Sunday, 27 November 2016

Epiousion, Wilde & anacreontics' salvic power

Oscar Wilde, in Prison, took delight in two things- his ration of white bread, not black, not brown, supplied to him on medical grounds and...but let him tell you the story himself-

Of late I have been studying with diligence the four prose poems about Christ. At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere. It is a delightful way of opening the day. Every one, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same. Endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naivete, the simple romantic charm of the Gospels. We hear them read far too often and far too badly, and all repetition is anti-spiritual. When one returns to the Greek; it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some, narrow and dark house.
And to me, the pleasure is doubled by the reflection that it is extremely probable that we have the actual terms, the IPSISSIMA VERBA, used by Christ. It was always supposed that Christ talked in Aramaic. Even Renan thought so. But now we know that the Galilean peasants, like the Irish peasants of our own day, were bilingual, and that Greek was the ordinary language of intercourse all over Palestine, as indeed all over the Eastern world.

If Wilde were right about ancient Palestinians speaking Greek, then the word 'epiousion'- signifying 'daily' in 'give us this day our daily bread'- would be a hapax legomenon unique to Lord Jesus.

Fittingly, perhaps, it poses a puzzle for the aesthetically inclined philologist- and Wilde was academically very accomplished- because it isn't the word they would consider collocationally correct or rhetorically resonant.
Theologians might see in it a conflation of two different types of bread- that which is necessary for existence in this world and that which is for the day to come beyond nature's scope.
But what might it have meant for Wilde- a late Victorian poet and lover of paradox?

Consider what a contemporary critic wrote of Browning-

Wikipedia tells us- 'In the original Greek, the word is in an adjectival form, epiousion – here from Matthew – and is the only adjective in the Lord's Prayer: Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον[20](Interlinear: "The -- bread -- of-us -- - -- epiousion -- give -- us -- today")[2]

The paradox here, for Wilde, whose bread was now prescribed as a medicine- a pharmakon- would be that Jesus who gives his own flesh as a medicine to sinful humanity- i.e. he himself is the sacrificial animal, the scapegoat, which is another meaning of pharmakon- and is using a unique adjective in a poem which truly makes God adjective to man. But this flesh made bread, or bread made flesh is a poison- a third meaning of the word pharmakon- only to the author, though an eternal cure for everyone else.

Why is this bread which is ours for the day to come so important that it gets a curious adjective- or is it really the substantive of its own adjectival Scapegoat God?- all to itself?

I suppose, if we have been deprived of white bread for any length of time, we might view Time itself through the lens of that loaf's recurrence. Prisoners know that even if their trespasses are forgiven them, they still 'have to do their own Time' , yet, Wilde intimates, there is a type of bread- fine white bread, not black or brown- the restitution of whose recurrence enables one to hope that there is some all healing pharmakon we partake in common which actually belongs to tomorrow but which we can yet legitimately pray to receive today. But only because repetition is the essence of the prison regime. The hope of release is the dangled carrot which keeps the treadmill turning.
Similarly, the repetition of the Lord's Prayer, which invokes the hope of seeing the Messianic reign established in our life-time, reconciles us to passing from one generation to another within the same prison walls.
At the centre of every paradox is the hiatus valde deflendus between  Being and Becoming and irony is what populates that abyss of eternal repetition that gapes between them. In rhetoric, the paradox is governed by kairos- timing- and permits truth to have a double without violating the protocols of the account it gives of itself. In life, however, the paradox requires untimeliness, it must hesitate or otherwise miss the mark; it is a martyrdom that stands witness only to its own stupidity. To deal in paradoxes, as Christ or Socrates did, is to die squalidly, not suavely, taken in a self-spun snare. Dialethia is the other side of the coin of Divinity whose spendthrift's palm is seared by what its own prodigality has rendered too hot to hold.

There are two possible etymologies for epiousion- this word impossible, it seems, to any Greek tongue but Christ's. 

As William Barclay puts it-

Going a step further down the path of speculation, if Wilde did indeed consider epiousion as the unique ipsissima verba of the veritable Lord of the Lord's prayer, then what that archetype of the romantic artist was actually praying for was to receive His own coming Eucharist in common with all men, not- as in Luke, eternally- but now, just once though for all Time without that Time having in any sense actually having supervened. This is Pater's Dionysius who, to make Wine a Religion, must be torn to shreds by maenads and woven again by nympholepti  in a manner that yields the wordy widsiths of his personae the but gall of knowing all they have contrived is the little masks upon the vine which scare away little birds. This too is Ibn Arabi, upholding Christ as mathalan bi-takvin- a neutered symbol of engendering- giving life to clay birds- cashing out as, for not Sophist Anacreotics but Sufi Khamriyaat, that 'spirit of fire and dew, alive and leaping in a thousand vines',  which, if envisaged as 'a higher intelligence brooding over things',  breeds a but blasphemously expended sperm confirming there can be no repetition in theophany no matter how merely romantic or imaginal, id est fetishitic or phantasmic, its fabulously failed, therefore familiar or sacred, deontological detective work or worthlessly didactic ontological framing.

Thus, Wilde's adjectival epiousion exception, in favour of repentant sinners, to Agathon's - 'not even God can change the past' - proved a more atrocious substantive sentence than any merely dialectical or dialogic ratio could hand down. In repenting our sins we change the Past only to become prisoners of a snagged Time-line plucked from the common-too-common sleeve of the heart.

By contrast, Eros repairs itself. 
Indeed, a full stomach militates to no other end.
Bread's whiteness, its refinement, helps.
Metanoia, alas, as the maiuetics of a mere couvade, transubstantiates the contents of its communion cup, to a but municipal hemlock while increasingly arid grow such Symposia as have abandoned anacreotics.
Kairos, once linked to the oracular krater- just as the Soma of the Indo-Iranians was once linked to a amphetamine rich beverage helpful in child birth- when taken up by philosophy, becomes untimeliness, inauspiciousness, an esoteric whispering in the ear, a contagion of unease and ontological dysphoria at the spectacle of the universal celebration of but Seasonal change.

Wilde wrote- If ever I write again, in the sense of producing artistic work, there are just two subjects on which and through which I desire to express myself: one is 'Christ as the precursor of the romantic movement in life': the other is 'The artistic life considered in its relation to conduct.'

It may be objected, that no two duller subjects can be conceived. 
But Wilde well very knew that true dullness is nothing if not a hiding in plain sight of a horror too monstrous for utterance- like John 22- a lover told to out tarry Time- so Love's Word flesh out- John 25- a book bigger than its World. 
Thus Wilde, taking Christ as his mot theme, turns his prison loaf into yearning's unrepeatable Paschal epiousion equal only to another prodigal son's 'swine-herding hunger for husks.'

Thankfully, Wilde's decadence was merely a Victorian veneer.
The trough of  Antisemitism not yet Gallic & de rigueur
But Chesterton would see to it that base was covered for babu literature.
I believe there's a move afoot to Canonize him.
Not that a good drinking song isn't worth a Sainthood.
It's just litterachur's bread & butter sticks so in one's craw.

No comments: