VARDIS FISHER'S "TESTAMENT OF MAN"
PEACE LIKE A RIVER Alan Swallow, Denver, 1957 (316 pages)
The human mind has gone down many strange byways in its time, but few so strange as that traveled by the early Christian ascetics who went out into the deserts to "wrestle with Satan." In this tenth novel of his Testament of Man, Vardis Fisher brings us onto the dry, sun-seared sands of Egypt, where saints like the renowned Hilarion wall themselves into doorless, windowless stone cells under the blistering heat, entombed sometimes for years in their own sweat and waste. Their only contact with the outside world is the passage of bread and water through a narrow opening. Or like the blessed Agios, buried to the neck in the sands for days on end, naked, without food or water or covering for his blistering scalp. Others stand for days on one leg with heavy stones hanging from their necks; or search out the nests of wasps and mosquitoes to subject themselves to their stings. With all manner of self-deprivation and castigation of the flesh do these primitive monks, in bleak solitude or in small ill-organized communities, mostly men but a few women, seek to atone for their sins and compete to achieve the greatest feats of sanctity.
Into one such desert community comes Hareb, a gaunt, dour, tormented man "struggling mightily against his evil passions." He is accompanied by his meek and long-suffering wife, by Mark, an affluent merchant and occasional ascetic, and by Helene, a woman strong-minded and with a skeptical bent, fleeing the latest round of persecution on the eve of the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.
Hareb soon declares that the childish ordeals adopted by other monks are not for him: he will achieve holiness and renown by challenging Satan on the very ground of his evil power. And so he goes into the nearby city to purchase a night with the most beautiful, the most seductive of harlots, Thais, whom no man, it is said, has yet been able to spurn or resist. . . .
The principal impulse to early Christian asceticism was to suppress the allurements of the world, and especially of the flesh. The attraction and love between a man and a woman, the taste of fine foods and wine, even beauty in Nature from the song of the bird to the scent of the rose, were looked upon as part of the domain and powers of Satan, to be used to seduce the soul. Hareb’s personal torments about the evils of the body and the diabolical nature of women have been fuelled by the obsession among many Christian sects that sex is the greatest of sins and that woman is the cause of this evil. Hareb quotes almost all the prominent Church Fathers in his justification for his views. What did Tertullian say? Woman, you are the gate to hell. Clement had said: For Eve’s deceit, the very Son of God had to perish. Cyprian: Woman is the instrument which the Evil One employs to possess our souls. Such views resulted in a condemnation of all sexual activity, even in marriage, an exaltation of celibacy and self-denial. Origen had taken the ultimate step by castrating himself. Ambrose was to declare, Let the race die rather than propagate it with the sin of sexual intercourse. And into the mouth of a desert monk, Fisher puts the later Augustine’s infamous comment about birth: "Inter faeces et urinas nascimur."
Helene, speaking for all women, expresses no end of amazement and indignation at men’s presumption. They believe that Adam was created pure, in the image of God, only to be seduced and corrupted by Eve, dragged down to her inferior level. "With war, torture, slavery and whorehouses you men have corrupted the world, and now you try to put off on women the shame and the wickedness." Men, she says, made Jesus a celibate and required that he be born of a virgin; but she believes that "only women understand Jesus, and of women, only mothers."
Fisher is taking as his main focus in this novel one of the major themes of the Testament: what man has done to woman over the course of history and the effects this has had on society’s well-being. Out of fear of the God/father figure, men have felt an impulse to castration, which is what asceticism is all about. They have been led to denigrate the sexual impulse and consequently women as its source. This has deprived society of the positive effects of women’s sexuality and with it of many of their other virtues. The one which Fisher continually focuses upon is women’s instinctual and practical nature, which has so far been overridden by men’s compulsion to construct abstract principles. The latter are more often than not life-denying because they have been derived from life-denying fears and motivations. The pathological association of sex with sin is merely the prime example.
In the final chapter Helene emerges from the desert with Mark, and together they travel to Nicaea where the newly converted emperor Constantine has convened a Council to settle the doctrinal differences between the mainstream Christian sects. Gaining seats in the public gallery of the Council chamber, they hear the assembled bishops arguing over the dates of the Birth and Resurrection, questions of clerical celibacy and the power of the bishops, and above all the doctrinal matter of the relationship between the Father and the Son within the Trinity, the great dispute between the Catholics and the Arians.
