History for Art’s Sake
by Robert Graves.
New York, Creative Age Press, 1946. 424 pp. $3.00.
Robert Graves himself notes that “many of the historical assumptions made by characters in this story are not necessarily valid,“ and, accommodatingly enough, lists some of these assumptions. But his list is far too modest. As a matter of fact, Mr. Graves has violated all the canons of historical fiction in this latest book of his. What is described on the dust cover as “a novel” ranges—or rather charges madly—over the length and breadth of Jewish history up to, and including, the crucifixion of Jesus, committing many times over such historical errors as Thomas Mann made in his Joseph series, but achieving nothing of Mann’s success. For while Mann overreached himself with respect to the facts, converting Joseph into a moon-worshipper, and compounding an exotic early Judaism out of a blend of Egyptian and Canaanite idolatry, he told a story that draws the reader relentlessly and profitably through four volumes. Graves is simply boring.
It is a relief, however, to notice that Graves is not “Jew-conscious”; he approaches the Jews as if they were a normal people—different in personality but not in kind from Gauls, Englishmen, or Arabs.
Significantly enough, he shows greater sympathy for the Petrine, as opposed to the Pauline, conception of Jesus’ intentions. As a matter of fact, his general approach is closer to the Jewish position on Jesus than is that of the Jewish writer, Sholem Asch. Thus he rationalizes all of Jesus’ miracles and pictures him as the son of a man—quibble as we may with the choice of Antipater, son of Herod, as father. (Antipater is a direct descendant of Caleb, the “good” spy of Joshua’s day, according to our author.) However, this invention serves the purpose of making it possible for Graves to fly in the face of Scripture and portray Jesus as one of the leading scholars of the age, equally at home in Hebrew (at that time no longer a spoken language), in Greek (which the pious shunned), and in the prevailing Aramaic— and adept in magic as well.
His scholarship serves to make Jesus conscious of the mission Graves has assigned him: “to destroy the power of the Female,” Jehovah’s predecessor, rival, and divorced consort, the Great Mother or Triple Moon Goddess, otherwise known in the eastern Mediterranean lands as Hecate or Astarte. (This explains Graves’ description of the Samaritans, whom Jewish tradition considers idolators, as worshipers of “Jehovah’s divorced partner, Ashima the Dove-Goddess.”) Essentially a Pharisee, and brought up in the Pharisaic tradition despite Graves’ teaching, the historical Jesus could never have understood such a mission, let alone dedicate himself to it. Our author may have been “inspired” by the Jewish concept of God the Father; assuming that there can be no affirmation without an accompanying negation, fatherhood must needs negate the ever-present female principle. However, it is only the Christian notion of Original Sin that could see the female as evil.
Graves also rewrites Jewish history to provide an involved dissertation on the matrilineal descent of Jewish royal prerogatives. Since this invention would invalidate Jesus’ claim to the throne of Israel as a direct descendant of Herod, Graves secures the claim in another way: he has Jesus marry (without consummating the marriage) Michal, who is the youngest daughter of a youngest daughter of the royal house of David. The author points up his climax by describing Pontius Pilate, one of the worst of the Roman procurators of Judea, and a harsh, cruel, and vindictive ruler, as a tolerant and wonderfully mild-mannered gentleman, susceptible to Jewish sensitivities and prejudices—and Jesus’ main champion against the Sadducee faction that demanded his death. Pilate, of course, was aware of the secret of Jesus’ birth. This “awareness” changes the inscription on the cross—”King of the Jews”—from a fitting and typical example of Pilate’s scorn of the Jews into a lame statement of “fact.” The scene falls flat, and the invention remains poor history and poorer fiction.
In the appended historical commentary, an apologia unusual for a writer as bland as Graves, we read that “a detailed commentary written to justify the unorthodox views contained in this book would be two or three times as long as the book itself. . . .” By the same token, a refutation of all the fantasies perpetrated at the expense of Judaism and in violation of its spirit, and a critique of the view of Jesus that Graves presents here, would take more space than this novel merits. At the same time, a number of Graves’ inventions deserve comment, or at least recording.
Simon Boethus, high priest appointed by Herod the Great, could not very well have been a ranking Essene and master of all the mystic lore of that sect (and teacher to Jesus), since Essenes were not permitted to hold temporal office. What is more, Herod’s appointments were all made from among the aristocrats, and were in the main Sadducees. Graves talks of two Sanhedrins: one for political, and one for ritual matters. All that we do know is that the Sanhedrin, predominantly Pharisee in composition, was in those days limited to ritual law; while Herod himself—and not the “Sadducee Great Sanhedrin” Graves invents for the job — managed all Jewish political affairs.
In what dream-book Graves found his profound analysis of Pesach (Passover — God passed over the houses of the Jews in Egypt during the Tenth Plague) as a “hobbling dance in invocation of the . . . god” Rimmon of the Canaanite pomegranate cult, “which was swallowed up by the cult of Jehovah about the time of King Saul,” will remain forever mysterious, as will the idea that up to the same time, king-sacrifice and cannibalism were practised: first annually, and then, extending the king’s tenure, at greater intervals, with one of his luckless subjects serving as substitute. This persisted, says Graves, until good King Jo-siah’s time, when it seems that the sages noticed Abraham’s substitution of a ram for his son Isaac: and so cannibalism died in Israel.
There are many other touches that beg to be remembered: since it was customary to tear garments as a sign of mourning upon hearing blasphemy, Graves invents what he calls “blasphemy seams.” And since Graves pictures Antipater, son of Herod, as a noble, pious, kindly man, devoted to his mad father (rather than as the foiled parricide he actually was), there can be only one explanation of that father’s demand for his son’s death: according to Graves, Herod was modeling himself on Abraham and was “sacrificing” his son to Herod’s god, Seth (of the onager-cult of Seth-Typhon), as a propitiary offering and a bid to be cured of his mortal illness. Unhappily for the parallel, Scripture says nothing of Abraham’s being ill. And Jewish tradition, which has little enough love for Herod, never accused him of attempting to revive any ancient idol-worship cult.
It is more pleasant to be able to record that Graves’ view of the respective roles of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the trial and execution of Jesus is a sound one, and it is unfortunate that his strongly worded disclaimer of Jesus’ having preached against the Pharisees as a class, rather than against individual per-verters of Pharisaic doctrine, is almost lost in the maze of historical absurdities. What is not lost is the classic Christian logic that has the Jews rejecting (synonymous with killing) Jesus, and thus earning the curse and subsequent persecution with which they have been honored through the ages.
Graves uses historical events not as a skeleton for his story, but as detective-story clues to reality. And he uses not only established historical fact in this manner, but superstition and folklore as well, and gives equal authority to history and fable and the Talmud and the Church Fathers and Irish poetry and the Toldot Yeshu (a collection of fables recognized as “history” only by Graves). When an anonymous—and apparently non-Jewish— reviewer in Time writes that Graves’ great learning “may enlighten the unscholarly reader, particularly on Jewish religious tradition,” the Jewish reviewer must protest and warn the reader of Graves’ total irresponsibility in his handling of Jewish religious tradition.
It is obvious, however, that Graves’ intention in writing this “novel” was not to compose a historical pot-boiler. Influenced perhaps by depth psychology, he feels, apparently, that the issue between the “rule” of the father and that of the mother animated Jewish religion and political history in a preponderant way, and that the supremacy of the father was there established once and for all. There are certain risks, however, when such a serious thesis is dealt with by a novelist, even if he does not mean to be taken very earnestly. There is the danger that untutored people, like the Time reviewer, will take this invented lore for the real thing and read his fantasy for the sake of edification and erudition.