Contrarianism in Borges's “Three Versions of Judas”
On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol in the stomach. Warhol survived, and Solanas went to prison, as attempted murderers often do. But the New York Times’s Bonnie Wertheim, in the June article “Overlooked No More,” laments that Solanas’s attempted assassination “came to define her life.” Wertheim implores readers instead to attend to Solanas’s “daring” feminist rhetoric. In a tweet that has since been deleted, the New York Times Books Twitter account wrote, “To focus on the shooting is to ignore [Solanas’s] contributions to the feminist movement.”
Wertheim’s unsolicited Solanas apologism is as intriguing as it is disturbing. The natural, immediate reply is the droll claim that murderers should not be platformed by the New York Times. But such a response lacks the gripping novelty of Wertheim’s exhilarating interpretation. Underpinning her piece is a radical, performative nuance: an exhortation for the reader to question any conclusion, no matter how obvious. Even “murder is beyond the pale” cannot be taken for granted.
This audacious call to step back from reflexive condemnation is just one among many. In a now-infamous Vanity Fair piece from 2008, Gore Vidal called terrorist Timothy McVeigh a “Henley-style hero” whose “stoic serenity” had gone unnoticed by the “sadistic media.” The ethos espoused by both Wertheim and Vidal tells us to avoid strong opinions of any kind. Don’t scoff at fringe theorists. Don’t revile terrorists and attempted assassins. Don’t be too hasty to laud or condemn anyone. Don’t anathematize anything: after all, only dogmatism is anathema.
To escape the guttural fray of contemporary politics, many modern writers urge moderation in the face of the extreme. Jorge Luis Borges, renowned Argentinian author, examined this phenomenon in his 1944 short story "Tres versiones de Judas" (“Three Versions of Judas”). This fictional account describes the efforts of writer and amateur theologian Nils Runeberg to pinpoint the scriptural meaning of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Runeberg pens three theologies of Judas, each of which casts Judas’s behavior as an unrecognized act of martyrdom. In sympathizing with Judas, Runeberg attempts the kind of performative nuance expressed by modern journalists like Wertheim. But Borges’s depiction of him reveals a damning detail: his apparent open-mindedness is in fact driven by a lurking dogmatism. Runeberg’s resistance to the establishment is the impetus for his theology, not its byproduct. Borges is telling us that the writers who urge nuanced reflection are themselves spurred on by knee-jerk sentiments. And the increasing charitability of Runeberg’s interpretations is Borges’s satirical warning: performative nuance is a few small steps away from literal sympathy for the Devil.
Runeberg’s pursuit is certainly controversial. His goal is to give a charitable interpretation to Judas Iscariot, the single human person that Christian theologians all agree is damned. A devout Christian, Runeberg has grown up in the Orthodox tradition, under which Judas is categorically reviled. Declaring otherwise is a contrarian act. Runeberg recognizes the capacity of contrarian theology to fast-track him to notoriety and display his intellectual character. As a Judas apologist, Runeberg will both turn heads with his bizarre rhetoric and signal his status—a degree above that of conventional theologians. He is willing to discuss views they consider anathema. He is open-minded; they are dogmatic. He breathes free; their doctrinal commitments consign them to Christological cages.
