she is with the subtle device of a serpent's sting or with the insects that swarm by the millions into existence on a tropical night, tiny flames of light lit in the midst of infinity - only to be quenched in a few brief hours ... In the presence of such ghastly waste, dark questionings arise as to any beautiful end set before the world and its inhabitants.
Dan and Aggie may have doubts, and Joe may despair of his own salvation - that is, of his place in the 'Catholic' order of things - but they do not ever see the world so bleakly. God may be 'hard', may be difficult for them to understand, but in the long run they believe that the world has a meaning. 'God', in fact, is for them the word that represents that meaning, and so, while things may be difficult, they are never absurd. So, as the play ends, even as Aggie knows that Dan has incurable cancer, she is still able to pray, to still put her trust in the power of prayer, as she prays the 'Hail Mary', asking Mary, who gave birth to Jesus, who is God himself, to 'pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.' The last phrase she cannot bring herself to name but, for all that, she accepts it and mouths it as the curtain falls.
So despite everything, being a Catholic means being at home in the universe, having a sense of direction. When drought forces the Cassidys off the land, Aggie wandering through the city streets, suddenly discovers she is lost - 'I suppose I got gawking at the people in cabs and the things in shop windows and ... suddenly I didn't have any idea of where I was, it was as if I'd been picked up and dumped down in some other country.' She goes into a Catholic church, into a confessional in fact, and the priest calls one of the boys from the school yard to show her the way home. She has another court of appeal as it were: Catholics belong to one another and to another order of things.
Though they seem very ordinary people who lead rather dull and unsuccessful lives, in fact their lives are bound up with a part of the larger story of Christian faith which involves not only the story of the Scripture but also of heroic Christians throughout the ages, the saints, the martyrs and holy people generally. In this way they have at least something in common with so-called primitive peoples: like the Aborigines, for instance, who take the direction of their individual lives from the Dreaming stories they tell over and over, stories about the great heroes of the beginning of time which lay down the proper pattern of all human behaviour. The Cassidys, too, live under the terms of their myths, the stories which explain why things are as they are, which they celebrate when they go to Mass and reflect on when they say the Rosary. So the recollection of the Malaysian writer, K S Maniam, of his childhood, also shadowed by sacred stories (in his case, the great Indian myths), applies equally to these simple, rather shabby people living in the western suburbs of Sydney in 1946:
How does one describe the land one lived in but never saw? It was more tangible than the concrete one we flitted through each day. Darkness gave it its true dimensions. Then it vibrated in our hearts... There was a lot of colour in our invisible world. The gigantic flowers that filled our imagination were turned out in bright togas, arms heavily braceleted, necks studded with gold and heads awashed with intricate crowns. Fair, gentle men and women (gods and goddesses, I suppose), fought off the more scheming and brutal characters in battles that clashed over our sleeping heads. The tension between good and evil shimmered therefore like an inevitable consciousness within our heads.
Even Maniam's conclusion, 'we were a gentle people', is also true of the Cassidys, even if at first it does not seem to be so. The occasional harshness and intolerance is the response of gentle people who have been hurt or feel threatened, especially when the stories which guide and rule them are challenged.
These common dreams, then, made for the strong sense of community evident in A Hard God. But this sense was increased also by a feeling of being somehow different because what they believe in seems to others strange , sometimes amusing but at other times dangerously anti-social. They are also drawn together, on the one hand, by a common memory of persecution in the old country and, if not persecution, at least a certain amount of suspicion in the new one; and on the other hand by a common hope which takes in not just this world but the next one. It is not only the fanatical Monica who believes that there is a life after death and that the living can help the dead with their prayers while the dead also remember them in heaven. Hell, eternal punishment, is a possibility, one which Mission priests, who come into a parish every year to preach repentance and conversion, use to frighten people back to virtue; but somehow Catholics seldom imagine themselves or anyone dear to them in hell - God cannot resist an act of contrition, of repentance and of appeal to God's loving mercy. It is only someone whose faith is as extreme and tortuous as Monica's who would,worry after Martin's death that 'he might not have had time for an act of contrition before he went over the edge'. The rest of the family, like most Catholics, have a greater trust in God's forgiveness. Paddy, for instance, is prepared to hope that 'he had time to say one on the way down'. From the time of the Reformation onwards, Protestants have tended to see this as somehow lax, lacking a proper sense of human sinfulness on the one hand and of the power of God's grace on the other. Whether that is so or not, people like the Cassidys do have a strong sense of hope that however much they may suffer in this world, things will be better in the next life. Nevertheless, this does not mean despising their existence here and now. People like Dan and Aggie are the kind of people who never manage to make money, being too honest and, in the long run, too little interested in money. They like fun, the family are genuinely fond of one another and look after one another - there is always a meal, advice and support for Dan and Aggie's loyalty to him means that she will look after them too, however undeserving they may seem to be. Monica's is a different case and so to a certain extent is Martin's. No doubt influenced by her, he is obsessed with his 'sinfulness'.
