Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1420
At the heart of Apocalypse is one recurring theme: The modern world is in crisis because men and women have lost their power of directly experiencing and participating in the power and vitality of the cosmos. They are cut off from the source of their being. This “long, slow death...
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At the heart of Apocalypse is one recurring theme: The modern world is in crisis because men and women have lost their power of directly experiencing and participating in the power and vitality of the cosmos. They are cut off from the source of their being. This “long, slow death of the human being” began in the time of Socrates and Jesus and continued throughout Christian history. The book of Revelation, however, stands at a crossroad; it contains the remnants of the pagan universe which the Christians attempted to destroy, and it still has power to stimulate its readers, through its pregnant symbolism, into a new way of perceiving and experiencing.
Lawrence thinks habitually in terms of dualities and correspondences; they are the basic elements around which his entire argument revolves. First, he divides Christianity into two distinct and contradictory camps: the Christianity of Jesus and the Christianity of John, the author of Revelation. The former embodies love and tenderness, meditation, reflection, and service; the latter has none of these qualities but stands for the “self-glorification of the humble.” The first is “thoughtful religion.” It belongs only to individuals (mental aristocrats in Lawrence’s terminology) and is the religion of the strong. The second is “popular religion.” It is nonindividual; it belongs to the mediocre masses, the collective self (democrats), and is the religion of the weak. It embodies the primal will-to-power, the dark, frustrated side of the human psyche, which the Gospels attempt to transcend. Lawrence sees it dominating the religion of his day, which he thought was based on envy, fear, and a moralistic, “thou-shalt-not” attitude.
Running not quite parallel to this duality is a duality of another kind, consisting of two distinct ways of experiencing the world: the ancient and the modern. Here Lawrence is the quintessential romantic. He opposes instinct and intuition with reason, emotion with logic. Ancient man, whom Lawrence finds it convenient to idealize, perceived his world with a kind of intimate “feeling-awareness.” His senses were far richer than those of modern man, and he grasped what he knew in an intuitive, holistic, nonsequential manner. He thought in images, not words, and would not have understood the linear, concept-oriented nature of modern thought, which fragments reality.
This shift in the mechanics of perception, which began as the old pagan world was dying and the new Christian world was being born, resulted in a split between man and his environment. Lawrence places this split much earlier than his fellow romantics of the previous century, who had seen it occurring as a result of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, had done. It suited Lawrence’s purpose to do so, however, because it led him into his great, recurring refrain: Man has lost the cosmos. He has lost his connection with the sun and the moon and the stars. A familiar Lawrentian theme, it inspires him to some of the most powerful, and poetic, passages of Apocalypse.
The theme rests on the idea of the correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm, that for everything in the “little body” of man there is a corresponding reality in the “great body” of the cosmos. The belief is common to most ancient cultures and is found throughout the Western esoteric tradition, from Hermetism to alchemy and Renaissance magic. Lawrence expresses it eloquently:We and the cosmos are one. The cosmos is a vast living body, of which we are still parts. The sun is a great heart whose tremors run through our smallest veins. The moon is a great gleaming nerve-centre from which we quiver forever. Who knows the power that Saturn has over us, or Venus? But it is a vital power, rippling exquisitely through us all the time.
Lawrence had little interest in astrology as such, and in fact he regarded the attempt to determine human destiny by reference to the stars as misguided, but he was intensely interested in the vitality and strength that the cosmos bestows upon the individual who flows in harmony with it.
It is within this framework that he examines the symbols of Revelation. His thesis is that the book underwent four stages of revision and transformation before it acquired its present form. Originally, he surmises, it was a text which belonged to one of the pagan mystery religions which flourished in the civilizations of the Aegean before the Christian era. Later it was adapted by Jewish apocalyptists, after which it came into the hands of John, who reshaped it to fit Christian eschatology. After John, various anonymous Christian editors tinkered with it to ensure that it would be considered a fully Christian work.
Particularly interesting is Lawrence’s assertion that the episode of the opening of the seven seals in chapters 6 and 7 of Revelation is a remnant of the seven stages of the mystic death and rebirth in a pagan rite of initiation. The seals represent the seven aspects of man’s own physical and psychic nature. The four horsemen who emerge at the opening of the seals correspond to the four elements of man’s earthly nature, the sanguine (white horse), choleric (red horse), melancholic (black horse), and phlegmatic (pale horse). Astrologically, Lawrence assigns them to the sun, Mars, Saturn, and Mercury respectively. With the entry of the pale horse, whose rider is called Death in Revelation, the myth enters the stage of the symbolic death of the physical body and the journey through the underworld.
Lawrence’s scheme is somewhat arbitrary and contradictory, particularly his equation of sanguine with white (to justify it, he argues that blood is life itself and that the power of life is dazzling, like white light). The correspondence of the pale horse with Mercury, however, is more intelligible, since Mercury is also Hermes, the guide of souls through Hades. In any case, Lawrence has a ready excuse for inconsistencies; he argues that the old pagan scheme has been deliberately altered and made confusing. This enables him to account for the lack of any correspondence between the opening of the fifth and sixth seals and the pagan journey through the underworld. Lawrence suggests that the second sequence of events after the opening of the sixth seal—in which the saved souls, clothed in white robes, stand before the throne of God—is derived from the final stage of the pagan rite, in which the initiate stands before the temple of Cybele or consummates the mysteries of Isis. This new birth should, he insists, correspond to the opening of the seventh, not the sixth, seal.
His point in all this is that for the ancients, the ritual raised the initiate to a consciousness of his divine status while still in his earthly body. Christianity, however, feared the energies of the physical body and underestimated the potentials of earthly life. Christianity therefore declared that rebirth could occur only after physical death, in a transfigured afterlife. This is Lawrence’s principal complaint against all contemporary religions: They are religions of the dead body and the postponed reward.
Lawrence next turns to the episode in Revelation in which a woman clothed with the sun gives birth to the Messiah and is pursued by a dragon. Tracing this to Greek, Babylonian, and Egyptian myths, Lawrence identifies the woman as the great cosmic Mother, which Christianity, with its patriarchal instincts, expelled from its pantheon. The dragon, far from being the evil Satan John wished to make it, is the passionate, vital energy in man and in the cosmos.
No sixteenth century alchemist would have disagreed with this interpretation of one of the oldest symbols in alchemy. Nor would he have been surprised by Lawrence’s identification of the dragon with the serpent, another ancient and potent symbol. Lawrence points out, as other mystics and romantics such as Jakob Bohme and William Blake had done before him, that in itself the power of the serpent is not evil; it becomes creative or destructive according to how it is used.
Thus Lawrence forges his fiery way through Revelation, sometimes inspired, sometimes angry, always provocative, caring little for literary style and refinement. Playing with his chosen text like a master, he fires off enough salvos against the timidity and pettiness of the modern age to shake the most complacent soul. Although the final chapter leads up to a sweeping six-point credo about the relationship between the individual and the state which not many readers will find convincing, the stirring affirmation of physical life in the final paragraphs is Lawrence at his best.