This is a guest post by Homestead: Theatre of Words.
To Australian Aboriginals, the Dreaming is the eternal present. It is the time in which the myths were enacted melded with the times in which they are retold; it is the mundane today mingled with the supernatural now. In modern Australia, the Dreaming has become naturalised; it is the idea of a sustaining but forgotten story that explains all. “White man got no Dreaming,” the Aboriginals say, and we wince, for it is true.
John Carroll is a sociologist working at Monash University in Melbourne who has shown considerable interest in the crisis of white man’s absent Dreaming. Best known as a critic of humanism – which he indicts in The Wreck of Western Culture, his first book – he has gone on to attempt a sociology that proceeds through story as it seeks to uncover the stories that go deepest into the Western mind.
Carroll is not a Christian, but he is fascinated by and committed to Christian narratives as part of the Western Dreaming. His mature work combines them in a series of midrash with Greek myth, the second great strand that he identifies as leading into the modern West.
In this, he is following the lead given by the great medieval epic poets – Chretien, Wolfram, Snorri, Gotfried and Thomas to name a few – who set out to combine Christian, Classical and aboriginal European (Celtic and Germanic) stories and so make a great and renovating myth for their age. It is a lead, however, that he follows simply. He is a sociologist, not a poet.
Midrash is a classical Jewish system of Biblical retellings that focus on the points that are not given in the stories – the internal voices of the characters, the characters that are not mentioned but who may be deduced as being there, entire histories for entire peoples that are hinted at but not made explicit in Scripture itself. The point is to make a window for understanding by re-imagining the stories rather than by interpreting the written text alone. Essentially homiletic, midrash are not authoritative; they provoke investigation rather than reveal absolute meaning.
In The Western Dreaming, his 2001 attempt to draw the narrative out as a whole, he enters into the midrashic technique with a gusto. Late in the book, he considers the origin of evil by imagining Eve in the garden choosing knowledge over the Light and her descendants coming to despair at their well-being: “They who have never had it so good turn sour. They who should be on their knees in gratitude complain: Is this all? Having achieved comfort, they discover that what they really want is the Light…” Later, he imagines the scouts sent into Canaan by Moses. They have found wealth – great fruits – but have not found the Light, and in despair at their failure they destroy the fruit that they bring.
“Once humans are attracted by the Light and set out in search, the practical reality is that some will fail. Failed truth drops like a lead sinker of futility, setting in train a history of negation…
Rancour enters creation, and with it, envy, the malicious drive to destroy anyone who has eaten of the Tree of Life, on the grounds that if I cannot have the saving fruit, no-one else shall.”
In The Wreck of Western Culture, Carroll reviews the rise and fall of humanism, a philosophy (and narrative) that he regards as sterile, even, at times, poisonous. In considering the collapse of humanism, he writes:
“Humanism’s third movement, its fall, is to be located squarely in the nineteenth-century. By 1900 it is all over, and where the twentieth-century culture remained in the humanist mode, as it almost entirely did, it no more than continued to work through a destructive logic already well established. There are three quite distinct phases to the humanist going under. The first stage is active demolition of the old cultures, the period of the mockers. The second stage is recognition of nihilism, one that produces resistance, a fight back – what might be termed dynamic nihilism. The third stage is acceptance of nihilism as inescapable…
The master wreckers were Marx and Darwin, although the latter was unsuited temperamentally for the unwitting role he played.”
It is here that Carroll turns his attention to rancour, remarking that while liberalism is not itself rancorous but naive, and while “it did not itself mock, it cleared the decks for the mockers.”
“Marx,” he writes, “was the chief mocker…(he) saw that the remaining cultural form with strength was the bourgeois one. So he set out to destroy it. Rancour was his main weapon, attributing mean motives to the object of attack…
‘Equality,’ as an ideal, turns rancorous. What it really means, in its modern political mode, is tear down everything superior…
It did not need to be like this. There are elements in the revolutionary movement driven by genuine compassion…”
It is with this in mind that he turns to his second story of evil in The Western Dreaming, by now a narrative of rancour pure and simple. This is the story of Judas: “Only for Judas, the Light has become man.”
Judas as a young man knows himself to be handsome, energetic, bright and graceful. But on meeting Jesus, “once he sees the sacred rage in the other’s eyes, the simplicity of step, the mission, Judas lowers his head, deep in thoughts that quickly turn to malevolent brooding…
Judas starts to hate (the spirit’s) very existence, to curse a world in which there is such breath. His unsacred rage boils. I shall drive it into oblivion…
Judas’ unbearable cry is: ‘Why am I who I am. Why am I not he?’”
Carroll’s Judas is not the Judas of the synoptic Gospels, but the Judas of John – a much more fully developed figure, given its own dramatic course. Carroll makes much of Judas as the treasurer for the disciples. The essential episode is his rage against Mary Magdalene for pouring out the ointment (“worth three hundred silver pieces, a year’s wages’) upon Jesus’ feet:
“Raging against her is, for him, the easy strategy in defence of his pride, inverting his humiliation into into a virtue. Look at me, he is bragging, the single follower with compassion for the poor, disgusted by this extravagance. I am the holy one.”
Later, Carroll remarks “Judas’ real lament is: why am I not loved?” and then, later, “This Judas is Cain.” And, turning for a moment to a more impersonally political mode, he adds: “Where there is power, there must, equally, and oppositely, be lack of power – impotency. Rancour becomes the civilised means for…solace for those who feel ineffectual.”
This violence and rage amongst the compassionate has become resurgent in the wake of liberalism’s disintegration. Socialism, not long ago renounced by the Australian Labor Party (and by the labour parties of the world), has returned as a meaningful mode of political self expression. New taxes are proposed with the absolute purpose of redistributing wealth along Marxist lines on the one hand, and making a de facto nationalisation of industry on the other. Anti-capitalism is now the approved official model, and a hardline positioning of the individual at the service of the state has gradually overtaken more liberal ideals of self expression and autonomy. Socialism married with collectivisation has become the environmentalist ideal and is seeping its way toward government policy without rousing alarm. The old Left has opened its eyes.
John Carroll’s midrashic sociology is frequently weird and cranky, but it is ceaselessly vivid, and filled with odd and wonderful insights.
His relation of socialism with Judas, and the attempt to narrate the one by means of the other is a subtle tool. It not only gives as a fresh insight into the mind of socialism, and helps us rescue that which is good about it from that which is vile, but it also reminds us why it is vile: that it draws its deeper waters from evil, not from the compassion to which it pretends.