WHAT IS TRUTH? Memory and quest
After Christmas festivities, an attack of gout in my left big toe (a sign of old age?) and a violent cold, I am running again, with all it implies of renewed soreness in my legs and feet. However, all that will pass and be replaced by well-being. It is great to get out in the crisp morning chill and take up the old fight against myself, until I once again will master my body, mind and breathing.
During the winter there are fewer runners in the Caffarella Park, but those who now move around there are the real enthusiasts. Why all this equipment? Can it really assist them in their running experience? I wonder if they have multiple sets of their strange garment. Dressed in shiny black body stockings, with matching wool caps, woollen knee socks, Nike or Adidas running shoes (I have learned that Nike attach a Swoosh sign to their shoes, while Adidas furnishes theirs with three stripes), some kind of heart rate calculator and pedometer attached to one wrist, and earphones connected to a music device/cell phone affixed to an upper arm, they pass me by at high speed, with their eyes set on some distant goal.
Personally, I feel quite archaic while I am lumbering along in my old shorts and with one of the two t-shirts I alternate between. I have kept my running shoes for several years and assume they are quite OK, though I do not know if they were custom made for jogging. I do not want to plug any earphones into my ears. I find them uncomfortable, particularly when I begin to sweat. I prefer listening to the sounds around me. I do not count the time; rhythm and speed adapt themselves to the weather, the road conditions, my shape and my mood.
While I was panting along, up-hill and down-hill following the winding gravel road I know by heart, I came to think about what my professor in history of religions, Tord Olsson, once told me. With the intention of writing a book about them, he followed the Maasai during their wanderings across the Kenyan savannah. At first, he carried a backpack with a small tent and cooking utensils. The scantily clad and sometimes completely naked Maasai laughed at him while he tried to keep up with them, or when he pitched his tent.
Tord finally realized the futility of it all. He threw away the tent and began to sleep by the night fires, directly on the ground. Then he threw away the field kitchen and like the Maasai he began to drink blood mixed with milk and like them he gobbled up meat from freshly slaughtered prey, while it was still warm and soft, without being neither fried, nor cooked. Eventually he was able to keep pace with his Maasai friends, like them wearing a thin cloth, shorts and t-shirts he had also thrown away.
- I began enjoying life, it had become simple, more carefree. Trotting along on the savannah was pleasant, liberating. It was nice to experience how the difference between me and the Maasai became less accentuated. I was faced with a choice. Might I live like this until I became old and decrepit? A part of me affirmed the idea. It was a free roaming life, a parallel existence. Gone were earlier concerns; the prestige hunt, liabilities, debts and deadlines. It could be my imagination fuelled by a triumphantly feeling of mastering a new existence. Would troubles catch up with me in the future? Did I really belong here? Finally, I managed to break free from the spell and was able to add it all to my pool of experience.
According to Tord, among the Maasai our kind of time did not exist – at least not as watches, days and months, specific time periods that had been centrally and permanently established. With the Maasai there was night and day, the changing seasons, the wanderings of wild and domesticated animals. Humans were part of whole, not tormented by any abstracted time. There were no maps. Relationships were built on experiences, emotions, expressions, the body's capacity and speed of thought. Was it better or worse than our everyday life? It would be impossible to answer such a question. Of course, every Maasai is an individual, like you and me. S/he experiences anger and hopelessness, benevolence and hate, joy and sorrow, performance anxiety, desire and loss.
While I was running my thoughts adapted themselves to the movement of my feet, the rhythm of my heavy panting. I wondered if I remembered it all correctly. Tord is now dead, I cannot ask him about his experiences. What if all was something I had read and eventually confused with the more or less forgotten conversations I had had with Tord? I tried to remember where he had told me the story of his life with the Maasai. The only thing that came to mind was a winter day when I encountered Tord inside Gleerups bookstore in Lund, Sweden. He had returned from one of his Kenyan visits and had a scarf wrapped around his face, when he pulled it down to speak to me, he revealed a nasty rash: "I got infected by something down there," he explained. I am convinced that it was not at that moment he told me about his life with the Maasai. It could have been on several occasions; during a seminar, or maybe over a coffee, or a glass of beer.
