I should probably start out with a spoiler alert. Something along the lines of…STOP RIGHT NOW, OR I WILL TELL YOU HOW THIS STORY ENDS!
On the other hand, is it really a spoiler if the author telegraphs the surprise ending within the first few pages of the book? You can’t really call me a spoiler if the merchandise is already spoiled.
That’s the awkward situation Michael Moorcock creates with Behold the Man, one of his best known works and a defining text in the New Wave sci-fi movement of the 1960s. But is anyone really surprised by the surprise ending here? I don’t think so. Not since Samuel Morse invented Morse Code has anyone done a better job of telegraphing a message.
Here it is: a man travels back in time to meet Jesus Christ. He joins up with John the Baptist who celebrates his arrival. ("I had heard of you. Are you outlawed by Herod?") Members of a gentle religious community flock around our visitor from the future, excited by this mysterious man who has appeared in their midst. Let's even call them apostles…..
Okay you see what’s coming don’t you? Well, if you haven’t figured this plot out by page ten, you need a new pair of reading glasses. And a remedial class on holy scripture.
But give Moorcock credit for chutzpah. Not only does he turn his protagonist Karl Glogauer into Jesus Christ, but he draws on his own personal history in crafting Glogauer. If I apply the transitive property of equality, which I still vaguely recall from ninth grade, to these elements, I end up with Moorcock = Messiah.
Behold the Man is hardly the only Moorcock book to set up this comparison. Our author has shown a devotion to characters with the initials JC, from Jehamia Cohnahlias to Jeremiah Cornell —most notably his most famous hero Jerry Cornelius, sort of Nietzschean James Bond-type, apparently licensed both to kill and to embody nihilism in all its manifestations. All these Christ- like characters in Moorcock's oeuvre seem variations on a theme: on a personal level, they represent an alter ego for the author; on a philosophical level they set up an alternative messiah for the Beyond and Good and Evil cohort. Honestly, I think the name Moorcock on its own would embody this worldview to perfection, but if it floats our author’s boat to add a few pages from the J.C. narrative to his fantasies, that’s certainly his prerogative.
Moorcock enlivens his story by telling it in a discursive, fragmented manner. He mixes in choice quotes from secular gurus—Jung, Wordsworth, Blake—alongside extracts from the New Testament. Moorcock knows most of the tricks of the New Wave sci-fi trade, indeed to some extent he presided over the creation of the playbook, and applies almost all of them during the course of this short novel.
But this tale is also more plot-driven than many of the New Wave classics. This ain't just theology, but a time travel story. Few sci-fi concepts have been so frequently used (and abused). And Moorcock latches on to one of the most problematic elements of the meme, namely the possibility that traveling back in time changes the course of time. Or as the screenwriters of Back to the Future so aptly put it:
Doc: "The encounter could create a time paradox. The results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe!...Granted, that's the worst-case scenario. The destruction however might be limited merely to our own galaxy."
Marty: "Well that's a relief!"
Yes, the historical Jesus does make a cameo appearance when Glogauer travels to Nazareth and tracks down the carpenter Joseph.
"I wish to meet one of your sons. Have you one called Jesus? Can you tell me where he is?"
"That good-for-nothing. What has he done now?"
He meets the young man. "The figure was misshapen. It had a pronounced hunched back and a cast in its left eye. The face was vacant and foolish. There was a little spittle on it lips." What an ingenious idea, that the ethos of Jesus is embodied in the lowly and outcast! Well, not really. Dostoevsky anticipated this concept exactly a century before Moorcock, in his book The Idiot. But you can't really give Dostoevsky credit, because this whole them has been embedded in Christian thinking for two thousand years. The difference in Behold the Man is that Moorcock feels that he has delivered something transgressive and 'out there'—when actually, to a degree that he himself seems to miss, he is aligning himself with traditional Christology.
But this ‘historical Jesus’ is quickly shuffled off-stage. Glogauer is the lucky man who gets to travel to Jerusalem on a donkey, as his followers throw down palm branches in his path. If I had been in this situation, I would have steered clear of that fellow named Judas Iscariot. But if hindsight were foresight, we’d be better off by a damned sight.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.