I enjoyed this recent post from Wandering Mirages about the eponymous hero (or something) of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Wandering Mirages concludes that Bartleby is all things at once:
But, in the end, in the tragic and evasive end, the novella had proved itself to be anything but simple and he was none of this and all of this, of course. He was probably the essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers, in the inner life of the other. He might also be the scion of capitalism, a representation of its many wonders, and an idle. early sacrifice at the altar of pacifism and non-violence. He was some mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable. A Gandhi without an audience.
Just before Christmas, I was talking with a friend about Michael Jackson. I’ve been trying to put into words exactly how it is that Michael Jackson’s later life and death were in certain ways inevitable: that somehow, Michael Jackson is precisely what we do to people in the pop age, the age of celebrity cults and ever-massive media. (Ever-massive is incorrect, but I like the way it sounds.) Michael Jackson is our Joker: he was formed by the dynamics of his family and then by the pathologies of the second half of the 20th century. We’re not entirely at fault: the machinations have been moving since the printing press, since cuneiform. But in another way, MJ died for our sins as much as his. Everything odd or evil thing about him was leavened with the grist of our corporate fascinations: in whiteness, in youth, in being thin, in being rich, in child stardom, in the facilities of fame, of fortune over health. That he was born black and poor in 1958 in Gary, Indiana is essential: none as gifted or as tortured would emerge from white suburban basements. Jackson’s migration from black to white was, he said, genetic, but it was also an indictment of our racist predilections and expectations of goodness and beauty. The man who transcended the color barrier on MTV and in popular music more than anyone before him was black, and we demanded greater whiteness. He obliged. Abused in youth and adolescence, this eighth child of the Jackson clan knew a thing about survival, keeping peace, being poor and not wanting to go back, about the weight of family needs and expectation. Unlike our Bartleby, Michael did what he was told. It killed him anyway.
Clearly, I’ve thought of Jackson as a kind of Christ figure for our repulsive age. And Wandering Mirages reminds me that Bartleby may just as well have been The Carpenter, one who is all things to all people, one sacrificed like Jackson on the altar of what the old hymn calls God’s “children’s warring madness.” If Bartleby was killed for his refusals (first to do as he was told, then to protect himself and his interests), so too was this Jesus. While Bartleby may have been “the most essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers,” Jesus came, according to tradition, so that we might see God in one like us. Fully human, he was treated as a stranger. The mirror-Leonard Cohen. And yet he is also, in my experience, a “mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable.”
Michael Jackson was inevitable. So where Gandhi and King. So was Jesus. Whether you believe he was from Nazareth or God or some mystic union of both, the incongruity of his life and message with the power values of the system in which he lived, the system in which we live, made his sacrifice inevitable, subversive, and, for those who find life in him, full of saving grace.
The deaths of Bartleby, Gandhi, King, and Jackson indict us all. So too the death of Jesus. But when Christians talk about his resurrection, I think we mean that there’s a point to unwarranted suffering, to refusing to compromise our core convictions about the economy of justice or the economy of God even in the face of our destruction. This is the power of a flower in a rifle, of one lone citizen refusing to move before a procession of tanks. Of a dying God refusing to come down from his cross, to call down all his angels, as it were. This is holy irony, friends, and a saving kind of subversion.