A profuse number of sects, often with wildly different beliefs and practices, dotted the Christian landscape of the first three centuries, and Fisher’s characters in Peace Like A River are often bewildered by the wide variety of beliefs they are confronted with. In all this tangled evolution, the question arises as to what had become of the original Jesus. Even today, biblical scholars still lament that he was lost in the welter of subsequent theology and sectarian infighting, in the adoration of the kingly, risen Christ and savior figure, an entity placed on an equal footing with God. Thus, whatever benefit to humanity that might have been derived from the human, earth-trodding sage of Galilee, whether he was man or myth, flesh or allegory, was soon lost to the institutionalized, remote, heavenly Son that the medieval Christ became.
Amid the Trinitarian wrangling of the Nicean Council, Helene, in the final pages of Fisher’s novel, stands to interject the question: "But I thought the Son was Jesus, and Jesus was a Jew in Israel, wasn’t he?" The exchange continues:
"A Jew!" the deacon cried and choked. "Do you call the Word a Jew? The Word that was in God and was with God and was God?"
"But Jesus was a Jew, wasn’t he?"
"Who is this wicked woman? Does she belong with Arius?"
"No, damn it, I don’t belong with Arius! I asked if Jesus was a Jew. Was he a man?"
The deacon appealed to his audience. "A man, she says! The Word, the unbegotten Word, a man! A Jew!"
"But what about Jesus?"
"Come," said Mark, and took her arm to lead her away.
"But what about Jesus," she said. "Where does he come into all this?"
"I don’t know," Mark said. . . .
With this eleventh and final historical novel, the Testament of Man reaches a shattering emotional climax. The series has been about the history of ideas, especially religious ones; and it has followed the Judaeo-Christian thread because it was central to the history of the western world. After the conversion of Constantine, the ideas of a thousand years and more were Christian ideas, but in choosing his moment to set down within this long era of faith, Fisher has chosen the early 13th century in southern France. For his focus will not be upon the ideas and traditions of the Church per se, but upon how this establishment which permeated every pore of medieval society upheld its ideas and ideals against dissenting ones. This is the age of heresy and inquisition.
The world of the novel is mostly the world of serfs. These tillers of the land are little better than slaves, and the greater part of their toil is for the benefit of their local lord. What little they own and produce is mostly eaten up by taxes and tithes. Their lives are circumscribed by a host of proscriptions designed to protect the wealth and privileges of the nobility. They live in filthy hovels, in a mire of superstition, in appalling ignorance.
But serf and noble alike are discouraged from the pursuit of learning, and most of what can be learned is decreed heretical. From the bishops to the village priests, a policy of imposed ignorance serves to keep society from the means or the temptation to doubt the Church’s precepts, for "doubting is itself heretical." Did not the Old Testament say, In much wisdom is much grief; and St. Paul, If any man is ignorant let him be ignorant? This has been a major theme through the entire Testament: that the development of humanity’s ideas, its search for knowledge and truth, has always taken place amid determined opposition, and that the greatest tyranny people have tried to exercise over one another is tyranny over the mind.
Richard is a young serf who manages to buy his freedom so that he can follow the dangerous pursuit of learning, a lust for which fills his soul. He is befriended by Hillel, a Jewish doctor who enjoys a shaky protection from the Church’s persecution because of his value to the local baron’s health. With his writings on medicine, Hillel represents the budding new branch of science and logic, one struggling for life in an atmosphere of suspicion and condemnation by the clerical authorities. The learned philosopher-monk Abelard, famed for his love affair with Heloise, had a few generations earlier been stripped of his position for claiming that all knowledge was good, and that the key to wisdom was diligent and unceasing questioning. Abelard is Hillel’s guiding light. Truth, and the freedom to undertake its search, has always fought for its life, Hillel tells Richard. The list of those who have died in the quest is long: Socrates, Seneca, Jesus, how many thousands? Death has too often been the price of daring to think.
But Richard runs afoul of one of the village priests, Father Luce, who seduces and then murders because of her resulting pregnancy the young girl whom Richard has hopes of marrying. (Fisher has based this on records of an actual case.) Father Luce—in contrast to the other local priest, the kindly, pious and dedicated Father Raoul—represents the dark side of the medieval clergy, that well-documented picture of corruption, greed, carnality and fanaticism which produced so much condemnation and disillusionment in society at large and led to numerous anti-clerical heresies and eventually the Reformation. When Richard, seduced by the baron’s wife, is suspected of a crime, Father Luce pounces. For his perceived heretical beliefs, for his association with a member of the accursed race rather than any criminal accusation, Richard is drawn into the clutches of the Inquisition.
When he enters the dungeon, the reader descends with him. Not even the renowned historian and historical novelist on the Inquisition, Zoe Oldenbourg [see her novels Cities of the Flesh and Destiny of Fire, and her history of the Albigensian Crusade, Massacre at Montsegur], has created a scene so searing, that so reduces the reader to a harrowed, helpless witness of naked fear and despair. Richard struggles to maintain his sanity amid the suffocating dark and silence and filth, against the descending blackness of the mind. His horrible anticipations alternate with glimmerings of hope and determination, as he draws strength from the fellowship he feels with the men of the past "who had loved the dignity of man and the freedom of his mind more than they had loved life."
