Giving form to our ultimate abstractions, ultimate desires, notions that transcend our imagination. Just like the eternal agony of art to find a form for the incomprehensible. What kind of form? A human form. Limited rather than boundless; personal rather than infinite; fragile and mortal.
It is a natural and primordial movement for human beings to enclose their ancient gods into an earthly form. Giving them eyes so that the gods could see; a face so that they could also see them. But these ancient gods did not travel a long way. They are mere signposts of the beginning, unaware as yet of the arch that leads from the earthly, the physical to the abstract and back on the steps of human thought and time. On this road we, humans – I think – have learnt something.
Our first knowledge, our first search for explanations – our first philosophy – was most probably polytheism; the second step led us to monotheism, perhaps that of Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who reformed religion. Our third step towards abstraction was the Mosaic variety; the appearance of the Invisible God in our consciousness, as if on top of a staircase lost in eternity, impossible to be modelled. The story does not end here, however. The arch curves back, ‘someone is walking down the stairs’, as Victor Hugo writes. The story of Jesus is the story of incarnation. Giving form to our ultimate abstractions, ultimate desires, notions that transcend our imagination. Just like the eternal agony of art to find a form for the incomprehensible. What kind of form? A human form. Limited rather than boundless; personal rather than infinite; fragile and mortal. The fragility of Jesus – perhaps that is what touches me the most.
Is it possible to show more, to say more in time – ‘in the rhythm of God’s poem’ – than the boundless, through human form? The image I have of Jesus is the handshake of the infinite idea with our transient nature.
What do I think about the figure of Jesus – let me begin my answer to this question with a legend, an apocryphal but fairly well known one. Jesus and his disciples are walking on a path in a field. They notice the carcass of a dog lying on the path in front of them, already festering. The disciples hastily step over it, disgusted. Jesus stops and takes a look at it, then calls to the disciples: ‘Look, how beautiful his teeth are. How beautiful.’ For me, this is an important sentence, and a very typical one, too. To see in the most disgusting things, not only the carcass of a dog, but all the misery, fallibility and fear that is part of life, as well as death and fate – to see the beauty in all this, to find a detail that resists the repulsive scene, and the fear of it: this I find exceptional and universal at the same time. The figure of Jesus as he is present in religion and cultural history means, first and foremost, consolation, and the resistance to fear which is, ultimately, a fear of death. I find Jesus’s remark not only an aesthetic one; no, it is ethical and philosophical; it involves moral courage and vitality. The festering carcass of the dog and the beautiful teeth – these are the two poles between which human beings exist: fallibility, fragility and death – exhilaration and joy of life. In my eyes Jesus is the hero of fallibility.
Our notion of God has gradually become more and more abstract: polytheism, monotheism, the idea of an invisible God. These are important steps towards increasingly abstract human thinking. However, there is an inherent danger that our idea of God will be dissociated from the human. God will become a superego who includes the sacrality of the superego, as well as the desires and supreme feelings of humans – but will also be alienated from humans and may become unsympathetic and indifferent towards them. The figure of Jesus makes up for this abstraction by leaning back on the arch of abstraction towards human beings; born as a vulnerable baby, in order to express solidarity with human beings, as it were; and not only through his triumph over suffering, but also through the other pole, the love of life, or simply: love.
Tags: Ágnes Nemes Nagy