Several of Tord's stories have followed me through life, some of them I have told to students and acquaintances, as amusing examples of how relative everything is. How our beliefs about how the world is or should be, suddenly may be turned upside down. Like when Tord as a young social anthropologist by bus was on his way into the Kenyan countryside, to his first meeting with the Maasai. The man who would introduce him to a group of Maasai was a British anthropologist Tord had been in contact with by mail. The British scholar was apparently a Maasai himself, but he had been living in England for many years. I do not remember if I ever asked Tord about his name and have now in vain made online searches for a British anthropologist with his roots among the Maasai. Let's call him Dr. Smith.
Well, Tord stepped out of the bus, which disappeared in a cloud of dust. He found himself on a savannah, which in all directions distended unobstructed towards the horizon, the air trembled in midday heat. Further down the road he spotted a skinny, tall Maasai. Wearing a damson-coloured cloth, he stood on one leg, leaning himself against a spear. He examined with great interest the Swedish newcomer. Tord went up to the Maasai warrior, nodded and wondered if had to speak in Swahili or Maasai, he was far from fluent in any of these languages, but chose to use his shaky Maasai to explain that he was trying to find a certain Dr. Smith. Smiling broadly the Maasai, hold out his right hand, greeted cordially Tord and said in eloquent Oxford English:
- Oh that's me! Jolly good to meet you, Mr. Olsson. I've been waiting for you. You must excuse my casual outfit, but this how I dress when I'm at home with my folks.
Another story told by Tord also demonstrated how preconceived opinions and perceptions could play tricks on us. One of Tord's favourite books was Conversations with Ogotemmêli and it was included in our graduate course. It was a book with literary qualities and thus a typical choice of Tord. He was interested in literature, for example was the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk a good friend of his and he invited Tord to the Nobel festivities.
Well, the French social anthropologist Marcel Griaule interviewed over a period of 33 days in 1933 the blind, old hunter Ogotemmêli and in 1948 he published a compilation of his conversations under the title Dieu d'eau: entretiens avec Ogotemmêli, a book that soon became a classic and still attracts tourists to Mali´s Dogon villages. However, some researchers doubted the veracity of Griaule´s interviews, they suspected he had "improved" Ogotemmêli´s stories, using his own interpretations and concepts.
Tord told us that a French social anthropologist, who was fascinated by Ogotemmêli´s stories, decided that as part of his thesis work he had to visit the Dogon people, find out whether some members of the Dogon people still retained the cosmological and religious beliefs reflected in the book. To his great joy and astonishment he found an older man who spoke an almost perfect French, was well-versed in his people's theology and philosophy and agreed to talk about faith and worldviews. Fascinated the French anthropologist recorded the old man's statements and marvelled at how well they coincided with those that Ogotemmêli had expressed almost fifty years earlier. Suddenly the old man stopped his flow of speech, looking pensive he rose and apologized himself:
- My memory is not quite as good as it has been. Excuse me for a moment. I'll be right back.
He disappeared into his hut and after a while he came back with a worn book, flipping through it. When he found the place he was looking for, he sat down and explained:
- No, no, what I said was not at all correct. It was actually like this ..., and he read aloud a passage from Griaule´s book, which he had collected from inside his hut.
I had a similar experience when I worked at SAREC, the research department at Sida, the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency. There I was responsible for the social research collaboration with Bolivia and we had given some support to a linguistic project that included the collection of examples of dying languages in the Amazon. One of the researchers visited me in my office and told me how his research team in Bení, the Bolivian jungle area, had met with an elderly informant, who could still speak a language that until then had been believed to be extinct. The Swedish researchers recorded the old man and became particularly enthused when he told them that he could sing some ancient religious hymns. Through this informant it would thus be possible to preserve a completely unique material, which could tell us about religious traditions and notions that otherwise would have disappeared from world history.
Returning home to the Department of Linguistics at Stockholm University the research group tried to decipher the old songs. It was impossible! The only remaining possibility to find out their meaning was to contact the Summer Institute of Languages, a slightly strange American missionary institute whose members took as their task to document and learn as many languages as possible in order to spread the word of the Lord among people who had not yet been reached by the Christian gospel. No matter how many or few they were - each soul won over to Christianity and eternal salvation was a gain, as well as a joy for Christ, who had commanded us all to spread his message:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
The University paid the travel and living expenses for one of the Summer Institute of Languages' experts on Amazonic languages and dialects. The excitement was great when the research team and the expert gathered around the tape recorder and listened to the unique recordings from the interior of the Amazon jungle. The old man's cracked singing, which was completely out of tune, filled the room and with a smile of recognition the America expert explained that he understood what the old man was singing. He quickly wrote down his translations of the old hymns. When they read what he wrote the astounded Swedish linguists found that what the old man was in his dying language singing well-known Christian hymns - Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, Praise to the Lord Almighty, All hail the power of Jesus' name and several others. He had a lousy singing voice, but excellent memory, apparently he had many years ago, by an American missionary who had learned his language and translated American hymns, been taught to sing them.