With the interrogation by the inquisitors comes Richard’s terrified struggle to remain faithful to his pledge to truth. And because of his refusal to abjure and allow his soul to be saved, he is led into the torture chamber. . . .
Fisher forces us to face a particularly agonizing question. In one trembling moment in his cell, Richard comes to a terrible awareness about human beings. He asks why some men so enjoy the sufferings of their fellows. Such men, he realizes, have created a God who in the Old Testament commanded the utter destruction of his people’s enemies; who granted for the perfect felicity of the saved in Heaven a window through which they could look down upon the tortures of the damned; who, through scripture and leaders like Augustine, compelled the believer to force the unbeliever into the fold, even if it required torture and death. For all of Richard’s fears for himself, Fisher makes us realize that the greatest despair one can feel is not over one’s personal fate; it is a despair over the worth of humanity as a whole. That is the challenge which history, even in our own day, is constantly presenting: how to find hope in a record so abysmal. In the ambiguous but uplifting ending to My Holy Satan and to his Testament of Man, Vardis Fisher tries to instill in us that looked-for hope, a hope that the "light is breaking," that voices of reason and compassion can be raised and welcomed.
The power of this novel would be difficult to exaggerate. Fisher has plainly poured the blood of his convictions into it, and between the lines one can sense that the writing of the final scenes must have been a dreadful drain upon him. Like most writers, Fisher was sensitive to the censorship of ideas and the suppression of people’s minds, and few institutions in human history have been more guilty of such practices than the medieval Christian Church. What is most chilling about this suppression is that it was conducted with the best of intentions; apologists for the Inquisition are always at pains to point this out. The separation of body and soul had become so complete in religious philosophy, a kind of Platonism gone mad, that any horror—torture, entombment for life, death by fire—could be visited upon the material temporal self in order that the spiritual eternal self might be saved from a damnation conceived of as infinitely worse. Correct belief was vastly more important than moral behavior. Richard comes to realize that the implacable, closed-minded inquisitor is not really an evil man. He is simply convinced that his task is to save souls, and to protect other souls from heretical infection. He employs torture not only to gain confessions and to extract information which will lead him to other heretics, he uses it to force the confessed heretic to abjure his heresy and thereby be absolved of his sins before being executed.
The true horror of all this, as Fisher conveys it, is that the suppressors are themselves victims of the same suppression. And when their power reaches into every crevice of society’s mind, into its political and social structures, into its religious beliefs and superstitions, its fears of ever-present death, demons and the afterlife, the system becomes extremely powerful, self-perpetuating and long-lasting. Such a system came together, as at no other time in history, with the advent of a strong and dogmatic institution like the Christian Church during a period when it offered the only stable foundation amid the decay and lawlessness which followed the collapse of the western Roman empire.
History is popularly conceived of as a more or less steady progression of knowledge, enlightenment and technology. But just as the Middle Ages lost so much of the ancients’ learning in science, medicine, geography, their theories about nature and the universe, so too it regressed appallingly in the freedom of the mind and the spirit of inquiry. Historians of the Middle Ages tend to follow two tendencies. There are those who like to portray medieval society, despite its more unpleasant aspects, as a vital, productive system, generating a beneficial conformity of belief and morality, networks of trade and social interaction, the erection of great cathedrals. Others see it in decidedly darker colors. For them it was an age when few but the clergy (and by no means all of these) could read or write, sanitation and personal cleanliness was at its nadir, protection from the whims and exploitation of the powerful, or the tyranny of official dogma and those who wielded it, was non-existent. Superstition reigned; poverty was crushing; warfare, persecution and disease could decimate populations. Cruelty surpassed almost anything in ancient times. In the average mind "Satan was Prince of the world," and life could be summed up as "War, Famine and Plague."
Fisher, drawing on some of the most progressive scholars of his day, comes down firmly on the latter side, and generally speaking the majority of historical novelists after him have followed suit. But have any of them gotten so thoroughly inside the superstitious mind: like that of the woman who eats her fingernail parings and hair cuttings because it was believed that witches could do horrible things if they got hold of them? Or conveyed so gruesomely the filth of home and body, whether of the serf in his hovel or the baron in his castle? This reluctance to wash (and many of the great saints were renowned for it) was influenced by the clerical condemnation of bathing as a sensual indulgence, and by the philosophy of men like St. Jerome who claimed that "if a Christian had washed in the blood of the Lamb [i.e., Christ] he need not wash again." As for the much-vaunted Courtly Love, has anyone so ruefully punctured its fraudulent inanities? People believed in the efficacy of a multitude of holy relics, in a great population of malevolent demons, led by a Devil who could visit young women and lie with them (sometimes producing in his impish cunning and powers of impersonation a baby who resembled the parish priest). They lived in constant fear of the chance word or action which could label one a heretic or lead him on the many paths to Hell. In this life or the next, most men and women literally felt themselves doomed. Fisher paints a numbing picture of a society whose "devotion to God plunged it into continuous sorrow and frantic prayers."