Runeberg first writes for Judas “a vindication of a metaphysical” kind: Judas stooped to depravity as a means to witness Jesus’s own self-mortification. The backlash against this claim is swift, ubiquitous, and conclusive. However, Runeberg is not convinced. His second version of Judas is thematically unchanged: Judas was an ascetic who “debased and mortified the spirit” rather than the flesh. Radically humble, Judas considers himself unworthy of expressing Christlike virtue, and therefore acts sinfully instead. Of course, Runeberg draws ire once again. His sneering critics now more openly mock the pseudointellectual rigor of his argument, asking why Judas did not abnegate the abnegation of abnegation, and so on. Runeberg, still committed to reframing Judas as a more sympathetic figure (and, in the face of increasing backlash, perhaps identifying with Judas himself), tries a third time. In his final account, Judas, rather than Jesus, is Christ. When God became Man, He became capable of sin: indeed, he became the worst of men. Judas, the Word of God, died a cowardly and ignoble death—but a death for our sins, nonetheless. This “magnum opus,” as it were, receives no airtime at all. It sits on the shelves of bookstores throughout Sweden, snubbed by theologians, who by now wish to engage with Runeberg’s contrarian rhetoric no further. Runeberg views this “universal indifference” as a prophetic golden mean: the fact that his revelation has been neither accepted nor widely repudiated means God is safeguarding its secrecy, waiting for the proper hour. Taking the unexpected obscurity of his work as a divine sign, Runeberg further concludes that he awaits some terrible punishment, recalling the many figures in the Pentateuch who suffered physical or mental maladies upon witnessing the presence of God. Fittingly, he dies in a sort of religious delirium.
Each of Runeberg’s accounts of Judas is ostentatiously, performatively nuanced. This portrayal feels right at home in 2020. “In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith,” Borges writes, “Nils Runeberg. . . would have led one of the Gnostic conventicles.” To echo Borges, I suggest that in America or the UK, in the 21st century of our faith, Nils Runeberg would have written for Vox, made frequent appearances on the Rubin Report, or perhaps co-hosted a podcast with Steven Pinker. Maybe he would have had a LessWrong anon account. Perhaps Dante would have spared him, but Ross Douthat would surely consign him to Satan’s maw.
Runeberg is a figure as enigmatic as his ever-shifting depiction of Judas. One wonders what his driving forces are; they seem to change from line to line. What is clear is his insincerity. Underscoring the narrative is his belief that this project—documenting the real Judas, in some sense—is his life’s work. His discoveries “justified” him; his final book is his “magnum opus.” Certainly, there is an element of religious ecstasy at play here. Runeberg is hoping he will be vindicated, in much the way he vindicates Judas. But a blatant pragmatic penchant for the pursuit of glory is plain as well. To Runeberg, the claims at hand are not merely foundations for history and philology, but for “historical and philological controversy.” He views himself as standing against the status quo rather than simply seeking knowledge. By espousing his theses, tying himself to them, Runeberg wants to turn establishment heads as much for his audacity as for his accuracy.
I say Runeberg’s project is to find “the real Judas.” In this regard, there is nothing unusual about his task. Popular culture consumes criminal biographies with unyielding fervor. Capote’s In Cold Blood, modern biopics of Ted Bundy and Aileen Wuornos, and Wertheim’s and Vidal’s apologetics come to mind. The authentic story of an evil person is fascinating. But the specter of authenticity Runeberg chases is a fleeting false flag. His epigraph—“It is not one thing, but all the things which legend attributes to Judas Iscariot that are false”—tells us that in his manuscript, if nowhere else, the reader will find the seldom-spoken truth about Judas. Yet Runeberg’s contrarian streak is clear. His wildly heterodox conclusions about Judas, Borges tells us, “no doubt preceded the proofs.” The writer’s intention was to make extreme claims, long before he knew how to justify them.
What is striking about Runeberg’s three versions of Judas is their overarching similarity. All are pointedly sympathetic to Judas—in fact, each is more sympathetic than the last. First, Judas is the greatest witness to Christ; next, he is the most selfless of all men; finally, he is Christ. Runeberg is not deriving a new theory in each iteration, but attempting to frame his existing sensibility with a more appropriate allocution. “Den hemlige valsaren,” Borges writes, “is a mere perversion or exasperation [of] Kristus och Judas.” This is the construction of a mythos, the evolution of a narrative—a man trying to find the perfect “spin.” Runeberg is not searching for the correct theological opinion. He is searching for the correct theological machinery that will enable him to defend the moral opinion upon which he has already decided: Judas’s innocence. Runeberg was never seeking to explain or interrogate Judas. He was always seeking to exalt him—and as the surrounding world barraged him with criticism, the writer’s versions progressed from vindicating Judas’ motivation to vindicating his betrayal of Christ.