I imagine that it was Tord as well who once told me a story about how a white South African had been traveling through an utterly desolate and deserted part of the Kalahari Desert, when his jeep broke down. He was heading for a mission station, or something like that, then the motor stalled. All alone in the scorching sunlight and without the ability to walk the many miles to his destination. Without enough water he could not prevail the desert heat and in the night hyenas and other dangerous animals could attack him. It was best to wait in the shade under the car for someone to come by and pick him up. However, chances for that were minimal. Time passed, the day ended and the night was cold. No one came. Another day and the water ran out. The man despaired, but at dusk on the third day he thought he imagined that he glimpsed a human figure in the distance. He waved desperately, but the man, if had been such a creature, disappeared out of sight.
When the man, after a confused slumber, between dream and waking, opened his eyes, he saw a naked Bushman, one of many derogatory terms for a people that have many other names for themselves. Perhaps the man who sat on the hood considered himself to belong to the Ju /'hoansi, "the real people". The naked man smiled at the white man and motioned to him to get out of the car and follow him. The naked, slim man leaned forward, sniffed and began tracking like a dog. A hundred meters beyond the jeep he fell down on his knees and began to scratch in the sand, soon he had found a big tuber. He scratched at it with his digging stick until he had collected a handful of moist fruit flesh, which he then hugged tightly so a small flow of water could run along his thumb down into his throat. The bulb contained enough water even for the white man, it was not much but sufficient to bring him hope. He followed the Bushman through the desert. They walked for days and nights, sleeping for short periods both during day and night. They did not hunger, nor thirst The Bushman constantly found something to eat and drink. Finally, he had brought the white man to his destination.
The story demonstrated how a naked man, who knew his surroundings, gallantly had saved a stranger. The moral of the story was that a person, someone like you and me, with all his gadgets and knowledge could become utterly helpless if left without them witin a hostile environment, which nevertheless was mastered by a naked Bushman with a cane, a bow and some arrows. How might we self-proclaimed "civilized" people be so arrogant that we considered ourselves superior to those we call “primitive” people, those who do not "have anything"?
A fascinating history. But, was it true? I have no idea. I do not even know if it was Tord who told it to me. Maybe, maybe not. Possibly I had read it somewhere. But where? It is also possible that I had heard a similar story and then every time I told it had changed and gilded it beyond recognition.
In a previous blog I wrote that sometimes it may seem like books was looking for you, instead of us finding them. When I few days ago visited FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, here in Rome, true to my habit I searched through a stall where an association called The United Nations Women's Guild puts out used books for sale, for two euros each. There I found a book about Laurens van der Post. Eureka! In that book I could maybe finally find that strange story. I knew that van der Post had written about Bushmen.
