So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18, c.1609)Was ever arrogance so eloquent! He's basically saying, "Look, love, you're a bit of alright. And I can write, right? In fact, I'm a big-shot playwright. Will's words won't wilt, I'll warrant you. Some centuries' time this rhyme'll be a rite of educational passage for school kids up and down our Scepter'd Isle and where'er else our native tongue be known." Only, he's Shakespeare, so he's saying it in words so Shakespehearianly splendid as to render them self-fulfilling. (Well, four hundred years and counting, at least ... so far, so good).
Many of Shakespeare's sonnets are pre-occupied with the idea of immortalisation through the written word. The fact that most are addressed to a man (scholars are unable to unambiguously conclude that the relationship was a romantic one but much of the language suggests so) invites the conjecture that the poet is seeking to continue through verse that which it is impossible to continue through procreation. Whatever his (conscious and/or subconscious) motivations, he is certainly not alone in the pursuit: I defy you to find me an honest, self-aware, writer or would-be writer who convincingly denies the aspiration to some form of word-secured perpetuity.
It's a theme of John Barth's fantastic 1968 collection of didactic sequential metafictional shorts, Lost in the Funhouse , and is especially drawn out in the finale, Anonymiad. The goat-herd-poet protagonist has been stranded by a cruel trick on an uninhabited island with nine large amphorae of wine and a lot of goats. He endeavours to reach the external world with variously purposed, varyingly optimistic literary compositions which he inscribes on the dried-out hides of the slaughtered goats and sets afloat in the jars as he drinks his way through the wine ...
By the seventh jug, after effusions of religious narrative, ribald tale-cycles, verse-dramas, comedies of manners, and what-all, I had begun to run out of world and material -- though not of ambition, for I could still delight in the thought of my amphorae floating to the wide world's shores, being discovered by who knew whom, salvaged from the deep, their contents deciphered and broadcast to the ages. Even when, in black humours, I imagined my opera sinking undiscovered (for all I could tell, none might've got past the rocks of my island), or found but untranslated, or translated but ignored, I could yet console myself that Zeus at least, or Poseidon, read my heart's record. Further, further: should the Olympians themselves prove but dreams of our minstrel souls (I'd changed my own conception of their nature several times), still I could soothe me with the thought that somewhere outside myself my enciphered spirit drifted, realer than the gods, its significance as objective and undecoded as the stars. (John Barth, Anonymiad, 1968)Of course I didn't read this and think immediately of myself – what a ridiculous notion! – of my earnest poetic and fictional sallies; of my inbox-full of rejection emails (or, more realistically, because they are that cruel, mere inbox-empty of acceptance emails); of this very space and my babbling into it alone from my dining room, or at a solely-occupied pub table; of you, dear reader (mother, web-crawler, or me in three months' or three years' time). No, none of these connections so much as skirted the outer regions of my balanced, rational, self-realistic consciousness. Seeking significance and longevity through well-crafted sentences is an absurd pursuit with which it has never occurred to me to occupy myself even light-heartedly.
Moving swiftly on, here is a story about Jesus that reminds me a little of Shakespeare's (implicit) brag whenever I read it:
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:6-13)Jesus knows, as does his biographer, that his was a story which would be repeated – and this woman's beautiful part in it with it. This isn't writerly arrogance, though; it's not literary brilliance that has caused the account to echo for two thousand years and all over the globe. It's the dramatic, significant implications of it ... and, I believe, the underlying, already established reality of a God-authored eternal story, breaking then and there into human history in the person of Jesus. Jesus, according to the Bible, pre-exists his earthly life; he is not immortalised by the accounts of him, he immortalises those accounts by, well, by who he is ...
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)The story didn't end when it most absolutely seemed to. "It is finished," he said. And he died. (John 19). But whatever the 'it' of which he spoke (a meaty question, for another time), it wasn't him. (Matthew 28).
Nor did it end when Jesus, in his resurrected body, ascended into heaven (see Luke 24:50-53). I love the opening words of the book of Acts (essentially a sequel to the gospel of Luke, recounting the birth and spread of the church): "In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up..." (Acts 1:1-2a, emphasis mine). Jesus was in another place, but he had by no means ceased to be, nor even to 'do and teach'.
The continuation of his 'doing and teaching' was to happen via his Holy Spirit, filling his disciples, dwelling with them and in them. A pretty mind-boggling prospect – and one which he took care to prepare them for while he was bodily with them: "Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you [...] He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you." (John 16:7,14-15) The gospels throughout, but especially chapters 14 to 17 of John, reveal Jesus' anticipation that his story would continue in and through the lives of the disciples, and all those "who will believe in me through their word" (John 17:23).
Acts has this beginning to happen. "When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit..." (Acts 2:1-4a). Timid, uncertain, sad at being parted from a loved friend under bewildering, worldview-capsizing circumstances ... momently transformed – imbued with boldness, supernatural power and clarity of purpose. They started to 'be church' – the body of Christ in the world (1 Corinthians 12:27) – and others started joining them, each no less welcomed in to the eternal story than the woman with the flask of perfume who is given special written mention.
But Acts, and the letters ... that's rather a while ago now. And Revelation closes the Bible with glimpses of that yet to come. So us, here, today ... ? Well, the invite stands distinctly open, seems to me:
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)Or, "all whom the Lord our God will call", as the NIV puts it. The Bible is not exactly 'receiving new submissions' so far as its written content goes! But the narrative thread continues to run through the lives of all those who respond to the call. As Paul said of the Corinthian church...
And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:3)Do I want to be lines in a letter from Christ, written in to the eternal story? I've got an uneasy feeling it'll make a palimpsest of my own cherished manuscripts ... including my favourite tale – the one where I wow the world with wit and wisdom, where my words leave my indelible mark. But, like the woman with the perfume, the more I prize my dreams, the more the pouring out of them in worship and surrender makes for part of something real and lasting. Left to my own (literary) devices, on the other hand, I might as well be scribbling on toilet paper.
 Which I discovered via Amy Hungerford's fantastic 2008 Open Yale Course ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945. I so appreciated her lectures on the books I'd already read that I've been reading through the rest of the syllabus so as to get the full benefit of her insights ...
[Thumbnail image public domain via Wikimedia Commons].