Literary Review - December 2005 / January 2006
‘Wotanism’, and his analysis of the phenomenon was titled The Third Walpurgisnacht. In the end, as the brown plague crept nearer, and his energy began to fail, Kraus lapsed into despairing silence. The last number of Die Fackel appeared in 1934, the year that Dollfuss was assassinated in a failed Nazi putsch, and Kraus himself died in 1936 – which was perhaps a mercy, since he did not live to see
Hitler absorb his Austrian homeland in the Anschluss two years later. Not a personal biography so much as a cultural study (Kraus’s lifelong relationship with a woman is given short shrift, and his death takes up only half a line), Timms’s work is a massive and worthy memorial, not just to a brave and original spirit, but to the way of life that vanished with him.
B ERNARD G REEN A DIFFERENT SCRIPT
J OHN M ARCO A LLEGRO : T HE M AVERICKOF THE D EAD S EA S CROLLS
★By Judith Anne Brown (Eerdmans 288pp £14.99)
T HISISA very sad book: sad because it recounts a life of early brilliance that ended in frustration and disappointment, and sad because it is the poignant endeavour of a daughter to rediscover and, in the process, rehabilitate her father. John Allegro was the first English scholar to study the Dead Sea Scrolls, joining the international team that was reconstructing and deciphering them in 1953. He was the first of the international team working on the scrolls to publicise and popularise their findings, in a best-selling paperback of 1956. But in 1970, his notorious The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross made him a laughing stock and destroyed his academic reputation. He died on his sixtyfifth birthday in 1988, and in that early and unexpected death, as his daughter remarks, ‘All the hopes and endeavors of sixty-five years simply stopped … all stopped.’ Allegro came up the hard way. Although his father had been commissioned during the First World War, the family’s fortunes did not prosper and he had to leave grammar school at sixteen. It was 1939, and the Second World War gave him his chance. Service in the Royal Navy led to a commission and the discovery of a vocation to the Methodist ministry. Training for the ministry after the War revealed an aptitude for biblical languages and led to a degree in oriental languages at Manchester funded by the government’s scheme to further the education of ex-servicemen. He was in the middle of a doctorate at Oxford when he was recommended, in 1953, to join the small international team of experts working on the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. It was the opportunity of a
lifetime. He was only thirty. Scrolls had first been found by a shepherd boy in 1947 in a cave overlooking the north-western shore of the Dead Sea, at a place called Qumran. Eventually eleven caves were excavated there, yielding the remains of over 750 documents in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Further finds were made elsewhere in the Judean desert. They were dated to the period 130 BC to AD 50, being thus by far the oldest substantial manuscripts in Hebrew and Aramaic. Nearly all the books of the Old Testament are represented among the finds – discoveries of major significance in reconstructing the history of the biblical text. A number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphic books that were already known were also found. Furthermore, texts were discovered that appeared to be unique to the people who had housed their books in these caves, a group who had their own distinctive, apocalyptic brand of Judaism. As the caves were on the hill above the ruins of what appeared to have been a Jewish community that had existed in the same period as the manuscripts, it was quickly concluded that the scrolls were their library. John Allegro arrived in Jerusalem to work on the scrolls just as all these new possibilities about understanding the early text of the Old Testament and the character of Judaism in the era before and during the lifetime of Jesus were opening up. He brought to the task two qualities which made him different from the other members of the team. First, whereas the rest of the team were devout Christians, in most cases Catholic priests, he had lost his faith in Christianity and had begun to be not merely sceptical but aggressively antiChristian. Secondly, whereas the others were content to work very slowly in piecing together what was still being found, he was avid for publicity and was more than willing to put into the public domain conclusions that had not yet been tested by the academic community. Allegro always believed he was fighting clerical obscurantism when he rushed into print ahead of the others; they thought he was a maverick self-publicist unrestrained by due scholarly caution.