It is this sense of community of course which makes Joe's position so painful. His threat to 'leave the Church' might seem exaggerated, even funny, but it is a gesture not just of defiance but of a kind of spiritual suicide. It also involves a kind of blackmail, threatening Jack with the responsibility for his damnation, his exclusion from eternal life, the community of the blessed echoed by his exclusion from the Catholic community.
When you're at Mass this Sunday just remember I won't be there. Let your conscience live with that and I won't go to confession either and I'll leave the Catholic Youth Organisation. (p.71)
Jack's response, 'it's your soul, Joe', even when Joe goes one better and threatens to 'go with other men', may seem quite sensible to most of the audience, but the Cassidy's kind of Catholicism believes otherwise. For them, we are, in effect, responsible for one another as we are in the view of Scripture, of course.
Joe is the most painful figure in the play. Belonging to the next generation, he has to bear the burden of being suspended between two worlds and two cultures: the old closed tribal world of his parents' Catholicism and the world of his own desires, especially of his increasingly urgent sexual feelings. It would have been easy for the playwright to make a great deal of this awakening and confused sexuality on the one hand or of the pressures of the society around him. Even in 1946 Australia was growing increasingly Americanised, influenced by Hollywood, popular music and advertising, and increasingly obsessed with sex. Indeed, there is a kind of sub-genre which has grown up in Australian literature and film which deals with the problems of 'growing up Catholic' in this environment. But Peter Kenna is much more subtle. As his symbolic use of space - Joe and Jack have their own space throughout and changes of place and situation are indicated by lighting - suggests, his intention is not to document the actual physical and social situation but to point to what lies underneath, the deepest concerns of heart and conscience.
Joe's real problem, then, is not just the usual problem of growing up, of learning how to balance the claims of the body with the claims of the spirit, but something more complicated, his own more urgent version of the problem his father and mother have also to deal with; how to adjust the tradition of belief and of living, inherited from the past on the other side of the world and from a very different kind of society, to the actual world in which they live. As Dan works side-by-side with Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus loading and unloading ships, he comes to realise that there are other ways of worshipping God and living decently than the ways in which he has been brought up. He can no longer believe that only Catholics are saved and that everyone else is in error. Nor can he say with any confidence any more what he once said to Martin, that God will look after those who believe in him and live 'good Catholic lives'. What happens to Martin and Paddy and their wives makes that only too clear. As for Aggie, she comes to realise that, in a sense, Dan has been her religion. As she tells him: 'I've loved you above everything else in my whole life'. According to the way she has been brought up, this means that perhaps she has not been 'a very good Catholic after all'. Perhaps even more troubling to traditional belief, she claims the right to deny Dan's fate when she tells him fiercely, protectively, not long after his illness has been diagnosed as cancer: 'Nothing's going to happen to you, Dan. I wouldn't allow it'. The fact that, of course, she's helpless and that he is going to die, a fact that she has come to accept as the play closes, does not affect this defiance. But - and this is the point the play makes - it does not make her any less Christian because it is the expression of love. True, an old-time narrow kind of Catholicism, Monica's kind, might be shocked, but it is the central teaching of Christianity that the measure of our love of God is our love for our fellow human beings. This becomes increasingly clear to Dan as he grows more and more aware that the word 'God' is not as easily understood and accounted for as he once thought. Watching people of other religions at their worship, he is impressed by the thought of a god whose love embraces everyone and who is more and more mysterious yet also very powerful. Watching them, 'I can't believe they're praying to an empty space', he tells Aggie. But whoever it is, whatever it is outside ourselves, it's not telling anybody. So it is 'our total ignorance of what he's about ... (which) finally drives us to distraction', making us see him as 'a hard god'. Nevertheless Dan hangs on to the centre of belief., 'It would be unbearable if I wasn't sure he loved me and I am sure of that.'
