Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Madness & Monty Python’s Life of Karl

So…my first thought was of “Life of Brian.” My second thought was about what a marvelously thought-provoking story this was! And I'm sorry I write long posts...I am an English major, after all. >_<

The lines of reality and fiction are very blurry in this story, both in terms of his dialogues with Monica and Karl’s seeming descent into madness. The overlap of fiction and reality seems parallel to how Christianity might fit into our contemporary society. Extremes exist within it even now: on one hand, there are scholastic logicians like St. Gregory Palamas, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas…etc. which people still read and contemplate, and on the other hand there are fanatics, perhaps not unlike the Essenes in the story, prone to insanity because of their intense rituals. This leads to discussion of an issue that any modern follower of an ancient faith must face—should a person believe in the spirit of a holy text versus the letter of a holy text? Where Karl seems on a quest to uncover what the spirit of Christianity means (which is particularly interesting in light of his Jewish descent), Monica wants to dismiss his quest entirely because she relies on the letter, the facts of the historical circumstances under which Christianity developed. Karl’s struggle between the two appears to drive him into madness. My question is this: does Karl’s insanity make his journey any less valid?
It is interesting that Monica, the paragon of logic, is the one who tempts her husband in the wilderness in a parallel of Satan and Jesus. In some ways, Monica seems to fill the role of a temptress not unlike medieval depictions of Eve. It seems that Moorcock is almost making logic out to be a dark and negative force through her character, and yet Karl seems to need her antagonism. He cannot have an honest dialogue about theology with himself. He needs to struggle with her logic. However, Karl imagines the dialogue with his wife to be peppered with value judgments. In Karl’s mind, Monica says, “Okay, Karl, carve your own crutches. Just think what you could have been if you’d have come to terms with yourself” (82). Karl is pinning his own misgivings about himself onto his mental image of her. He imagines her to be disappointed with him on the basis that he lacks logic in his choices. Karl is on a quest for meaning, however, and he argues that logic cannot provide that for him.

When Karl is described as a madman in part IV, it is difficult to know whether or not he is actually mad or whether he simply appears that way to the Romans and the Essenes. He may have gone mad as a result of his mental conversation with Monica, or he may only be described as a madman because he has abandoned his dependence on logic and reason which, in fact, is a criterion for being labeled as crazy, according to Webster’s dictionary (“unreasonableness”). After all, the Romans in the Bible spoke to Jesus as though he were a madman. As Moorcock informs the reader, “Every other man you met claimed to be spreading the message of their god” (85). And furthermore, Moorcock points out the Essene’s perspective on Karl, “He could be a wandering prophet or he could be possessed by devils. It was often hard to tell” (86). That is the heart of the matter, really. A modern reader (and for that matter, a modern writer) will care about whether or not the Messiah is mentally sound. I think that quite possibly, to Jews of that time and place, perhaps it did not matter. Many cultures have dubbed the mad or the epileptic of their tribes as spiritual leaders. Native Americans smoked peyote before receiving visions, those who convulse or go into trancelike states are believed to be having spiritual experiences in a variety of African religions and also in Creole Voodoo, which grew out of those traditions. In Western Christianity, particularly after the Protestant Reformation, there was, of course, a great backlash against “Catholic” mystical practices, which eventually led to negative responses toward visions and epilepsy, climaxing in the Salem Witch Trials in New England.

Monica’s distinction between Western philosophy and Eastern thought is appropriate in the story, because where Western thought would care about the sanity of the Messiah, Eastern thought might adopt a both/and policy toward mental health—yes, the Messiah might be mad, but that makes him no less valid as the Messiah. However, when Karl meets Jesus, and he perceives him to be madder than himself (and rejected even by his parents), Moorcock begins referring to him as “the prophet” (90). Perhaps he had abandoned logic before, but he regains it with despair after he meets Jesus and sees that he is a “congenital imbecile,” unable to utter anything beyond his own name (91). Madness is redefined in the story at this point.

The way the story ends seems to ultimately condemn Karl’s faith in something greater than himself. Moorcock, though he led readers on a journey through Karl’s struggling with faith and logic, ultimately chose Monica’s answer, even though he persistently describes her as cold and harsh. Perhaps Moorcock wishes to believe as Karl does, but is ultimately afraid that Monica’s answer is the truth. In any case, madness is a convenient way to explore alternative viewpoints, because it is as though it excuses everything. People are not held responsible for their actions when they are mad. Perhaps Moorcock is suggesting that Karl was mad from the beginning, to even believe in the possibility of truth behind Christianity.

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