Wednesday, December 7, 2011

the challenge of Job

Perhaps Antonio Negri, better than anybody else, is the philosopher who can speak the words of Job in our modern time. The atheist, communist philosopher who spent a good part of his life in jail for crimes he never committed, gives us a compelling reading of the biblical text as a metaphor of labor relations, of relation to power and authority. In Negri's reading Job views God as the Antagonist, as the exercise of an empty and unjust command, as the ultimate abuse of authority, unmitigated by any moral value. In that, he sees the struggle of Job against God as an image of the struggle of labor against capital. At the same time, of course, one reads everywhere in between the lines the more personal suffering of the author at the hands of and unjust and repressive power that locked him away for decades, to eliminate an uncomfortable intellectual presence. Job is "beyond Stakhanov" in surpassing the socialist retributive theory of justice and in his determination to challenge the measure of value, in the face of God's sarcasm. He remains unmoved in his challenge, in calling out the injustice of God, in front of a world of Behemoths and Leviathans. In Negri's words: "Every illusion or utopia of a common measure has dissolved. Hence the relationship is one of conflict, of war."

William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan, Book of Job, plate 15 (detail), 1826

Job has the courage, in the face of immense suffering, to challenge God, to call him out for the brutal dictator he really is, the Great Fascist, the ultimate self centered Narcissist who does not care about what damage he unleashes in the world, how much suffering he causes. Job stands his ground against the omnipotent: first by speaking out and then by holding his indignant silence and not breaking down, despite the immense and completely undeserved suffering that the divinity imposed on him, purely to prove his own indifference to human suffering and total lack of empathy. What kind of a divine being is that? Can't one imagine a more benign divine form? Part of the message of Job is that this is an inevitable part of the structure of power embodied in the divine principle. When Yahweh appears in the whirlwind and mocks Job asking him whether he has ever had the experience of authority that God has, he is precisely making the point: what makes the divine a Great Dictator, an authoritarian principle gone horribly bad is precisely his grip on power, his position of absolute unchallenged ruler. The challenge of Job is at the cost of immense and unbearable pain, of the kind that in all real life situations those who challenge dictators and narcissist rulers are likely to suffer endlessly. Yet, revolutions happen and dictators fall, when finally the lone voice of Job challenging the absolute ruler is joined by the many, until the challenge becomes a chorus of voices so loud and so powerful that it forces change and the absolute God finally crumbles and dissolves.

C.G.Jung also had his take on the book of Job, in his famous "An answer to Job", where he comes out full force about "the evil face of God" and the landmark position of this ancient text as the first open "criticism of God". In terms of Jungian psychology, the evil side of God is the shadow, the fourth person of the trinity or the fourth function of the psyche. Perhaps he has a point there: the exercise of power brings out the shadow, the inner darkness. As Victor Serge recalls in his beautiful novel "The conquered city", about the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, when the revolutionary Anarchists victoriously entered Ekaterinoslav, they carried large banners with the words "No Poison is More Deadly Than Power!". They were right, but if it is so, then an omnipotent God has no other face but the evil face and no other substance but shadow. There is but the evil god and it is the duty of humankind to fight against him for their own existence.

William Blake, Book of Job, plate 16 (detail), 1826

While in the biblical text Job falls short of cursing God, the reader inevitably goes one step forward and recognizes the divine principle portrayed in the scriptures as harmful to humankind. This already happened in antiquity.
In the Gnostic tradition (by which Jung himself was profoundly influenced) the Biblical god is transformed into a lesser god of the inferior world, the ruler over matter, sometime diluted into the plurality of the Archons. This lesser ruler, Yaltabaoth, is "ignorant of the force of Pistis", the higher principle of knowledge who reigns in the higher worlds above the veil of Maya (a concept conveniently borrowed from Hinduism), and whose personification is Sophia. The Biblical god is here a dark and almost malignant entity. In "The hypostasis of the Archons" and "On the origin of the world", the two main texts of the Nag Hammadi library, one finds a very interesting twist of perspective on the book of Genesis. Adam is a lesser creation of the lower gods, while Eve is the higher manifestation of Sophia. They are saved from captivity in the garden of Eden, imposed on them by the ruling Archons, through the serpent (who is the hero in this version of the story), who gives them access to the tree of Knowledge, which is also the tree of Life.

Mondrian, horizontal tree, 1911

In the higher world there is Knowledge, that is where the Science we wish to pursue for its intrinsic beauty resides, the attractive and peaceful world of Pistis and Sophia. Its image reflected on the waters of the lower world attracts all the Yaltabaoths, the power hungry Archons, who see the beauty of knowledge reflected in the pool of water and imagine that they see themselves. They imagine themselves gods because they have the strength of power. They see the embodiment of Sofia and they can only think of defiling her. They live of power and of their own aggrandized self image. In this world beneath there is no more pursuit of knowledge for its own beauty, no more pleasure or enjoyment in the making of science, but only struggle and suffering for those who follow the call of Sofia and eat of the tree of Knowledge, so that they may see the deception of Yaltabaoth, or fake earthly paradises for those who wish to remain ignorant and continue to follow blindly the dictatorship of the Archons.

Antonio Negri's book on Job is dedicated "to the few who did not repent" and "to the new generations". This is indeed what one can hope for: the last survival of resistance that cannot be crushed, joining forces with those who will have the advantage of time, because the omnipotent but not immortal Yaltabaoth will eventually have to disappear and give way to the future. Let Pistis return.