Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lacunae, Sappho, and the [...] of Gnosticism

I was re-reading my copy of The Dialogue of the Savior this morning in my Nag Hammadi Library when I discovered that what I enjoyed most about the text looked like this: [...]. That is, many of the so-called "Gnostic" gospels recovered at Nag Hammadi were not in perfect condition; they were full of gaps--or Lacunae--where words could not be recognized or where holes existed in the original manuscript. So this particular gospel begins like this:
The Savior said to his disciples, "Already the time has come, brothers, for us to abandon our labor and stand at rest. For whoever stands at rest will rest forever. And I say to you, [be] always [above...] time... [...]...you [...] be afraid [of...] ... you ... [...] ...anger [is] fearful [...] arouse anger... [...is...] but since you have ...[...]...[...] they accepted these words [concerning it] with [fear] and trembling, and it set them up with governors, for from it nothing was forthcoming. But when I came, I opened the path and I taught them about the passage which they will traverse, the elect and solitary, [who have known the Father, having believed] the truth and [all] the praises while you offered praise.

For the record, I am absolutely convinced that this Nag Hammadi library is even more than essential reading. I believe that these texts are profound enough in their own way to bring about a change in Christianity as significant as the reformation. These texts have only been available in English since 1979, however, and changing two thousand years of consensus and orthodoxy takes a little time. Over the next few centuries, though, and maybe within a couple generations, these scriptures are going to find a place in or alongside what we now recognize as "mainstream" Christianity. And, in my view, this will be a blessing. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "The doctrine of hate has to be preached, as the antidote to the doctrine of love, when love starts to whimper and whine..." And though the Gnostic texts do not constitute a doctrine of hate, they may seem to be a compilation of heresy. But, and I think Emerson would agree, every great spiritual movement begins as heresy.

The gaps in the text protect it against assaults from literalists, who tend to miss the spirit for the trees; that is, who tend to miss the forest for the words. If you've read Anne Carson's recent translation of Sappho's poetry, you'll have some understanding of the beauty of omission. Here's a translation of part of one of Sappho's poems:

Remember the many garlands of violets
and roses I placed next to
you
and
the many flower necklaces I weaved around
your
soft
skin

and spread bountiful myrrh
[......]* fit for a
queen


and upon the gentle mattress,
[......]* the
passion you exuded

and neither the [......]*
nor the singly
sacred [......]*
did we weave [......]*
from which we stayed
away.

Faced with these lacunae, reading is forced to become the imaginative act that it always should be. We become co-authors with the great poet of Lesbos. As well as any aesthetic or ambiguous words ever could, this little symbol -- [...] -- resists ossification and orthodoxy. Some of the gaps in the texts recovered at Nag Hammadi seem to be so perfectly-placed that some readers of great faith might suggest that the gaps in the text were foreordained. Consider the maddening elipses in this short excerpt from The Dialogue of the Savior:
Mary [said, "...] see [evil...] ...them from the first [...] each other.

The [Lord] said, "[...] ...when you see them... [...] become huge, they will... [...] ...But when you see the Eternal Existent, that is the great vision.

I can't imagine any more wonderful presentation of the elusive mysteries of the universe. It's like eavesdropping on a conversation that you really want to hear, and missing some of the critical words -- these gaps are fertile soil for the imagination (trust me!), and provide almost infinite possibility for interpretation. I know people who shut down at the utterance of the word "Jesus" or "God." Their reaction is certainly an indictment not of them or their character, but of the evangelizing strategies of orthodoxy. For them, Nag Hammadi offers a two-columned (because two-text) tract called The Sophia of Jesus Christ. In that text, we read,
[Now] those [who] come [from the...] exist with their [...] [in] every aeon [...] [...] [...In the beginning, thought] and thinkings [appeared from] mind, [then] teachings [from] thinkings, counsels [from teachings], (and) power [from] [counsels].

Far be it from me to pronounce the meaning of this fragment -- but it.. is... awesome! Monica's going to be so excited about all of this.

P.S. -- for those of you with low I.Q.s (Imagination Quotients), the Gnostic texts are not all tattered with lacunae. In the Gospel of Philip for example, we get this:
Names given to the worldly are very deceptive, for they divert our thoughts from what is correct to what is incorrect. Thus one who hears the word "God" does not perceive what is correct, but perceives what is incorrect. So also with "the father," and "the son" and "the holy spirit" and "life" and "light" and "resurrection" and "the church" and all the rest -- people do not perceive what is correct but they perceive what is incorrect, [unless] they have come to know what is correct. The [names which are heard] are in the world [... deceive. If they] were in the eternal realm (aeon), they would at no time be used as names in the world. Nor were they set among worldly things. They have an end in the eternal realm.

Or in The Gospel of Thomas (#13):

Thomas said to him, "Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like."

Jesus said, "I am not your (sg.) master. Because you (sg.) have drunk, you (sg.) have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out."

And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?"

Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."

3 comments:

brian said...

My favorite part is:

[be] always [above...] time... [...]...you [...] be afraid [of...] ... you

Casey said...

Yeah [...] ...best.

Buffy Turner said...

Ohh this post is outstanding.