Judas, a Biography

Judas kissLong before Darth Vader, long before Lord Voldemort, long before Stephen Harper, Judas Iscariot reigned as the supreme icon of evil in Western mythology. Judas betrayed God. How much worse can you get?*

For 2,000 years we’ve used the term Judas to refer to anyone who betrayed anything, any cause, any belief, any friendship. Yet, like all the icons of evil that came before, and who have followed, Judas holds a fascination for us that transcends his actions.

Dante consigns him to the ninth circle of hell, one of three traitors forever chewed in the mouths of the three-headed Satan. Yet Brutus, Cassius (the other two sinners in Dante’s story), Benedict Arnold, and Vidkun Quisling never achieved such attention or notoriety. They were all were members of their respective inner circles; all betrayed their friends,their beliefs and their leaders. But they are paltry shadows beside Judas.

Perhaps that’s in part because none of the others are religious symbols, and religion far too often brings out the extreme in people.

Susan Gubar’s 2009 book, Judas, a Biography, which I’ve been reading of late, is a fascinating look at the relationship the West has had with Judas these two millennia, and how he appears in art, music, literature, religion and popular culture. Judas has become a reflection of a lot about ourselves: our fears, our religion, our mythologies, our politics, our behaviour.

Many of us have had the deeply disturbing experience of betrayal in our own lives; someone trusted, a friend or lover, someone we cared deeply about who betrayed us. And when that betrayal is over something crass like money or political favour, it cuts us deeply. We never forget, never forgive our own personal Judas.**

But who was Judas that we still use his name for such acts?

The Gospels are spare in their actual history of Judas, even in his final acts. But a whole body of legend has grown up around the man, his family, his parents, his childhood and, of course, his afterlife. All of which, as Gubar points out, is merely imagined; unsubstantiated by any historical documentation, but become part of the mythology. All of it meant to polish his evil sheen, rather than redeem him.

What’s to redeem, you might ask? Well, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

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Read, Re-read, Repeat

Master and MargaritaI’m currently re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy novel of Soviet life under Stalin, The Master and Margarita. Since this is actually a newer translation than the original one I read many years ago, I’m not sure it properly qualifies as “re-reading.” However, for me, re-reading a novel is uncommon.

I seldom have the time to re-read, because my current reading list never dwindles (in fact it grows as I continue to add books to my library). Plus my interests and not static: I constantly seek to learn new things.*

I always have a dozen books on the go, piled beside my bed in an unruly assortment. Most of these are nonfiction: history, politics, philosophy, science and style guides in particular.

Among that pile are books about books, including a newcomer I added a week or so ago: Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. It’s a book about the joys of re-reading science fiction and fantasy.

I tend not to read such collections of reviews, but when I glanced through her pieces while standing in the bookstore, I was impressed by not only how many authors and titles she has read, but on how many I didn’t know.

I’ve always thought of myself as a scifi buff with a fair bit of background knowledge and reading (not, I’ll admit, as much about fantasy). But Walton’s reading list makes me an amateur who has barely scratched the surface. There are many whose names I recognize, and some works I’ve read, but among the dozens of titles and authors are far too many with which I have little knowledge, let alone have read.

And Walton is re-reading them, That simply flabbergasts me. I’ve always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but she outstrips me as rapidly as a motorcycle passes a pedestrian on a highway.

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Boccaccio’s Decameron

The DecameronI never read The Decameron in any original, or complete translation. I have a bowdlerized edition I read in part some time ago, perhaps the 1970s. I recall seeing an art film based on the book, in the 1970s (directed Pier Pasolini). But I can’t recall it in any detail, except that it was subtitled. I have an old Penguin edition upstairs, its pages yellowing, mostly unread, but saved for that time in my life I felt able to tackle it. Seems that time has come.

This week I found a copy of a recent translation of the Decameron at a local used book store, a revised Penguin edition,  It’s the same translator – McWilliam – as my old Penguin, but he has redone the book with a revised, updated translation and an enhanced introduction. For me, a comprehensive introduction is always a draw because I want to know about the author’s life, influences, style and times.

It occurred to me, as I stood there browsing it this week, that my literary education was severely lacking in not having read it. Which was all the justification I needed to buy it. Well, to be fair, I really need no justification to buy any book. Reading is such a great pleasure than it is its own reward. A life without books would be shallow, indeed. Oh how sad to have only the drivel in the local paper as one’s sole reading material!

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Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraWhile Julius Caesar is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think Anthony and Cleopatra is my second favourite. I know it’s hard to choose any favourites from his plays, they’re all so good, but this one seems to resonate with me more than most others, enough to encourage me to reread it this week.

Perhaps it’s because both lead characters are past their prime (as I am), but – like all of us who have put a few years behind us – reluctant to acknowledge it and still see themselves as their younger selves. In that, Cleopatra shines, while Anthony looks like a guy in a mid-life crisis. In a more modern setting he’d buy a Harley or a sports car. Or, like Anthony in the play, take a mistress.

Perhaps it’s because while they are, despite the irreducible effects of age, still full of passion and life and love. They are also full of doubt and uncertainty: that makes them very human; full of the foibles that love, lust and politics bring. And that’s what Shakespeare does best: brings our foibles to the fore. No character in his works is free of flaws. Nor are any of us – it’s a lesson to remember.

It’s a play set on the cusp of great change: the Roman empire and Egypt are just on the edge of significant and critical upheavals. While Rome will rise in imperial power, strength and glory under Augustus – only called Octavius Caesar in the play – and his successors, Egypt’s greatness is behind her and she will fade after Cleopatra; reduced to a mere province in the Roman empire.

Reading the play is a bit like reading the story of the Titanic: everyone can see the iceberg approaching except the characters in their own story. Yet we cannot avert our eyes from the tragedy in store. Anthony’s comment that, “The time of universal peace is near,” foreshadows both the Roman victory and his own demise.

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Too Many Books?

Too Many Books?Tim Parks* wrote an intriguing essay in the New York Review of Books last week with that title. My first thought on seeing it was to wonder if one can ever have too many books. But of course, Parks – an author himself  – is looking at the bigger picture, not the ever-growing collection that clutters my bookshelves and litters my house. He asks:

Is there a relationship between the quantity of books available to us, the ease with which they can be written and published, and our reading experience?

I worked in book publishing as both an editor and a sales rep for many years, and before that, I worked in bookstores and even owned a bookstore. I understand reasonably well the business and the economics of publishing, and of retail. Because of that experience, I have often wondered these past few years as I wander around in bookstores, how the industry can sustain such output. How many more books on the frivolous gluten-free fad, or cookie-cutter teen-vampire tales, or vapid talk-with-angels books can we add to the shelf before the diminishing return on such investment discourages publishers?

There are more books being published than ever before, and with the internet and e-readers, more ways to access those books; but is that always a good thing? Can we be overwhelmed by the volume of material to the point where we turn away from many – if not all – books?

Can we have too many choices so that we cannot discern the wheat from the chaff?

Yes, of course: all these books cannot be great books; some have to be poorly written, researched or plotted. Chaff exists. A multitude of voices can be a cacophony as well as a choir.

Parks himself asked, in another NYRB piece:

Is there any consistent relationship between a book’s quality and its sales? Or again between the press and critics’ response to a work and its sales? Are these relationships stable over time or do they change?

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