The struggle to throw off this cloak of darkness began in the late 11th century, and it was met in most quarters by a fierce resistance. All science, material advancement, cures for disease—which was regarded as just punishment by God for sin—tended to be condemned as works of Satan. No questioning of scripture or ecclesiastical authority could be tolerated. The Inquisition, begun in the early 13th century, institutionalized this resistance. (On this and other subjects, Fisher’s appended Notes quoting his scholarly sources make for chilling reading.)
The Church’s unyielding stance produced not only an anti-clerical and anti-Roman reaction; there arose across Europe a mix of humanist outlook and a new type of religious philosophy, divorced from Roman authority. Scholars began to praise the humility and liberty of the intellect, the pursuit of knowledge under God. Hillel and Richard are convinced that "God reveals himself to those who inquire, and those who are afraid to inquire he leaves to their folly." In his cell, Richard dreams of a smiling Jesus who says, Suffer all truth-seekers to come unto me. And in keeping with Fisher’s tendency to cast Christian elements in mythically symbolic terms, Richard declares that Jesus represents all good men who come to teach and die for their efforts. The Jesus myth is still alive and vital, serving humanity’s ever evolving needs.
The great drawback which Fisher sees in all institutionalized religions is represented here. Myth degenerates into sterile doctrine. The spirit is stifled by the letter. In a never-ending cycle, today’s heresy becomes tomorrow’s dogma. In its need to impose and control, in becoming a worldly, bureaucratic institution, the medieval Church lost sight of the Jesus idea. For the Church, it was Satan who became the personification of independent thought. If so, such a Satan was "Holy." Fisher’s Testament is a paean to the holiness of independent thought and free inquiry. To Richard, Hillel declares: "Only those can be religious, I sometimes think, in whom the faculties of imagination and intelligence are highly cultivated." Though they are the product of an atheist and humanist, this credo gives Fisher’s novels a kind of quasi-religious atmosphere of their own. Fisher sees in the flesh-and-blood events and ideas of the past the myth of questing humanity, and the engine of that quest as the deep, psychological, ill-understood forces which drive the ‘soul.’ For him, the essence of future evolution must be one of understanding, so that the soul can progress from fear to courage, from neurosis to sanity, from ignorance to knowledge. Vardis Fisher devoted a good part of his life to the Testament of Man in the hope of making a contribution to that "great task."
After he completed My Holy Satan, Fisher went on to revise a tetralogy of autobiographical novels which he had written prior to the Testament and which had brought him considerable renown. Having completed his vast investigation of history, he felt that he better understood his own life experience in the light of the past, and by extension that of modern society. The original four-novel opus was trimmed to a single book, Orphans in Gethsemane; and he concluded it with the story of the research and writing of the Testament itself and the difficulties which the project brought to his life. Reading Orphans after the Testament gives one a further fascinating insight into many of the latter’s ideas and their sources, as well as the workings of Fisher’s own mind.
It is a tribute to Fisher’s integrity and to that of his sources that most of the content of the Testament is as potentially valid today as it was at the time of writing. Some emphases have changed and certain ideas have become more complex, but few of his theses have been undermined and probably none discredited. In many of the Testament’s ideas Fisher was ahead of his time. As he faced the antagonisms and frustrations over publishing, he consoled himself by saying that he was writing for the long term. He may not have been far wrong. Many elements in society are still anti-intellectual and would rather suppress ideas than examine them. We still need the refreshing audacity of Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man and its fearless attempt to explore our heritage.
[Copies of Vardis Fisher's novels in the Testament of Man are difficult to come by. All are out of print. Few libraries have them, and rarely in a complete set. Used bookstores are usually equally deficient. Library archives are more promising, and it may be that your local library would have access to them through Inter-Library Loan programs. Some used book dealers on the Internet offer complete or partial sets, but they tend to be expensive. It is only to be hoped that the Fisher estate, in conjunction with some enterprising and enlightened publisher, will one day see the value in reprinting and promoting this unique literary creation and place the Testament of Man in its well-deserved position in our cultural firmament, a signpost along the lengthy and difficult road in the history of ideas.]