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St. Judas

March 28, 2016

St. Judas

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

James Wright 1959

COMMENTARY: There are several lines of somewhat radical and cryptic theological thought that interpret Judas as a sympathetic if not perversely heroic character. His act of betrayal–freely chosen but also to a paradoxical degree divinely predetermined–opens the door for Jesus: he is sacrificed for the sacrifice, and, unlike the other martyrs, loses absolutely everything, body and soul. More broadly, what does Christianity say about the good deeds of the damned? The good deeds of Judas…or, say, of Hitler (there were surely some)? Or, to take a less extreme example, the good deeds of anyone in a secular age who, out of human sympathy, does good without hope of heaven? Is this solidarity “for nothing” somehow more heroic than that based on doctrine or idealism? The poem provokes these questions–for me at least–without raising any of them explicitly. Less abstractly, it provides a touching portrait of an act of charity which seems all the more charitable by the fact that it is performed by a notorious villain in a moment of despair. The line “the bread my flesh had eaten/ the kiss that ate my flesh” is a kind of inside-outing (as is the “flayed” of the next line) showing this kind of reversal from the hopeless to the humane. This might be my favorite Easter poem–though really more of a Good Friday one.

  1. Steve Helmling permalink

    Have you ever had a look at Simone Weil? A French Jew, hyper-moral, -ascetic, etc. Worked in a Fiat factory in order to share the oppressions of the working class; ate little (wd now pass for anorexic? anorectic?), and died of self-starvation before Hitler’s Vichy accomplices had gotten around to dispatching her “East”. Had she known the facts (abt Auschwitz etc) I suspect she’d have taken a bit more nourishment on board.

    But the reason I write: she had a length correspondence with a RC priest who wanted to convert her to Jesus. She refused, on the good Kantian grounds that securing her salvation wd NOT be a “disinterested” act.

    I wonder what Dostoevski wd’ve made of *that*—

  2. S’matter o fact I have the Simone Weil Reader on my bed-table as I write these words. Could never really get into her–too “romantic” and, yes, moralistic. But “Grace and Gravity” has some wonderful insights. I think it was ol’ Saljov Seasick who got me thinking about Judas.

  3. Chris Penna permalink

    I like the Auden-like, colloquial tone of a lot of the lines and the anachronistic touches of things like forgetting “my name and number.” In fact I like the entire end of the octave:

    My name, my number, how my day began,
    How soldiers milled around the garden stone
    And sang amusing songs; how all that day
    Their javelins measured crowds.

    “Slipped away” is a very apt phrase too for a number of reasons.

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