In Paul Zahl’s remarkable recent piece on the 1950s film The Egyptian, he puzzles over Jack Kerouac’s wild hatred of the film, especially as (PZ notes):
“The title character, take away the toga, is [Kerouac] himself.”
Perhaps the puzzle contains its own key?
I defer to PZ here — since by far he’s our greatest expert on 50s movies and JK. But somehow Kerouac and The Egyptian reminded me of a similar puzzle: namely Tolstoy’s baffling hatred of everything by Shakespeare, and the way he had reserved especial venom for King Lear, a play considered by cultural historians as one of the greatest ever written. (Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Lear… grin.)
George Orwell wrote an essay (“Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool”) where he speculates about the hatred Tolstoy reserved for the play, and asks if it could well be due to the curious similarity of Tolstoy’s own story to Lear’s, and to the fact that he suffered disappointments of the same nature after renouncing his estate, his aristocratic title and his copyrights.
Orwell reflects at fascinating depth on this which I won’t try to summarize here. And in truth I have no idea whether Orwell is right in this particular instance about Tolstoy, or whether the same might explain Kerouac. Who knows our hearts save One?
But what is clear to me, and seems so very meet and right to consider during Lent, is that something like it operates in all of us. Which of us, when presented with an agonizingly accurate portrait of ourselves (Dorian Gray!) can stand when it appeareth? Which of us does not respond by flight, denial, or a desire to destroy/deface the too-true image?
The only solution to this problem is the forgiveness of sins given in the Gospel. This is the only place where real confession and real truth-speaking about ourselves can occur. Only under the shed blood can we find a safe space to admit what we are — safe because it is done in the context of a prior belovedness in Christ Jesus.
It’s worth reflecting on this, at least for me at any rate, because I often find myself slipping away from really believing in it — in the forgiveness of sins I mean. Which then renders all my penitential devotions (such as they are) as so much crap — they cease to be real at precisely the moment I stop really believing in forgiveness. C.S. Lewis had the same personal experience, and I’ll close with a few words from him:
“The remedy is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins. A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that is not forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.”