I read the book in one go. van der Post's life had been eventful, to say the least –it bordered on the unbelievable. Some instances - he was born as a Boer on a South African farm, early on he began a career as a journalist, making himself known as an eloquent opponent to South Africa's appalling racism. With a friend of his he boarded a sailing ship to Tokyo, where he stayed three months and founded a lifelong fascination with Japanese culture. Twenty-five years old, he settled in London, where he was accepted by the famous Bloomsbury group, befriending people like Virginia Wolf, John Maynard Keynes and Edward Morgan Forster. In 1940, he joined the British Army as a volunteer and received the rank of captain after having fought in Abyssinia with the troops of Haile Selassie and, among other things, been leading a squadron that brought 11,000 camels through deserts and mountain areas. 1942, he was ordered to Indonesia, due to his knowledge of Dutch and some Japanese. There he was captured by the Japanese and spent three years in a concentration camp. An experience he retold in his books The Seed and the Sower and The Night of the New Moon, which in 1982 became the inspiration for an excellent movie by Nagisa Oshima, with David Bowie in the leading role - Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
After the war, van der Post remained in Indonesia and became acquainted with Ahmed Sukarno. He realized that the country was heading towards disaster and travelled to London and The Hague, where he was received by prime ministers and other government members, who did not heed his warnings. After two more years in Indonesia van der Post went back to South Africa, but soon left the country again, this time for Switzerland, where he became acquainted with Carl Jung, a friendship that lasted until the psychotherapist's death sixteen years later. In 1950, van der Post organized an English expedition to the Kalahari Desert, it was then he initiated his lifelong fascination with Bushman civilization. He often returned to the Kalahari and wrote numerous books and novels about his experiences there. van der Post also made a BBC documentary series about the Bushmen. He described them as Africa's first people, who throughout time had been persecuted by Whites and Blacks alike. He turned them into some kind of "noble savages”, claiming they represented "humanity´s lost soul." Without doubt Laurens van der Post could have been the origin of the story about the man who was rescued by a Bushman. Unfortunately, I did not find it in John David Francis Jones fascinating biography.
During the sixties van der Post became a well-known TV personality in England. He travelled all over the world, a highly regarded lecturer and was privately known as an extremely fascinating storyteller. He became some kind of guru; with his sermons about Bushmen´s ideal existence, his friendship with Carl Jung, his resistance to apartheid and his strong commitment to environmental protection. He became good friends with Margaret Thatcher and especially with Prince Charles, whom he learned to speak with his flowers and who in 1982 made van der Post godfather to England's heir to the throne. In the picture from Prince William´s baptism we can see van der Post standing behind the father.
With such a life to tell it is easy to believe that J.D.F. Jones had been attached to the subject of his biography, but that was not at all the case. Without denying that van der Post had been to all the places he described in his books, there is hardly one detail in van der Post's many tales about his amazing life that Jones does not question, noting that:
I discovered to my astonishment that not a single word he ever wrote or ever said could necessarily be believed. He was a compulsive fantasist.
Among Jones more spectacular and frightening revelations were that not only was van der Post a notorious womanizer, but during a sea voyage from South Africa to England he seduced a fourteen year old girl, whose parents had entrusted to his care, and with her got a clandestine daughter. This unpleasant incident was not denied by van der Post's legal daughter, Lucia Crichton-Miller, who gave Jones access to her father's posthumous papers. Crichton-Miller, however, was deeply shocked by Jones book and stated that Jones incessantly provides detrimental interpretations of almost everything her father did and stood for. Unfortunately, she had to admit that most of Jones´s findings were essentially true. About her father, she said:
He was not a saint. He hurt people. He hurt me. But by God, he was fascinating.
When Jones asked van der Post's doctor about the cause of his death, he replied: "He was weary of sustaining so many lies".
What is truth, what is a lie? Many years ago, I went in the company of old Mimicito Ramírez, son of the legendary caudillo Carmito Ramírez, up to the villages north of the town of San Juan de La Maguana in western Dominican Republic. I had asked him to introduce me to some of his father's friends, who in the 1910s had joined the Messianic leader Olivorio Mateo to fight the US invaders. Then, in the early 1980s, some of them where were amazingly left alive. Among them, the over one hundred years old Julián Ramos.
Both Mimicito and Julían were skilled storytellers, gifted with an impressive memory. Especially Julián Ramos was fascinating to listen to. He explained that he lived in two worlds - one that you can touch, which men like me call "reality" and another one that is much larger and more powerful, where there is neither time nor physical constraints, where music, memories and spirits dwell. A world that people like me, “those from the North”, don´t know anything about, but which men like him easily could be visiting, walking from one world to another like someone passing through sun and shade. In that other world he could encounter his old friend Olivorio Mateo, who not only was a man, but the living God.
Julían's speech was a mixture of verifiable memories, which I sometimes could check up with other witnesses, old newspapers, church books and notes in different books, but many of his tales and experiences were about what Julián had seen and experienced in the "other world". When I once remarked to him that what he now told me was different from what he said to me last time I saw him, Julían was not at all disturbed by my remark. He explained that his stories were his truth. What other kind of memories could they be? Since they were his personal memories minor details could fluctuate. The shape of memories oscillates when we think about them, tell them and interpret them. We are not exactly the same persons from one day to another and our memories are from being unwavering. Why would they not shift, like running water shifts? However, even if it changes its form it remains water, quenching thirst, providing us with strength and joy.
