Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac (ca. 1461?)

This is an example of the genre of literature known as medieval mystery plays. Though they are similar, and flourished in the same age, as those dramas which have come down to us by the name of morality plays, there is a distinction between them which I have made a point of looking up; the mysteries dramatize important events in the Bible with the intention of making them more real to the unlearned, while the moralities are allegories of the struggle between virtuousness and sin which rages in every man (indeed, Everyman is perhaps the most famous specimen of this type).

I am fond of this short play (it is about 15-20 pages). Its language is about as pure and uncorrupted a variation of refined English as it is probably possible to attain. The King James Bible is by comparison a monument conceived with a sense of grandeur as much human as divine. That is of course a much greater work than this play. At the same time I don't know that this play, or any attempt at a truly simple, naturalistic religious expression can by definition achieve "greatness" in any artistic or cultural sense accepted by modern westerners. The expression is nonetheless interesting in its effects, particularly those of a strain of gentleness and tenderness which impressed me as being characteristically English. I would have quoted an example here, but having been unable to find any copy of the play in a printed book I read it off the internet, which I don't like doing anyway (though this scanning of books is a great project), and now I cannot find the version whose page numbers, etc, correspond with the notes I made.
Keeping on the subject of this peculiarly English gentleness for a minute, which one so often senses in English artistic productions even up to 1990s pop songs (in the last decade it seems to have disappeared all of a sudden, and been replaced by a wholly brutal, acerbic attitude that people apparently think is cool but which I do not find at all admirable). This other attitude was almost a wholly inward characteristic, a way of seeing or responding to life in one's private thoughts, and yes, it was often melancholy. Obviously many people who are not English possess this quality, but it seemed to be found in a higher than usual concentration, or at least was more frequently finely expressed, in that population. This quality was not generally elevating in the heroic sense, though it has long won the English nation a certain degree of goodwill from similarly sensitive people; it perhaps tended to be directed at objects either limited in number or insignificant in consideration, and often did not prevent its possessor from getting on in the world in any number of apparently contradictory ways. It is the point of view, I think, of people who are culturally hardened in certain areas propitious to the expression--language, tradition, geographical place--but relatively unhardened in others--politics perhaps, love, sentiment, artistic expression. That is about as far as I can carry it this week.

As I grow increasingly aware in mid-life of the vast areas of worthy knowledge I will never possess in any meaningful degree, let alone dominate on a global scale, I have had to add Biblical scholarship and interpretation to the long list of fields that have defeated me. This area of course is and has long been well-covered by armies of obviously very intelligent and driven people, and millions more of perhaps more modest scholarship but considerable fervor have managed to elbow their way into this arena either as actors or influential commentators. This is not even counting the people, many of whom appear to be employed by well-regarded universtities, who devote enormous amounts of effort to demonstrating how Noah's Ark would have had to have been the size of Cleveland to carry two specimens of every living beast, plus provisions for the same, while others have written long, meticulously cited, wholly incontrovertable papers about the inevitable waste issues that would have ensued on that much-celebrated watercraft. Such papers are ridiculous of course, but I understand why they are written. Indeed I write practically the equivalents of them myself without even being paid or at least ensconced on a pleasant campus for them.

In keeping with the last paragraph, I am therefore not going to offer my personal view on the significance or meaning of the Abraham and Isaac story at this time. It is only in the last few years that I have finally gotten, I think, pretty clear as to the main elements of the case, its relative position in Biblical chronology, fairly instant recognition of the scene in Old Master paintings, etc. I know that the story appealed greatly to philosophers of an especially energetic and combative sensibility, Kierkegaard in particular. Much staggering meditation exists on the subject. As far as I am concerned however, it all belongs to a different world, an interesting and at times attractive world, no doubt--I am speaking now of the world of scholarship and intellectual understanding, the basic elements of the story still provoke a somewhat confused and commonplace reaction--but I can't say that I have been able to understand and consider this story in the light of being one of the central expressions of what it means to be a human being, though I do believe it perhaps is so. I am also not certain that when people talk about "humanity" or the human being as a type or abstraction, that I am really included in whatever definition they might have in their heads.

Abraham and Isaac are recorded as having been buried in a great tomb at Hebron (Israel) along with others of their line. I believe this tomb, or something which has the name of it, can still be seen by pilgrims today. Abraham was said to have been born in Ur (or Tell Mugayar, as it is shown on some modern maps) in Iraq, of which I believe some decent ruins remain, while the traditional birthplace of Isaac was in Beersheba (Israel), of which I am not certain what, if anything, survives from antiquity.

I have had a hard go with writing lately, hence the infrequency of my posting. I am leaving for Florida in a couple of days, so it will probably be some time before I post anything else, though I am going to try to get something up before I go. I know that many of the top bloggers never announce when they are leaving town lest someone get the idea of coming and robbing their house but I am going to show trust in my readership and risk this possibility.

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