Friday, August 31, 2012

The Relic's vision - to see this page of the Gospel living before my eyes

Teodorico finds his relic about halfway through The Relic, and then something strange happens.  He has a dream which takes him to the Jerusalem of the distant past, to a particular Easter Day, “to see this page of the Gospel living and sounding before my eyes” (97).  Teodorico is going to witness the trial and death of Jesus Christ.

A dream with this length and specificity is not really a dream, but a vision.  I have been emphasizing the comedy of the novel, but this long episode is not, a few little touches aside, at all funny.  It aims at something like genuine religious awe.  It is also heretical, but that is a point separate from the aesthetic decision to crack the novel apart.  The vision of Jerusalem fills over a third of the novel.  It is not a digression.

The dream world is thickly described:

A slave, his hair bound by a metal diadem, entered carrying a jar filled with warm water smelling of roses, in which I cleansed my hands; another offered me cakes of honey on large vine leaves; another poured out a strong black wine of Emmaus.  And that his guest might not eat alone, Gamaliel cut a slice of pomegranate and with closed eyes raised to his lips a bowl in which pieces of ice floated among orange-flowers…  I lit a cigar and went to stand at the window. (113)

I picked that passage for the cigar as much as anything, one of the anachronisms that slip into the scene to remind us that something ain’t quite right.

All of this description, of food and architecture and perfumes and sunshades made of peacock feathers, remind me that Eça de Queirós is as usual deliberately imitating Gustave Flaubert.  The Relic, or this one part of it, is Eça’s Salammbô, his Hérodias – he even tells his own version of the history of Herod and Salomé and John the Baptist.  That one is the obvious nod, I guess, but compare Eça’s description of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs to Flaubert’s nightmarish human sacrifices to Moloch:

With the constant austere mutter of the sacred ceremonial mingled the bleating of lambs, the tinkling of silver plates, the crackling of wood, the dull thud of wooden hammers, the slow trickling of water into marble vessels and the blare of trumpets.  Despite the aromatic gums kept burning and the long fans of palm leaves which the attendants were waving in the air, I put my handkerchief to my face, overcome by the enervating smell of raw flesh, blood, frying fat and saffron which the Lord required of Moses as the best gift of earth.  (152)

Eça hardly dwells on the cruelty of the sacrifice as much as Flaubert.  His description of Christ’s suffering, for example, is strong but not sadistic.  The great point of the vision is to historicize the life of Christ, to explain and abolish the miracles of the Church.  Teodorico moves from religious awe to human sympathy.  Fortunately, back in the real world it takes him a while for what he learned to sink in, which allows the comedy to return in the last quarter of the book.  The mix of tones, the social comedy and parody combined with the humane spiritual message of the vision, is pretty strange, an is the great mystery of The Relic.

Dwight covers the same chapter.  It is unusual.

Monday is a holiday for me, so no post.


  1. understatement. This dream seems to both fit with and counter the earlier dream with the devil. Now you have me wanting to re-read this book!

  2. Oh, the earlier dream, that's a good point. I didn't think about that.

  3. Apropos of Eça, I just read this on Dedalus Books' website:

    "Margaret Jull Costa is currently translating the Mystery of the Sintra Road by Eca de Queiroz."

  4. I will patiently wait for Costa to finish that book, then I will wait some more for it to come out in the US, and then I will read it. Good news!