Julían argued that memories belong, like dreams, to the other realm, the one that is truer than my so-called "reality". If I could check Julían´s recollections with those of other people, I would soon find that they were equally true, yes more true than anything I could find in any of my books, because Julían’s stories, unlike books, were based on experiences and feelings. The fact is that Julían could neither read, nor write and he apparently had quite vague ideas about books. According to Julián, his stories belonged to a higher truth and considering that – why bother about every tiny detail? Why make so much fuss about at what time something had ocurred? The exact wording of what someone said or how he was dressed when he made a comment. "All that I know, because I am an old man, and time is a strict teacher."
Are stories, i.e. fiction, equivalent to a bundle of lies? The problem with van der Post was possibly that he confused life and fiction. I assume stories are part of what Julián Ramos called “the other world”. Mario Vargas Llosa wrote:
Literature prolongs human life, adds a dimension that nourishes life deep within us - the intangible, fleeting but precious life that we can experience only by imagination.
Societies where governments are forcing authors to interpret facts in a predetermined way, become intolerant, sterile and sealed. Once my oldest daughter told me about a discussion she had had with of one of her best friends, who was born and raised in Romania. Janna had told her fiend how much she liked Orwell's 1984. However, her friend stated that she did not like that novel.
- But why? It's all about a dictatorship that restricts people's thoughts. Wasn´t it like that in Romania?
- 1984 could not have been written under a dictatorship.
- Of course not, the censorship would surely not have allowed it to be published.
- Certainly not, but it was not what I meant. What I mean is that 1984 is not funny. If it had been a really good book written under a dictatorship then it would have been funny. Dictators do not understand humour and wittiness. A sense of humour has to do with feelings of freedom, laughter liberates and to endure people use to laugh a lot.
- Is there such a novel?
- Many, but best and most famous is The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. It's like a fairy tale, a legend, and it is very funny, very true. Few books have so convincingly and wittily demonstrated how it is to live under a dictatorship. You can read it again and again and constantly find new truths. That's how you write when life is at its worst.
Or as Bulgakov wrote:
Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar's vile tongue be cut out! Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!
The Master and Margarita contains a scene where Pontius Pilate is confronted with Jesus. Early one morning a sullen Pontius Pilate is on his way to the court proceedings, from the kitchen regions, where they are preparing lunch, drifts a scent of rose oil. The procurator abhors rose oil, the fragrance aggravates his headache and it does not get any better when he sits down to deal with his daily duties and his secretary announces that the first man to be sent into the chambers will be another one of those religious fanatics accused of inciting people to destroy the temple in Jerusalem Pilate thinks:
Oh, gods, gods why are you punishing me? ... yes there is no doubt about it´s being back again, that, horrible, relentless affliction … the hemicranias that shoot pain through half my head … there´s no remedy for it, no relief … I´ll try not to move my head.
The prisoner, whose name is Yeshua ha-Notrsi, is dressed in ragged clothes, has a swollen face and a bandage around his head, apparently he has been ruthlessly beaten. He does his best to answer Pilate´s questions as truthfully and accurate as possible. Gradually the nauseous Pilate becomes increasingly fascinated by the man in front of him, who turns out to speak Aramaic, Greek and Latin. ha-Notrsi claims that malicious speech is spread about him, mainly because a certain Levi Matvei, a former tax bailiff, constantly follows him around and writes down everything Yeshua says and does. Most of it that wretch gets wrong and Yeshua has repeatedly asked him to stop hanging out after him, and certainly cease with that incessant scribbling. Pilate thinks he should order Yeshua to be hanged, to avoid being bothered by at least one less of those nutty fanatics, but the Roman procurator has been deeply shaken by Yeshua's undisguised honesty. The prisoner bluntly states that he understands that the procurator´s irritation depends on his migraines, but they will pass as soon as the threatening tempest has passed. It will take some time, but it will certainly be gone by tomorrow.
Surprised the procurator asks Yeshua if he is doctor. The prisoner denies it and claims he only says what he feels and thinks. Pilate considers such a statement to be dangerous and to trap the prisoner he asks him about his opinion about the state of affairs in the world. Yeshua explains that in his opinion, there are really no bad people, it is power and uncertainty that poison and destroy human beings. Yeshua is convinced that a new kingdom soon will be established, where power is spread among as many persons as possible, so that truth and justice will have a better chance to compete with power hungry authoritarianism.
