The Gospel According To Tomàs

Extracted From The Gospel According To Tomàs | The Kouros | Jesus Is The Beautiful Boy

Jesus | Kouros | Beautiful Boy | Oliver Peers

Plaza Mayor is tumbleweed. All Spain, hung from the Pyrenees, lapped by the Bay of Biscay, dipping its tongue south, impossible miles away. Representations of God on the Cross formed the subject of a slideshow presentation I researched and presented to them. I worked through the night… It was a rare treat. (They normally don’t want us thinking very much.)

Each of us had something decent – each in his own way. Each student – it was really a pleasure. My idea – it emerged to me… Or I saw it. I listened for it. It found me. It seemed my own conception. Maybe kind of glibly, I called it ‘the squiggle god’.

But that wasn’t it. It was only to see it – and not replete with pulpit-homilies, slow words, turgid hymnals. Just look in ways that words don’t stick. It didn’t seem an original theory. Just – already there. God on his Cross. The beautiful boy – and Jesus, Plato, Praxiteles. The temple – of the Weimar Republic. Any ephebe you could name. The idea was aesthetic in origin. Our assumed representations – our inward constructions – I lack an aesthetic vocabulary. The art of the crucifix being almost-unfailingly non-realistic. So what was it saying and not saying? What did it know?

To admire the disposition of the body – to accept the lithe receptive curve. The ‘S’ running through it. A snake on a stick. The squiggle. First off, it begged questions of verisimilitude – because that’s not how crucifixion works. The crucified man is asphyxiated. Hence they break his legs – if they want him to die quick. The strength gives, all the above-body fails, he bows his head and suffocates. And he’ll look pretty dead then. There are pictures on the internet proving this – victims of war and democracies. Big head on the spindly arms – gravity’s abject fail. No ‘S’ shapes.

So that was the first photograph – to open the human question. That touch of the real seemed necessary. Then it was imaginative representations – our projections – neo-pagan, Christian-imperial constructions – my tracing the ‘S’ on each one of them. At the projection screen, I pratted and flayed, with the date, the research, the authority. I was only meant to talk for ten minutes, but time seemed nothing, once you got into the depth of it. Attis, Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris… Egypt, Greece, Rome… Four photographs of kouroi I had for them. This was what I wanted to show them – the kouros. My heart burned that they see.

I made necessary mention of Moses – of the book of Numbers 21: 8-9. And, of course, obviously, quote John: ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ And mention – Asclepius – cultic rites – the ankh – the eastern Med – life – and all that symbolizes life.

I dropped a beat – missing a tempo. I remembered to offer them the thought that representations of God on the Cross weren’t really the main thing for the first millennium of Christian faith. That in images it was the Risen Lord.

I stumbled and withdrew. I stopped at the edge – right in front of them. I couldn’t say that there was faith in a risen Christ before ever there were Jesus-stories – earthly life. In a moment, there seemed to me the crushing realization, this was wrong. But the door was open, so I stepped through it. I was ready to tell them now. I said:

‘Through the course of the Black Death, the Suffering Lord comes to be of immense significance, indeed representationally paramount. We suffer – How is this? – Why is our suffering? And God corresponds – he is with us. And this creed is brought alive to us, here and now, in our moment of looking. God’s suffering with us – right now – our reciprocal moment in the Cross. So through and around and between us, that plays, that looking, seeing, and our being seen, that relationship. But now stop a second. Why is that like that then? There we go – God, Cross. That lithe turn in the hips. The knees bent here. Some notional weight on the arms. That ‘S’ running through it. If our correspondence here is supposed to be suffering, then why has that reality been softened, smoothed, beautified? These are stylized representations, and they don’t come out of nowhere. There is a history of art to this. It goes back – through Rome, Greece – to the earliest sculptures we have in the ancient world.

‘This kouros is a statue of a young man/adolescent boy. Fairly obviously, we are not obviously seeing Jesus in this yet. It’s a history – pagan art. And whole belief structures channelling into that art, all the while asking itself, what is beautiful? And finding these answers, and we can ask, why? And then it comes through, such that every religious Christian who loves his cross is a part of it. It comes through in Christianity’s first assumption of pagan Rome – and the imperial trappings. And then in the renaissance, as the classical world is reborn to us, it’s all drawn-in again. This figure is more than implicit in the classical philosophies which inform the heart of Christian thought. Plato knew this figure, this idea, and built a whole theory of truth and love about it. And his school is there, in Alexandria, intellectual powerhouse, at the time Christianity is being formed.’

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens is among the most consummate spaces. Through each hall, it is a movement, a chronicle, of an aesthetic. Human being. In the first room, there are kouroi of the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. They are balanced, their step bold, weight planted square, intentionality forward… I met them first before I ever went to Athens.

A large, messy bed in a house-share in Muswell Hill… A big room – multiply windowed – which got the light… A naked friend reads to Tomàs. The book: Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia. Which he’s nicked from a library in Cambridge – which he didn’t attend. Already, I’m twenty one. At first, Matthew lied about his age, to freak me out. He’s twenty. We’re having a friendship-relationship. He wears women’s trousers, has no money, smokes, is strictly vegan, and doesn’t hold hands on the street. He’s new, though for the mid-nineties, it’s very eighties. London’s a bedsit. Maffy’s posh house-mates have been to Cambridge. Everyone’s camping-out. He’s young in a slippy way still, that makes you inadvertently dawdle a wandering hand on different bits of him. His skin’s young. He’s dyed his head-hair black. There are pale freckles. His lips are as a perfect recollection. His pumps foul.

