Friday, 21 November 2008


In her notebook, as she prepared to write Adam Bede, George Eliot copied out the following from Carlyle's Life of Cromwell: 'The quantity of sorrow he has, does it not mean withal the quantity of sympathy he has, the quantity of faculty and victory he shall yet have? Our sorrow is the inverted image of our nobleness.'

So. My consciousness revolts from the notion, I think because it seems to me to heroize the pathological (misery, I mean): 'yes, I sit in my room feeling bitterly sorry for myself instead of engaging with the world: my selfindulgence is the mirror-image of my nobleness. The more depressed I become, the nobler I reveal myself to be.' But I suppose, Cromwell notwithstanding, Carlyle is applying, logically enough, a Christian conceptual template: Christ's nobility was made perfect precisely in suffering and death; the last shall be first; only through sorrow is victory possible. How else does God reveal himself to the world except through sorrow? How could that not mean that sorrow and suffering are the purest embodiness of the divine?

There's a false step there, I think, and it's an important one. It is a mistake nevertheless to think that Christ's suffering was the medium for the revelation of his nobility. The incarnation, if it comes to that, was not about sorrow; but it was about ignobility (a carpenter's son, not a prince; hanging out with lowlives and prostitutes, not fine folk; washing people's feet and exploring the abjection of physical existence). Suffering is the mirror of our ignobility, of course; and in that is the divine.

No comments: