The Lazarus Experiment: Two Lazaruses

Posted by Holly Hirst on March 25, 2016 in Blog, Holly Hirst tagged with , , , , , , ,

The British gothic, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, is full of biblical imagery and engagement with biblical texts. This is hardly surprising, given the context in which it was produced – that of declaredly Christian societies in which the Protestant Church continued to play an important role in both the public and private lives of the nation (whether by choice or tradition). Some writers of the gothic were assuredly not Christian believers but they lived in a society saturated by the religious imagery and thought of the Protestant church. Biblical literacy, by which I mean familiarity with the texts, stories and ideas in the Bible, was inevitably far higher than in our modern pluralistic and predominantly secular society. It is all too easy for critics in this modern milieu to underestimate or ignore the pivotal importance of Christian thought and biblical imagery to the past writers of the gothic. A modern lack of belief in these symbols or ideas can downplay their importance in the narrative as can the simple ‘blindness’ of biblical ‘illiteracy’. However, to understand the intentions of many gothic texts and the issues they are exploring, we must root out these biblical references and decipher their role and function.  This blog series will look at one particular biblical story and character – Lazarus – and investigate the recurrence of this motif and the influence of this biblical tale on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843) and A Beleaguered City by Margaret Oliphant (1880). In this first post, I look at two different ‘gothic appropriations’ of a biblical Lazarus and investigate the idea of biblically literate appropriation versus literary ‘misappropriation’ of a biblical figure.

risen lazarus[1]In the four gospels of the Christian New Testament, there are accounts of two different men called Lazarus.  The most well-known of these is the Lazarus who four-days dead, wrapped in his grave clothes and smelling of decay, was raised to life by the son of the living God.[2]  It was a scene sound-tracked by distraught weeping and mocking laughter turned to astonishment. It’s this scene that is the source of the verse, ‘Jesus wept’[3]; the shortest, and possibly most well-known, Bible verse.  If we were to search for a gothic Lazarus, it would be tempting to stop here.  A reanimated corpse with all its transgression of boundaries – life/death, human/inhuman, the real/ the supernatural – seems typically gothic. Certainly his image has been co-opted by gothic and horror discourse. He is reimagined in gothic tales, such as Lazarus by Leonid N. Andreyev (1906) in which his gaze robs men of the will to live. He is an important figure in zombie discourse with numerous websites dedicated to the question of whether Lazarus was the first zombie. The name ‘Lazarus’ is widely associated with zombies and the ‘living dead’ in popular culture and goth subcultures with the name to such diverse phenomena as the ‘Lazurus’ IRL zombie shooter games and the vampire club ‘Court of Lazarus’ in New York.  The name ‘Lazarus’ in the title of any TV show, film or story guarantees the existence of some motif of horrific resurrection or ghastly creation of  life. Doctor Who episode The Lazarus Experiment (2007) and film The Lazarus Effect (2015) offer very clear examples of this trend.

This modern embrace of the resurrected Lazarus, merely takes the name and the fact of resurrection. It dismisses the original context, meaning and theological implications of the biblical Lazarus of Bethany’s resurrection. It is, in essence, exactly what I do not mean by a biblically literate interaction of the gothic with biblical texts. The gothic traditionally shows us transgressed boundaries to challenge us with these boundaries permeability and shock us with our proximity to that abject other, that repulsed and repulsive thing. The biblical Lazarus, however, is the abject rehabilitated and transformed – the stinking once-man is made man again in the full vigour of health, youth and both physical and spiritual redemption. He is returned to a fuller life. Corruption, sin and its wages[4], death, are undone and defeated. It is the antithesis of a Gothic reanimation.  In the gothic/horror reanimation (or animation) what appears to be recreated (or created) life is death’s victory as it incurs on the territory of its enemy.  The dead or thezombies inanimate crosses (transgresses) the border into life and action and brings destruction and death with it. Zombies [5], for example, are hardly harbingers of a glorious message of regeneration – they are an eternally ravenous horde infecting everyone they meet with their own ‘living death’ or eating their brains.  Gothic reanimations and animations are perversions of the natural order, a blasphemous challenge to God and ultimately the triumph of death. On the contrary, in the biblical tale of Lazarus of Bethany, God’s power is asserted; a new natural order (the original natural order of the world before the eruption into it of the ‘perversion’ of death) is affirmed; God’s ultimate victory over death in Jesus’ resurrection is prefigured by this resurrection; life triumphs unequivocally. The biblical figure of Lazarus and his resurrection story must be changed out of all recognition to be co-opted to gothic use.

Lazarus and the rich manIt is the story of the ‘other’ Lazarus to which we must look to find a biblically literate interaction of the gothic with scripture and a true engagement with a biblical text. There is no need to rip this Lazarus from the context and meaning in which we find him to make him play a gothic role. This ‘gothic’ Lazarus is found in a parable with theological implications for a Christian understanding of the boundaries of life and death, the afterlife, eternal torment, punishment and divine (or universal) justice: a plethora of topics with which the gothic is traditionally connected. We find the parable in the Gospel of Luke 16:19-31 – the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Lazarus sat at the gates of the Rich Man’s palace, destitute, homeless, starving and covered in sores. The rich man enjoyed his life of luxury and refused him even a crumb from the table. When the two died, Lazarus went to ‘be with Abraham’ and the rich man was cast into hell. Now it was the rich man’s turn to beg.  The rich man cries out to Abraham demanding that he send Lazarus to give him comfort (what monumental pride and what a devastating lack of situational awareness!).  Abraham explains the impossibility of crossing the boundary set between hell and paradise at which point our rich man pleads for Lazarus to be sent to his brothers to tell them of the fate in store.

‘Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’[7]

The parable poses a question central to many ghost stories and, in its broader implications, to the wider gothic – What would happen if someone came back from the dead? The question is posed in the parable in the context of faith – would people believe and repent if they saw the dead? In other words, would the supernatural prove the divine? Or, in more inclusive terms, would the supernatural prove the existence of the ‘transcendent’ or that which has meaning beyond this material world? And, would this lead to some form of conviction, connection to this other and a subsequent redemptive change?   The closing assertion of the parable is that this is not the case. It is this assertion that is both implicitly and explicitly investigated in numerous gothic works by sending the dead into the living world with a mission of redemption. In the next post, I will look at how this parable is implicitly referenced and its message explored in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.

 

 

 

[1] Vincent Van Gogh, ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, picture sourced from Art and the Bible, <http://www.artbible.info/art/large/462.html>

[2] John 11:1-44, pp1077-1078. All biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: New International Version, (Great Britain: International Bible Society, 1984).

[3] John 11:35, p1078.

[4] ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus Our Lord.’ Romans 6: 24, Bible, p1133

[5] Picture sourced from We Know Your Dreams , <http://weknowyourdreamz.com/image.php?pic=/images/zombies/zombies-01.jpg>

[6]  Russian Icon, ‘The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus’, picture sourced from Pravoslavie.ru, <http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/74824.htm>

[7] Luke 16: 29-31, p 1050. All biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: New International Version, (Great Britain: International Bible Society, 1984).

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