Allegro: doing the edges first
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006
In 1956, he produced the immensely successful The Dead Sea Scrolls, in which he not only summarised what had been found so far but identified the Qumran community as a Jewish sect called the Essenes and elaborated their beliefs and religious practices, going on to spell out the similarities between them and primitive Christianity. This was bold but harmless. What was far more provocative to the scholarly community was his gaining control of the Copper Scroll, two rolls of metal that the team in Jerusalem could not possibly unfold or read. He scored a great coup in having it successfully cut open in Manchester, arousing the envy of more senior colleagues, and then brought down a storm of protest on his head by offering interpretations of the contents of the scroll which claimed that the Qumran community had venerated a leader who in many ways prefigured what had hitherto been regarded as unique to Jesus – including death by crucifixion. He became embroiled in controversies about the reading of the scrolls which became increasingly heated. Allegro had invested his entire career in the scrolls but found himself in the 1960s treated as an eccentric outcast by the academic community. He became bitter, convinced he was the victim of a Catholic plot. It was then that he convinced himself that he had uncovered the hidden meaning of religion, and especially Christianity, as a drug-induced fertility cult. The whole theory was based on an analysis of the building-blocks of religious language. In Sumerian, U means ‘god’ or ‘seed’, and IA-U means ‘strong water of fecundity’. This, he claimed, was the basis of words as diverse as ‘Zeus’ and ‘Yahweh’. Adding SHU (meaning ‘to save’) to IA-U, Allegro found
I RVING W ARDLE
SLAIN FOR HIS AMBITION
K ENNETH B RANAGH
★By Mark White (Faber & Faber 323pp £17.99)
T HEFIRSTACCOUNT of Kenneth Branagh’s life was his autobiography, Beginning, written at the age of twentyeight. The second, marking its subject’s arrival at the ripe age of forty-five, is the work of a historian of the Kennedy presidency who has ventured outside his usual field to right what he sees as an injustice to the Shakespearian star. That is one way of labelling Branagh. The fact that I could equally have listed him as a film director, actor manager, fundraiser, playwright, screenwriter, premature autobiographer and lead player in a rock band called the Fishmongers suggests one thing that has fired Mark White to speed to his rescue.
‘Joshua’ and ‘Jesus’. Adding NU, meaning ‘seed’, he found ‘Dionysus’. The U building-block was to be found in biblical words – ‘Elohim’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Elijah’ – and also in the Bacchic cry ‘Eleleu’. These elaborate patterns of largely fanciful semantic relationships formed the bulk of his The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970, which immediately won him notoriety as the man who believed that Jesus’s last words on the cross were a paean of praise to the god of the mushroom. Allegro never recovered. The scholars lambasted the book. The press ridiculed him. He could never expect to be taken seriously again. Gradually his life fell apart, his marriage collapsed, and his attempt to return to the great questions of the scrolls and the origins of Christianity in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Mythin 1979 went largely unnoticed. It was a tragedy for him and for his family. Why did it all go wrong? First, Allegro showed little interest in subjecting his ideas to the scholarly appraisal of more learned, and more staid, colleagues. His thirst for publicity and for money made him too cocksure and too glib. Secondly, he convinced himself that he alone was impartial and objective while his Christian colleagues were biased, untruthful and in a conspiracy against him. It never crossed his mind that he might have been every bit as biased as anyone with his anti-religious zealotry – more so, as he became so immune to academic scrutiny. His daughter has written a very moving memoir which strives hard to rehabilitate her father’s scholarly achievements, but the reader takes away from this biography not so much a renewed respect for Allegro’s brilliance as a profound sadness at its tragic waste.
That thing is the English disease: the impulse to slap down ambition and close ranks against any newcomer trying to join the club. It was fine for Branagh, fresh out of Rada, to achieve overnight fame in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country in 1982. Less than fine when he failed to show proper gratitude to the RSC for placing his feet on its bottom rung; he not only resigned from the outfit but shafted it in his play Tell Me Honestlybefore going off to found a company of his own. As it turned out, the Renaissance Theatre Company was a success, as was the 1989 film of Henry V in which Branagh starred among a cast of leading classical actors whom he had somehow coaxed into the supporting roles. Nobody could say the work was bad. But
Branagh: salad days
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006