In this way, coming to a belief which puts emphasis on love rather than mere duty, on faith rather than dogmatic pronouncements and above all, insists that they must live as fully, lovingly and bravely as they can here and now rather than fixing their eyes on the next world, they in fact become better, more orthodox Christians - and the word 'Catholic' is, or ought to be a synonym of the word 'Christian'. But where Aggie and Dan succeed in combining faith and experience, their son Joe fails. This is partly because of his lack of experience - the battles he is fighting are largely still theoretical, the God he is rejecting is still a God concerned almost entirely with rules and regulations not the true Christian God of love and understanding, Aggie and Dan discover. But the main reason is his homosexuality.
Sexuality in general is, for a whole variety of reasons, something which the Catholic Church still finds difficult to deal with - hence the preoccupation with the rights and wrongs of contraception, abortion, clerical celibacy, pre-marital sex and so on. This is not to say that the opposition to promiscuity and to the mindless cult of sex and bodily pleasure generally, is not important for the defence of dignity, women's especially, and freedom (which is properly defined not as doing what you like but what you ought). But it is also the case that the body is good and sexuality something not only sacred but essential for a proper human life, though 'sexuality' here means not just the physical act but accepting and loving oneself as a sexual being. It is clear, too, that the kind of Catholicism Joe Cassidy inherited had not given much thought to this. His parents, it seems, married, made love and had children in a relatively uncomplicated way. But once Jack has made him realise that he, Joe, is attracted to him sexually and they have made love to one another, there is nothing to help him cope with his feelings. By and large, the Catholic Church sees homosexual love as wrong, wicked even, especially when making love is seen as justified only in order to have children. Homosexual love, of course, can find no such justification.
Jack, who at first seems much more of a 'free thinker' than Joe, is conscience-stricken after they have actually made love. He sees the sudden storm which blows up as a kind of warning, a threat of punishment to come, and resolves to give up his friendship with Joe. It seems that he was just experimenting. But having discovered that he is homosexual, attracted to men and not to women, Joe is faced with a choice, between that attraction which has become so important to him, and between continuing to be a 'good Catholic'. His Catholic conscience tells him that what he has done is seriously sinful. Therefore he must go to confession to ask God's forgiveness. But to be forgiven he must resolve never again to do what he has done, and he cannot - indeed, will not - in honesty promise that. The play leaves him there. But it is important that he is neither given the last word nor allowed to strike any very dramatic pose. The fact that in the play's last moments, miserable as he is, Aggie appeals to him for help in coping with Dan's illness suggests, I think, that he still has a long way to go in finding out who he is and that some kind of accommodation may be possible between the two sides of himself.
The important thing about A Hard God is perhaps just this, the refusal to paint characters clearly black or white, good or evil, or to resolve the struggle between good and evil in any clear or simple way. The absence of melodramatic resolutions is Kenna's great achievement. The Catholicism he dramatises he sees as something narrow and constraining and in some respects even superstitious, but also as a 'great inheritance' something which gives the Cassidys a place in the world and a power and a dignity all their own.
1. Catherine Martin, The Incredible Journey, Sydney, Pandora, 1988, p. 26.
2. K S Maniam, The Return, London, Writing in Asia Series, 1981, p. 37.
EDUCATED? or an intolerant swine?Sister Veronica Brady. This noxoious old bitch was holding a lecture where she prattled on about european auzzies being "afraid of the black heart" and not being able to handle the spritual desert and how we had to get down on our hands and knees and beg forgivness of the earth." some how the Pilbara became a metapor for our fear of the australian landscape.
Here at least I had a something to focus on. I had worked in the Pilbara and wasnt remotely afraid of the place. If she doesnt like the pilbara then she neednt go there - it sure as Hell wouldnt like her. Too easy.
Then she started out on some bizzare non sequiter about Old Rene Decarte and cogito ergo sum as smacking of secular humanism. Well this disgusted me utterly. When Rene died and they shipped his body from Copenhagen (I think) back to France he was widely belived to be a shoo in for Sainthood consequently bits of him were filched all the way back as potential relics. There wasnt much left of the poor bugger and now this fucking stupid old bag is trying to make him out the be some kinda commie.
When I started to make the reasonable suggestion that she liven the grindingly dull performance up by "Showing us yer tits love" she couldnt even manage a bit of gentle heckling any standup comedian, which I had concluded she was should have dealt with effortlessly.http://www.observationdeck.org/weblogs/?p=1135