My first time in Athens was six years later. I’d saved Athens to the end of the tour. I went island-hopping – it was the Drachma in those days. That year, I discovered Amorgos, and there ceased to hop. Bad weather turned the boat trip back into a vile event. A long night I was trying not to sleep – outside a bar in Naxos. Then the slow boat – I eventually made port in the middle of the next night, when there were no taxis and rumours of one bus. In central Athens, I fumbled holding my credit-card up ahead of me, as I stumbled in Greek on an hotel lobby with lights and a concierge.

That year, there’d been an earthquake or something. The wing of the National Archaeological Museum I wanted to visit was closed. I tried to persuade – I tried to bribe. They told me the pieces I wanted to see had been taken elsewhere. The second time, they’d built the new airport, and they were re-surfacing Athens for the Olympics, and the whole museum was closed. That was the year, though less young, I watched Greece win the football, on a big screen, out on the boulevard by the Acropolis. By way of compensation, that was the one place to be in the world that evening. The third time, I went with that girl. She was, mercifully, tired. She had a condition. By Athens, I heartily hated her. And the museum was open. It would have been a bit of a nightmare to see it through her eyes.

Though it was far from being a let-down, yet it was ten years and more since Maffy. And that drift of lazy days – slopping around being read to… Natural bodies. Not like now when you cover yourself up! When the face has hardened and the smiles gone. Time, desire, and life – all changed.

Students sat around, on the floor, sketching. And I sat – in anticipation of reverence. I wanted to see them – not the students – the kouroi – how I could have seen them a first time – ten years younger. Maybe that day – but there was hardly a desire left in me. Yet I saw – playing to my own ghost – the textbook. Self-presence marked in stone. And yet remote, immune, of a century. The inward calm – the stilled, the silenced – which, unreally out-projected, in the smile, the chest’s breadth, cared for nothing, in itself abstracted.

Through the rooms, the line passed. Through archaic Greece. Then the classical. One might see it – a locus of subject-identity transposed outwards. The movement – the socially-implicated. From self-identicality – via a lived-desired and the city-state – through the Hellenized into the Roman – removed – abstracted. At Christ it is already remote. By Constantine’s adoption it is out-there.

There is a first known instance of a kouros bearing his weight on only one foot. It is perhaps the most significant moment. A new thing. A difference. Now, upstairs in the conference room, I demonstrated. The difference is that prior to this the weight is balanced – solid. I demonstrated. On both feet. This – then this. Thricely, I demonstrated. So, in representation, a new stance, engaged, receptive, an awakening, youthful, asking questions. A new psychological stance has been instantiated. And it has a date.

I showed them how it is to stand – and I rather enjoyed this. Head of the class – and these monkey-hands. (I was a little boy again – appealing through the terror and the lens of an adult authority to their growth and adolescence and approval.) All grand thoughts, and we’re comical creations. Archaic boy-male. Balanced. Forward-intentional. Self-complete. Then the next thing. Vivid action – sprung. Showed them how, with the weight on one foot, you can lift-up the other foot, wiggle it, yet your upper-body stays quite still. Receptive now and feminized. I struck poses, goofed, and I got a laugh. I should have given them the punchline. I showed them Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s… Can you see?

Leaving the Renaissance – I returned in time and told again how the statues changed – as power displaced from here to elsewhere – this in Greek history – and from the city-state – via the Hellenization – to that whole ghastly edifice – Rome. Who can forget what a thoroughly disgusting world found God – invented Jesus?

They are a nice bunch. I made light of the time passed. ‘Well, there it is,’ I said.

I made that ‘S’ again – with my arms and the rest of my body. Vamping now. Flagging. ‘Sorry, have I…?’ It seemed a muddled and unfortunate close to things.

They said some very kind things while we went down to evening prayer. Of course, the time didn’t matter to any of them. Henry was nice, when we were looking at a picture together, and Henry made the ‘S’ over it, and Henry said, ‘Oh look, there it is.’

I have watched Benedict caressing his crucifix, on his rosary, while we have waited for evening prayer. I have frankly watched him, by no means disguising the fact. It is a lover’s touch, and Benedict isn’t self-conscious who might see. Besotted. Love so fleshy – his heart and his hands and his mouth – spills himself out on it.

Out of time in an abolished space. Jerusalem razed in AD 70 by the empire. Just the place for him. Zion fallen. No extant witnesses. Paul came late and never met him. Just the place for Jesus.

It is comparatively simple to guess how it might have been… And once, in prayer, at the monastery, I laid myself down, in the sun, on the wet grass, in grief and abnegation, saying sorry… Small there, the little wooden body, nailed in the little green place, where sixteen monks lay. Pluscarden. I spread my hands to hold Jesus’ narrow waist, kissed the nails, ran my hands about his shoulders and thighs, said, ‘I love you.’

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