April 2015

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

I Am Not What I Am: On Pilate's Wife by H.D.

H.D., which was the handle of Hilda Doolittle from Pennsylvania, belonged to that miraculous generation of modernist English-language poets who unleashed the power of the language, previously submerged under so much rum-tee-tum meter and rhymes that chimed saccharinely like a merry-go-round. If Eliot sang about the subtle damnation of the office commuter and the hesitant conversationalist, H.D. was the priestess of an eros more ancient and terrible than anything found in English dancehall rhumbas:

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

That was her verdict on a Ms. Helen of Troy. Managing the impossible (try it) feat of being both sonorous and unassuming, she also clusters together themes it would take other writers a play-cycle to evoke: the resentment engendered both by sexual rivalry and by sexual attraction and the semi-divine violence that stems from both.

H.D. first began sketching the idea of Pilate's Wife in 1924, when she was in her late thirties, and took five years to complete its 168 pages. She then waited another five years to submit the revised manuscript to a publisher, who promptly rejected it as difficult and listless. Then, over the course of three years, in her early seventies, she revised the manuscript yet again. Despite being showered late in life with literary honors, H.D. did not manage to get Pilate's Wife into print before suffering a fatal stroke in 1961, by then in her late seventies. New Directions published this edition in 2000.

Now, 168 pages isn't a lot. If H.D. had a particular attraction to the themes underpinning the novella, she could have chosen another vehicle for them. She therefore must have felt some strong attachment to these themes' particular expression, in this particular form. And I submit that Pilate's Wife is in some ways a novel that both enacts and depicts the craving for recognition that everyone feels, even if only secretly. It was perversely fitting that this novel, about appreciating one's identity in the eyes of others, remained unnoticed for so long.

*

To backtrack: What prompts a writer to revisit an unpublished manuscript, even though decades of experience have suggested to her that it has no future, no market? Sheer stubbornness, resentment, or perversity, of course. The positive use of negative feelings should never be underestimated. (La Rochefoucauld: "We are often obstinate through weakness and daring though timidity.") But there's another force at work, which is hard to name. A truism has it that writing is its own reward. This saying, like others similarly constructed ("art for art's sake"), seems like only a slippery way of stating that one works for a mysterious end, or a disturbing one.

Consider the unsuccessful career of a very intelligent, very idiosyncratic writer. She fills her proverbial drawer with unpublished manuscripts, writing according to her own lights and establishing her own standards for decades. After several rejections, she becomes obsessed with the idea of her own self-sufficiency. She tells herself that she writes for herself, not for her community or even for posterity; the notion goes unquestioned as she perseveres into old age. Then, while dying of an incurable disease, someone approaches her with a proposal, to publish all her manuscripts after her imminent death. She won't be around to see the triumph of her labor. But does anyone believe that she'd turn down this opportunity to be recognized? That all her bitterness would prevent a tearful reconciliation with her former goal? Everyone senses implicitly that accomplishment is no accomplishment without the ratification of another's admiring, or envious, gaze. Recognition of some kind is the last, ineluctable goal of art and maybe all human endeavor. Even if the recognition remains simply notional, it hovers like a judicial spirit, by turns praising and admonishing.

Even the rejection of recognition seems only to play into its hands. Recognition is both opponent and referee, and yet it denies this equivalence. A parable in a Dostoevsky novel describes a dead man who refuses to walk a million miles to heaven, his punishment for having denied the afterlife's existence. This freethinker declines the invitation to purification via moderate cardio. He holds out mulishly for ten thousand years, his stubbornness dwarfing his entire mortal lifespan; but then, one instant, he rises and begins walking and eventually arrives at the gates of heaven. He becomes reconciled. Resistance lasting ten thousand years or a resistance lasting an instant -- from the standpoint of eternity, the result is the same. I think of the hypothetical writer in the paragraph before. She also refused the heaven of recognition, or pretended to refuse it, but became at last converted.

*

What connection does all this have to do with the plot of Pilate's Wife? First, a review of the source material, such as it is. Pontius Pilate's wife gets a single mention in the New Testament: "When he [Pilate] was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him." Not to give away the plot, but Pilate finds the howls of the crowd to be ultimately more persuasive. Second, in certain traditions, Veronica was the name the resident of Jerusalem who wiped Jesus's face with her veil during the procession to Golgotha. H.D. combines these characters to create the heroine of her novella. To this she adds several other traits. Veronica, like her author, has strong religious and erotic longings which often combine in practice. (In a conversation with a soothsayer: "When Veronica asked her what it was she had found, Mnevis answered, 'The oldest possible -- yet the strangest, most unaccountable thing. A new way of loving.' That, Veronica answered, would interest her deeply.") Veronica is depicted at first as something like a bored socialite who has affairs with men of exotic extraction and is attracted often by their involvement with various Mediterranean-Mesopotamian cults centered on resurrected gods, e.g. Isis, Mithra. H.D. was obviously preoccupied with the overwhelming scholarship showing that a murdered and resurrected god was not a motif original to the Christian story.

Pilate figures hardly at all except as a point of contrast to her various more interesting lovers. Eventually, Veronica, Pilate, and other conspirators decide that, while the crowd must witness Christ on the cross, that their little gang can administer an opiate (the same one, apparently, used in Romeo and Juliet) that will make Jesus seem to die before restoring him to life as after a nice long beer binge.

This tweak to the traditional story is rich with implications. The most obvious, although the least interesting, is that it denies the resurrection -- the tenet, without which, Paul said, all faith is in vain. But there is another more provocative implication. Remember that the messiah, the anointed one, was supposed to have been a king, perhaps of noble lineage, perhaps a capable warlord. The Christian story presents us instead with a carpenter whose few followers disperse with fear soon after their master is arrested. The almost comic nature of this difference has been too little remarked on. H.D. doubles down on the surface triviality of the story by showing that the true architect of the resurrection was a bored, rich housewife -- a horny dilettante.

H.D. correctly detected something inherently novelistic in the life of Jesus. In both the European novel as it comes to us from Cervantes and in the gospels, the insignificant is simultaneously grand and the ridiculous is simultaneously holy. (This is a mood carried over from sections of the Hebrew Scriptures.) H.D.'s task in her novel is to attack the gospels according to their own standards. If the gospels exalt the lowly, well! What about the highborn, implicitly frivolous woman who gets only one line, despite being right about the whole thing? H.D. has Veronica rescue the crucified man and set in motion the next two millennia of European culture. To tell the untold story, to reveal "things hidden since the foundation of the world," is the activity of H.D. as she turns Christianity against itself.

*

Nevertheless, there is a hint of unease in this spiritually democratic practice. A summary would go something like this: We demand recognition for the unrecognized personages of life -- but recognition by whom? Precisely by those resented figures who never noticed us before. And so this demolition of hierarchy ultimately affirms it. We are still slaves because we crave the attention of our rivals. The last line of the novella: "'I am Veronica,' said Veronica, realising at last, that she was that person." And yet this realization was not spontaneous or self-sufficient. She feels her importance because it shares the prestigious glare of the Christian story. Her narrative intertwining with Jesus creates both a friendship and a rivalry: "Almost by some trick of perception, she thought of herself as the creator of this being, who was yet as her young father. He had created her. For a moment, she had escaped -- if only for a moment."

And so it's no surprise that H.D. never gave up on finding a publisher for a novella powered by a deep ambivalence toward publication and seeking the attention of others. The truth is, we both resent and adore those who seem to give our lives meaning. Adore because they seem to have recognized something good in us we suspected was there all along -- but resent because, soon after, we realize our radical dependence on others, which serves only to increase the sense of worthlessness, our sieve-like inability to retain esteem without outside replenishment. H.D. sensed this insight all her life and it appears in many of her works, obliquely but often. This is one reason why she will continue to be rediscovered and read while many of her more gainful contemporaries are quietly forgotten.