The Poetry of history
The Poetry of history
The ancient boat that surfaced at the Sea of Galilee might have been used by Christ but do such invaluable mementos serve us in any way other than exercising our fascination?
In an era of tumultuous political developments the world over, the news-value of which can occasionally be rivaled by sensations only from the world of films or that of sports, our attention is rarely claimed by events that are significant, but sober.
The approach of Christmas could probably be an occasion for our attention going over to an event of an ignored plane. A group of Texan archaeologists, working at a site close to the Sea of Galilee (which, in fact, is an inland lake), recovered a boat believed to be “the first from biblical times to be found intact”. Experts certify that its features and the timber used in it belonged to the time of Christ. Such boats plied the Mediterranean between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 324.
The discovery should be exciting not only for the archaeologists, but also for many more. Any memento of a legendary past, associated with personages we hold in love or awe, fascinates us. Not long ago, when a shoveful of snow dug out from a depth of 850 feet in the antartic began to melt at a naval academy laboratory, Rear Admiral James Kelly of the U.S. navy exclaimed, “Lord, we are grateful today for all you have given us, as we watch the melting of snow that fell in the year our Lord was born. We know that was a joyful year.”
Alas, that was not a joyful year. Mothers wept blood as henchmen of Herod carried on the massacre of the innocents, the new-born babies. But we tend to look at the past through eyes brimming with nostalgia and romance and that is pardonable.
I do not remember who – probably a scholar of historical anthropology said that the past is a foreign country. Does this explain one’s fascination for the past which is as exotic as a foreign land is supposed to be unless one’s interest in history is academic? But perhaps the factor that explains the fascination better is our need for an escape, a relief from our quarrel with the present, a trip into a different time. For the more philosophical even among the common people, historian Trevelyan’s observation holds good: “ The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on the familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passion, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow.”(Clio)
Who can say if the 27-foot boat that surfaced from a submerged base was not the same vessel that had once plied across the Sea of Galilee, to and fro, with Jesus on board, as recorded by the Apostles Mark, Luke and Mathew? But that was not a very pleasant excursion. Jesus was tired and he fell asleep in the boat. But as a terrible storm seemed to endanger it, his nervous companions woke him up. Jesus quietened the furious elements, but at the same time, felt rather disillusioned with his followers. “ Where is your faith?” he demanded.
A far greater disillusionment awaited him. Upon reaching the opposite shore of the lake, he exorcised a man possessed by a “legion” of hostile forces and allowed those elements to go over to a herd of pigs. The pigs ran amok and were soon drowned.
As The Living Bible (1971) paraphrases the original: “ Soon a crowd came out to see for themselves what had happened and saw the man who had been demon-possessed sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, clothed and sane: And the whole crowd was badly frightened. Then those who had seen it happen told how the demon-possessed man had been healed. And everyone begged Jesus to go away and leave them alone ( for a deep wave of fear had swept over them). So he returned to the other side of the lake.”
Thus his contemporaries, even though they had suffered in the hands of their demonic neighbor, would rather get rid of Jesus than lose any more of their pigs. The disappointment and embarrassment Jesus must have experienced remain untold, though implied in his instant decision to return to his native shore without any comment.
Had the situation changed over the past two thousand years? Had our fondness for the relies of the great or for objects associated with them, transcended the law of fascination and earned for us any benefit in terms of an elevation in our consciousness? For, that alone has been the prime preoccupation with every true prophet, Acharya and Avatar. Several thinkers have speculated on the possible reactions of the founders of great faiths, if they happened to inspect the orders that claim the rights to fly their banners. While feeling bewildered over the pomp, paraphernalia and rituals unimaginable by them that commemorate their deeds, they may even wonder as to how much purpose their deeds served and for how many! One such situation was visualized by Oscar Wilde in a masterly short piece, “The Doer of Good”. As we know, the miracles Jesus performed included curing a leper, restoring sight to a blind man and life to a dead one. One night Jesus descends on his familiar ground. He is attracted into a festive mansion bursting with luxury. He sees the master of the house lying on a couch of sea-purple, his lips red with wine.
“Why do you live like this?” asked the unexpected visitor. Startled, the young man answered, “ But I was a leper once and you healed me. How else should I live?”
Jesus left the mansion in silence. In the street he saw a young man, his eyes bright with lust, chasing a coy damsel. Jesus stopped him. “Why do you look at this woman and such wise?” he demanded.
“But I was blind once and you gave me sight. At what else should I look?”
Outside the city Jesus saw a young man seated by the roadside, weeping.
“Why are you weeping?” he asked.
“But I was dead once and you raised me and you raised me from the dead. What else should I do but weep?”
The utter futility of achievements, without an aspiration for a growth in consciousness, had never before been stressed so briefly yet so tellingly. Perhaps a discovery stirring in us the memory and sacrifice of the moulders of civilization could be a faint reminder of the need for that missing quality in humanity