Pilate now understands why Yeshua is considered to be a danger to the community. He asks if he believes in any gods and Yeshua explains that he believes in only one god. Pilate realises that Jesus talks about the vengeful Jewish god and tells the prisoner that through his careless speech he is now playing with death and that for his own sake he should pray to his god, since in Pilate’s opinion he will almost certainly be killed. Yeshua becomes concerned and asks if the procurator could not spare his life: "Can´t you let me go? Everyone wants my death through you." Pilate finds Yeshua pathetic and can no longer control his facial features, which have started to twitch uncontrollably, the headache is about to make him mad and furiously he orders the secretary to promulgate the death sentence.
Through the dynamic, realistic and occasionally amusing dialogue the reader soon realises why the Stalinist regime could not possibly let a masterpiece like The Master and Margarita pass censorship.
It is quite conceivable to regard the scene between Jesus and Pilate in the glow of a desperate letter that Bulgakov wrote to Stalin and six influential politicians, well aware of the fact that the dictator appreciated his work. Stalin had seen Bulgakov's play The Days of the Turbins, no less than fifteen times. However, after his play The Crimson Island had made fun of the entire Soviet literary establishment, Bulgakov had become persona non grata for Vladimir Blyum, Chairman of the Repertory Committee, the Soviet theatre licensing body.
Oddly enough, The Crimson Island had escaped censorship and become a success. It was written as a play within a play, and was about the staging of a satirical comedy, which in Jules Verne's spirit dealt with life on a tropical island - a bold allegory of the state of affairs within the Soviet Union. To get his play performed a writer called “Comrade Dymogatskyi” is fighting Moscow's literary establishment. Bulgakov used every word, every phrase, every episode to make theatre-goers laugh at the absurdity of cultural bureaucracy, which according to him was about to strangle free creativity. Vladimir Blyum had no problems with identifying himself with the play´s most despicable character and managed to convince the press to mercilessly attack Mikhail Bulgakov. Threatened by a total writer´s ban Bulgakov found no other recourse than to defend himself in the brave and witty letter to Stalin and his minions, in which he quoted the malicious articles in the Soviet press:
Bulgakov had become a satirist precisely at the time when true satire (that which penetrates into forbidden areas) became unthinkable in the USSR. It did not fall to me to have the honour of expressing this criminal thought in print. It is expressed perfectly clearly in an article by V. Blyum … and the purport of this article can be brilliantly and precisely condensed into a single formula: anyone who writes satire in the USSR is questioning the Soviet system. Am I thinkable in the USSR?
Bulgakov suggests that the answer is apparent in Blyum´s review of the The Crimson Island:
The truth is contained in the review of Novitsky. I am not going to judge, how witty my play is, but I feel that there rises a most evil shadow, and this shadow is the one of the Head of the Repertoire Committee. It is he, who is nursing Government slaves, bootlickers and other terrorised “servants”. It is he who is killing the creative thought. He is killing the Soviet playwrights.
I haven’t whispered these thoughts while sitting in a corner. I have included them in a dramatic pamphlet and presented this pamphlet on the stage. The Soviet Press, which is defending the Chief Repertoire Committee, wrote that The Crimson Island is a lampoon against the Revolution.
Bulgakov asks the influential politicians to ensure him a position in the Soviet theatre and if this is not possible, provide him and his wife an exit permit.
After receiving the letter Stalin personally called up Bulgakov and wondered if he really wanted to leave the USSR, Bulgakov replied that it was not an issue about will - a Russian writer cannot live outside his homeland, Stalin begged him to stay and gave him permission to continue working as a director's assistant at the Moscow Art Theatre, the legendary Moskovskij Chudozjestvennyj Akademitjeskij Teatr.
Bulgakov's Yeshua seems to have a lot in common with the Jesus Nietzsche presents in his pamphlet Antichrist, which in reality is not directed against Jesus, but against the Church. Bulgakov's Yeshua is very human and so is his Pilate, with his headaches and oscillations between doubt and authoritarianism. Nietzsche claimed that the Church's deification of Jesus was a lie intended to distort his message. In an overheated and often wittily worded language, he stood on the verge of his madness, Nietzsche defended his view of Jesus:
That holy anarchist who summoned the people at the bottom, the outcasts and "sinners," the chandalas within Judaism, to opposition against the dominant order—using language, if the Gospels were to be trusted, which would lead to Siberia today — he was a political criminal insofar as political criminals were possible at all in an absurdly unpolitical community. This brought him to the cross [...]
This “bringer of glad tidings” died as he had lived, as he taught - not to “redeem mankind” but to demonstrate how one ought to live. What he bequeathed to mankind is his practice: his bearing before his judges, before the guards, before the accusers and every kind of calumny and mockery – his bearing on the Cross. He does not resist, he does not defend his rights, he takes no steps to avert the worst that can happen to him – more, he provokes it … And he entreats, he suffers, he loves with those, in those, who are doing evil to him.
What I am concerned with is the psychological type of the Redeemer. After all, this could be contained in the Gospels despite the Gospels, however mutilated or overloaded with alien features: as Francis of Assisi is preserved in his legends, despite his legends. Not the truth concentrating what he did, what he said, how he really died¸ but the question whether his type can still be exhibited at all, whether it has been “transmitted.”
Nietzsche also defended Pontius Pilate, considering him to be an upright representative of an oppressive power, someone who does not care about the Jewish people's well-being. Someone who is rightly irritated by their misuse of the concept "truth". All religion is in fact based on lies. How could the Jewish clergy then have the audacity to turn to Pilate and ask him to accuse Jesus in the name of their "truth"? This is the reason to why Pilate asks Jesus what truth is:
Need I add that in the whole New Testament, there is only a single man who commands respect? Pilate, the Roman governor. To take a Jewish affair seriously - he does not persuade himself to do that. One Jew more or less – what does it matter? The noble scorn of a Roman, confronted with an impudent abuse of the word “truth”, has enriched the New Testament with the only saying that has value - one which is its criticism, even its annihilation: "What is truth?”
Pilate was undoubtedly an extremely ruthless administrator. Reza Azlan does in his well-written and thoroughly documented Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth depict Pilate as a hard-hearted, inflexible and arrogant Roman, without any regard whatsoever to the feelings of a subjugated people.
During his tenure as procurator in Jerusalem, Pilate sent thousands of Jews to die on the cross, without previous trial. He went so far that people with access to the Roman Emperor submitted a letter of complaint demanding Pilate´s deposition. It is actually not consistent with reality that an autocratic and unreachable person like Pilate would take the trouble to personally interrogate a man like Jesus and expose himself to so much trouble in relation with what was merely a routine execution, one among many others.
However, it cannot be denied that the account of Jesus' final days is an epic and moving story about a lonely man, doubting and suffering. John writes about Jesus' dramatic encounter with Pontius Pilate:
Then Pilate went back into his headquarters and called for Jesus to be brought to him. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked him. Jesus replied, “Is this your own question, or did others tell you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate retorted. “Your own people and their leading priests brought you to me for trial. Why? What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. Then he went out again to the people and told them, “He is not guilty of any crime.
Pilate turns his back on Jesus before he gets a chance to answer the difficult question of what truth is all about. Jesus often spoke about the truth. Then one of his disciples asked Jesus about the aim of his work, he replied: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." The night before his meeting with Pilate, Jesus suffers extreme agony in in the garden of Gethsemane He thinks about his disciples, how their choice to follow him has separated them from other people:
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
What is the truth of Jesus? John used the Greek word ἀ-λήθεια, aletheia. It is a combination of the word Lethe, which meant oblivion, or "something that is hidden," combined with a negative prefix - alethea thus means "non-forgotten", or rather something that is "revealed" or "unveiled".
What is it that will be revealed? In order to find an explanation, we might seek the origin of the concept of truth far back in the past. The English word truth is probably derived from an old German word related to a concept like “steadfast like a tree”. The old Norse tru, meant both tree and faith/faithful, apparently akin to the Sanskrit word for tree – dru.
The Sanskrit word for truth is satya, which has two meanings - a "lower" one where the word designates what is true in our daily "reality" and a “higher” one where the word becomes equivalent to "existence/being," i.e. the immutable cosmic principle behind everything - the only true reality, Satyam, which turn out to be identical with Brahman, the World Soul. In Buddhism, which sacred language Pali associates satya with sacca, which a key concept in Buddhism's, as a matter of fact one of its most basic principles - The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the final termination of suffering.
For the Ancient Greeks was forgetfulness, Lethe, a form of relief from all the things that attach us to pain and thus it becomes a path to happiness and salvation. After death the memories of an earthly life of pain and defeat may be wiped out, allowing for the creation of a new life; rebirth, or an eternal happiness within an existence beyond death and suffering.
On their way to the Elysian Meadows, the departed souls have to try to cross five rivers - Styx, River of Hatred, Acheron, River of Sorrow, Cocytus, River of Lamentations, Phlegeton, River of Fire/Passion. If they are able transverse these horrible trials they finally reach Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness. Those who could not pass all these rivers of pain and sorrow did not find any bliss and tranquillity in afterlife. It was only after the soul had drunk Lethe´s water and crossed over to the other shore, they were able to relax within the fragrant and lush Meadows of the Blessed Spirits, where they could await rebirth, or stay on within a carefree existence, liberated from all pain, sorrow and disappointments amassed during an earthly existence.
In his Divina Commedia Dante Alighieri weaves together ancient beliefs and myths with Christian theology and legends, combining it all with memories from his own life and thus presents his vision of the entire structure of Universe and the meaning of human life and history. He wanders through what I believe could be Julián Ramos “other world” – an imaginary landscape parallel to our reality.
Like the Greeks´ departed souls, Dante also drinks from and immerse himself in Lethe's waters to be purified and made worthy to rise up to the divine light of Heaven and finally realize that the Universe's innermost truth is, as he states in the last lines of his mighty poem: "Love that moves the sun and other stars".
Dante does not only lose his memory by drinking water from Lethe, he also drinks water from and crosses another river. It is his dream woman, Beatrice, who welcomes Dante to the earthly Paradise, which is placed on the crest of the Purification Mountain and she brings him to a source where two rivers spring forth, one is Lethe the other one is Eunoë. Dante is the first to mention that after Lethe there is another river. After Lethe´s water has erased all memories of life on earth, Eunoë´s water restores recollections of things and incidents that in our life have made us satisfied and happy. Dante invented the name Eunoë from Greek, combining eu, good with nous, mind/memory.
Dante's Purgatory ends with how Dante with a sense of relief raises from Eunoë´s river, leaving the Purification Mountain to ascend to Paradise:
I came back from that holiest of waves
Remade, refreshed as any new tree is,
Renewed, refreshed with foliage anew,
Prepared to rise towards the stars.
The truth is a fleeting concept, even if it is quite common to portray it as simple and straightforward - "The Plain Truth", but in fact the truth, like life itself, is complex and multifaceted. It is not only to be found in the "real world", but also in poetry and imagination, where it may appear even more transparent than in everyday life, as in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. We humans seem to be created to constantly search for the truth, as well as the meaning of life. A mental journey that can take many different forms, not least as a walk through "the other world", like in Dante's Divine Comedy.
Alighieri, Dante (2007) Purgatorio, translated and edited by Robin Kirkpatrick. London: Penguin Classics. Alighieri, Dante (2005) La Divina Commedia. Purgatorio. A cura di Umberto Bosco e Giovanni Reggio. Roma: Editoriale L´Espresso. Bulgakov, Mikhail (2007) The Master and Margarita. London: Penguin Classics. Curtis, J. A. E. (2012) Manuscripts Don't Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov: A Life in Letters and Diaries. London: Bloomsbury. Deussen, Paul (1966) The Philosophy of the Upanishads. New York: Dover. Jones, J. D. F. (2002) Teller of Many Tales: The Lives of Laurens van der Post New York: Carroll & Graf. Griaule, Marcel (1965) Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An introduction to Dogon religious ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hollingdale, R.J. (1977) A Nietzsche Reader. New York: Viking Press. Kaufmann, Walter (1964) The Portable Nietzsche. London: Penguin Classics. Lundius, Jan (1995) Great Power of God in San Juan Valley: Syncretism and Messianism in a Dominican Valley. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International. Press. Stoll, David (1982), Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America. A US Evangelical Mission in the Third World. London: Zed Press. Vargas Llosa, Mario (1997) “The Truth of Lies”, in Making waves: Essays. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.