Letters to the Editor: April 1985
Paul Not Knocked Off a Horse
Paul “knocked off his horse?” Surely not! Charlotte Hays’s otherwise good review of Conversions, edited by Kerr and Mulder (Jan.-Feb.), perpetuates an error I’ve noticed more and more of late: namely, that St. Paul’s falling to the ground on the Damascus road was from a horse. Where does the notion come from?
There is no record whatever of a horse involved. I have reread my Acts account of the incident. Acts 9: “And he fell to the ground and heard a voice….” No mention whatever of a horse. “The men who were with him stood speechless…they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus” (italics mine). Why not have Paul remount the horse and lead the horse?
Other accounts in Conversions, which I have reread, make the same mistake.
This may seem trivial, but horseback riding is so out of keeping with Bible travel that I feel I must scotch the error that Paul was a horseman. Jesus rode once only (on a borrowed foal) and the idea that Jesus mounted a steed seems somehow to detract from His humility.
I ask in all earnestness, who started the idea of Paul on horseback? Hollywood perhaps? Let’s nip it in the bud.
Laurie L. Hibbett
I have found the NOR to be one of the most stimulating Christian magazines I have ever read, and consistently so during the seven years in which I have subscribed to it.
My one regret is that as a graduate student without a great deal of money at my disposal I have been unable to contribute to your publication to the extent it deserves. Now that I have (at long last) finished the doctorate and am in some hopes of academic employment next fall, I hope to be able to remedy that lack.
Clare College, Cambridge
“What’s happening, poor little Electra, what’s happening?”
If as an audience we find ourselves bewildered by “what is happening” in Jean-Luc Godard’s new film Prénom: Carmen, this, in my opinion, is not because Godard is “subjectivistic” or “narcissistic” or “misogynistic” or contemptuous of his audience, as Fr. Robert E. Lauder seems to think (in his Dec. column). Rather, it is because our bewilderment as an audience is a dramatically necessary factor in Godard’s artful resolution of this bewilderment. This resolution, which in Prénom: Carmen takes the form of an abrupt revelation of what it is that comes “before the name” Carmen, is accomplished with great effect.
However, in order to know — or rather, in order to see — what comes “before the name” Carmen, we have to be content with playing the role of Narses’s wife, who in Jean Giraudoux’s play Electra cries out, “Electra, what is happening?”
The reference to Giraudoux is not mine, but Godard’s. If Prosper Merimee’s short story Carmen and Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen are the texts of Godard’s film, Giraudoux’s Electra is its subtext. Electra, rebel daughter of Clytemnestra, is that fatal beauty who “mingles day with night and makes even the light of the moon seem ambiguous”; but for Godard, she is more than this: she is the cinema. (When in the movie, Carmen tries to cajole Godard, playing “himself” as a washed-up filmmaker, into helping her make a film, Godard calls her by the name Electra, “the kid,” he says, “who doesn’t get along with her mother.”)
But for Carmen/Electra, filmmaking is a pretext for robbing a bank; whereas for Godard, it is always necessary to rob a bank (in one way or another) in order to make a film.
Like Electra, Carmen is a terrorist in the service of Justice. And things, in the end, turn out badly. But we know the stories of Carmen and Electra; what we do not know is what comes “before the name” Carmen. As I say, we will have to play the role of Narses’s wife in order to find out.
In the midst of Carmen’s catastrophe, which is the catastrophe of the cinema, Godard refers us to this text from Giraudoux:
Narses’s wife: “What’s happening, poor little Electra, what’s happening?”
Electra: “What is happening?”
Narses’swife: “Yes, explain! I don’t catch on very quickly. I can tell that something is happening, of course, but I can’t tell what it is. What do you call it when the city is in ruins, sacked and pillaged, and yet morning comes, and there is a freshness in the air? When the city is in flames, when all is lost, when the innocent are killing each other, and yet over in the corner in the morning light the guilty are dying.”
Electra: “Ask the beggar. He knows.”
Beggar: “It has a very beautiful name, Narses’s wife. It is called dawn.”
Because Robert Lauder is a film critic but more, because he is a Catholic priest, he prompts me to tell the following story. I first met Jean-Luc Godard in 1973 in a Catholic church in Berkeley, California. Apparently Godard could find no other place to show his film Tout va Bien (“Everything’s OK”). However, as I recall, showing the film in the church was not OK with a small group of “traditionalists” concerned that the Blessed Sacrament would be occluded in the transformation of the church into a movie house. I was moved to side with the traditionalists; the church’s pastor sided with the film’s sponsors; and Godard himself indicated that he would rather the film be shown somewhere else.
