Saturday, July 23, 2011

SF Masterworks #22: Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man

Our Father which art in heaven...

He had been brought up, like most of his schoolfellows, paying a certain lip-service to the Christian religion.  Prayers in the mornings at school.  He had taken to saying two prayers at night.  One was the Lord's Prayer and the other went God bless Mummy, God bless Daddy, God bless my sisters and brothers and all the dear people that surround me, and God bless me.  Amen.  That had been taught to him by a woman who looked after him for a while when his mother was at work.  He had added to this a list of 'thank-yous' ('Thank you for a lovely day, thank you for getting the history questions right...') and 'sorrys' ('Sorry I was rude to Molly Turner, sorry I didn't own up to Mr Matson...').  He had been seventeen years old before he had been able to get to sleep without saying the ritual prayers and even then it had been his impatience to masturbate that had finally broken the habit.

Our Father which art in heaven... (p. 9)

Regardless of how one feels about the issue, the image of the Passion of the Christ strikes at the hearts of those who behold it in art, cinema, poetry, or even prose.  A Man (God?) hanging from the crossbeams, arms lashed in place with nails through the hands (wrists) and feet.  The agony on his face contrasted with the taunting or mournful crowd.  How could such a person endure that pain?  Why would he choose such a punishment, if such a thing could ever be "chosen" in the first place?  The Passion has left an indelible mark on European and some Asian and African cultures.  Ecce homo – behold the man, indeed.

Michael Moorcock in his 1969 short novel, Behold the Man, explores the psychological rationale that could lead to the imitation of the Passion.  Karl Glogauer, who time travels back to the Palestine of the Christ's ministry and execution, is beset with a range of issues ranging from his parents' divorce to the near-pathological association of his faults and desires with the symbolism of the cross.  Moorcock alternates between showing Glogauer in the "present" of Palestine and the "past" of mid-20th century England.  We experience his trials and tribulations, his struggles with women, his sinking into a sort of messiah-complex where he sees himself as reliving the agonies of the Passion, all in flashbacks that occur around the events in Palestine.

It would be easy to view this story as a simple denunciation of the faith people put in their religions.  After all, the Jesus of this story is not the Christ of Catholic/Orthodox Masses or Protestant worship services.  Glogauer is weak and possibly demented – could this be seen as a commentary on those who are devout?  While some might think this is so, evidence from the novel indicates something else is occurring.  Glogauer is a sympathetically-drawn character; one cannot help but to feel at least some pity on him as he struggles to deal with the neuroses that afflict him.  He is a dynamic character whose ultimate transformation causes the reader to consider not just him but the entire origins of the Christian faith.

Moorcock's story would not work without Jungian psychology being utilized to develop Glogauer's character.  He feels "real" because his foibles, his little triumphs, and his despairs are described so well that readers may find themselves being reminded of their own histories.  Add to this a narrative that flows almost seamlessly from the "past" and "present" and the story works because it does not get bogged down in the mechanics of the time travel or the nature of the conflicts within Glogauer.  While some perhaps would have loved more elaboration, such would only serve to weaken the story with unnecessary digressions; the story works toward an iconic moment and that moment is largely realized because there is no extraneous detail or explanation.

Yet this is not to say that there are times where things seem to be left unsaid a bit too much.  Glogauer's failed relationships with women seem at times to flow into one another without much differentiation between them.  While there is character development, at times, especially toward the end, he shifts too much toward his ultimate role without much in the way of plausible development.  Although it would, as I state above, weaken the narrative to develop the backstory much beyond what is presented here, the occasional transitionary stage during the Palestine scenes might have made the whole even stronger than what was achieved.

Despite these faults, Behold the Man ends with a powerful scene that is easily among Moorcock's best.  It is not a pathetic, wretched event that we witness, but rather a transformative one that serves to unite Glogauer's fears and obsessions into a moving commentary that makes this book a true masterwork of science fiction.  It does not matter if you believe in the Passion or whether you are skeptical that there was even a human named Jesus in the first place.  Behold the Man asks the reader to do precisely that and in the act of beholding, something occurs that makes this conclusion one of the more memorable ones.  Highly recommended.


  1. I think the book is incredibly powerful as for me it asks the question. What is more important, that Jesus existed or that the story of Jesus exists?
    The result is that Glogauer believes that the story being passed on is stronger than the reality of the situation so he endeavours to ensure that in the future everyone hears of Jesus.
    it is an allegorical tale (like the bible?) that is there to show the power of the narrative from the past in creating our world in the here and now, and therefore the future. A highly thoughtful way of getting that across with feeling.

  2. Hey, are you guys still doing this? I'd like to write some reviews too. I've read seven of the unread books recently, and just ordered "Now Wait for Last Year", which is out of print. How can I contribute?