The Blessed Sacrament having been removed, Everything’s OK was shown as scheduled. The film, a sort of Althusserian-structuralist farce starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, provoked extraordinary hostility from the Berkeley audience. In the question-and-answer period that followed, Godard found himself being accused of everything from “betraying the Left” to “willful obscurantism” to “anti-feminism.” He took it rather well. After a while, his eyes panned the ceiling, and he asked the audience, “Where are we, anyway?” Silence. Then he asked, “So, am I the priest and are you the congregation?” Prolonged silence. As Marcel Duchamp might have said, we felt we were inside the Cathedral Godard. Excepting, may I say?, our traditionalists.
Ah, but isn’t the Church, by rights at least, “the mother of the arts”? Well yes, but the cinema remains “the kid who doesn’t get along with her mother.”
But alas! since Fr. Lauder wants to “indict” Godard on what appear to be theological grounds, I feel constrained to defend Godard by quoting his own defense — a virtually theological defense — of the cinema: “The cinema is the love, the meeting, the love of ourselves and of life, the love of ourselves on earth, it’s a very evangelical matter, and it’s not by chance that the white screen is like a canvas. In my next film I want to use it in this way, the screen as the linen of Veronique, the shroud that keeps the trace, the love, of the lived, of the world.”
John F. Maguire
Ferocious Postal Rate Hike
Enclosed is my check to renew my subscription to the New Oxford Review for another year. You will notice that my check exceeds the normal annual subscription rate. The reason for this is that I hope to alleviate, as much as I can, the postal rate hike now affecting small publications such as yours with great ferocity. Hopefully, the extra may offset the expense associated with mailing the NOR to me.
Richard J. Mondesir
Brooklyn, New York
Your December editorial distressed me.
Two dollars isn’t much these days, but if each and every subscriber would send you just $2, it would all add up, and help you through your financial hardships.
Enclosed is my $2. Wish it were more.
Beth Marie Balboa
Green Bay, Wisconsin
I appreciated Dale Vree’s review of Donal Dorr’s Option for the Poor (Nov.). I thought it was an erudite and balanced commentary. Thank you very much.
Most Rev. John S. Cummins
Bishop of Oakland
I want to congratulate you on the masterful editorial on St. Vincent Pallotti (Jan.-Feb.). You did him justice without exaggerations.
Rev. Flavian Bonifazi, S.A.C.
Ministerial Development Center, Seton Hall University
South Orange, New Jersey
Terms of Disapproval
Regarding the last paragraph of Dale Vree’s reply to my letter (Jan.-Feb.) responding to his review of Donal Dorr’s Option for the Poor (Nov.): Would you believe that the other Evil Empire, Nazi Germany, and its characteristic arrangements was never called by me or, I believe, by anyone a nation with “unjust social structures”? I do not “eschew the term” because it’s (also) used by the Left but because it’s a vogue cliché and imprecise, sounding lofty and learned without conveying any very clear meaning. Feminists could and probably do use it for marriage, anthropologists could use it to describe the tribal activities of the cavemen.
If communists in Russia or capitalists in America were unfallen men, the “unjust social structures” would turn into just social structures. The term implies (and indeed it’s what the secular left believes) that we need only change the system (the unjust social structures) to achieve the virtuous secular heaven.
In view of the fact that no nation in the world today could be said not to have unjust social structures, the term comes to mean only that the writer disapproves of the country he’s talking about — and we don’t really need more terms of disapproval. We got along quite well in disapproving of Hitler’s Germany without “unjust social structures,” and I think I could, if pressed, “criticize communism adequately” without it.
DALE VREE REPLIES:
I don’t see that the mere term “unjust social structures” implies a “virtuous secular heaven,” the possibility of which both of us firmly deny.
You could criticize Nazism and communism adequately without using the term in question. But could you do so without using a synonym?
Indeed, you invoke “Evil Empire” (in capitals), which strikes me as being a (rather vivid) synonym. Shall we say that this term too is a “vogue cliché,” etc.? Does it “imply” that America is the “Righteous Realm”? Is it but another “term of disapproval” we can get along without?
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