Any analysis would be incomplete without acknowledging how Runeberg is swept away by his own narrative. As he—rightly—receives backlash for his opinion, Runeberg digs in his heels: his portrayals become more, not less, sympathetic to Judas. Despite his seeming commitment to nuance, Runeberg nonetheless ends up an extremist, an itinerant insomniac shouting at the sky “that he be allowed to share the Inferno with the Redeemer.” To Runeberg, being in Hell but viewing the authentic face of God is vastly preferable to being in Heaven but seeing only a falsehood. Truth supersedes goodness. Runeberg’s writing is a reimagining of the world, in which the true statements are the least palatable and most painful ones. The underpinning masochism is echoed in Runeberg’s delirious awareness of “ancient and divine curses” placed upon him. He, like Saul before him, will be blinded for knowing too much. And yet he must seek knowledge anyway, and use his suffering as a convenient meter of his proximity to truth.
Naturally, this results in a near-complete inversion of our present beliefs: easy and credible claims are lies; the wicked are the just. While Runeberg may have begun his work guided by implicit extremism, by the end of his journey his dogmatism was utterly manifest. Every public reaction to his work solidified his conception of himself as a unique missionary. This development makes perfect sense, though, because his measured “nuance” never was nuance at all. It was simply a shroud for an emotional, rather than factual, dogmatism.
Runeberg defends his apology with pretensions to charity: “the acts of [an apostle] merit the most sympathetic interpretation we can give them.” But Borges implies that Runeberg has deliberately put the cart before the horse. The contrarianism precedes the nuance, not the other way around. He finds an absurd view to espouse, then defends it with appeals to charity. Tellingly, Borges suggests that the genesis for the writer’s work lay in his own poetry: “eternity. . . puts right our useless violence and—somehow—both allows it and absolves it,” a symbolic precursor to his vindication of Judas as the Christ. Runeberg, in drawing theological inspiration from a poetic vision he himself penned, constructs a narrative entirely out of sensibilities and aesthetic sympathies. In a phrase, one would say his feelings precede his facts. Runeberg so wishes to set himself apart from the common theologian that he finds himself sympathizing and ultimately identifying with Judas. Is it his refusal to see a view go unrepresented in the discourse that launches him into contrarian extremism? Runeberg’s motivation is likely more complicated. He identifies with Judas--especially later on, when he too feels anathematized. He seeks fame, and knows that tying his anchor to a shocking opinion may bring notoriety. Furthermore, he distrusts the conventional, easy narrative, using suffering and hassle as a metric of truth.
Runeberg’s weak grasp of the Biblical text is plain. His conclusions are vague, his arguments almost nonexistent. The motivation for his first interpretation makes a blatant argumentative mistake in suggesting that Judas’s identification of Jesus was somehow unnecessary because he was a public figure. Runeberg’s second interpretation, under which Judas considers himself unworthy of Christlike expression, ignores an obvious and useful analogy: Simon Peter’s request to be crucified upside-down, considering himself undeserving to die in the manner of Christ. His third version is the most sophisticated one, although the defense is once more unsatisfactory. For God to become Man does not necessitate His becoming the worst of men, and Runeberg’s oblique claim that he “chose” to be Judas makes little sense. One could imagine a clever defense of such a premise: The incarnation had to be not merely a man capable of sin, but a sinful one. For God, mere possibility is will; genuine capacity requires expression. God tells Moses, “I am that I am,” which can be parsed as “I am He whose nature is to be”—for God, to exist is to express.
But this machinery is beyond Runeberg’s grasp as well as beyond his need. On the fringe, the enemy terrain is well-mapped; all one must do is chip away at clearly marked stones. Runeberg identifies a few paltry objections to the conventional narrative, and takes this as indication that a radically new narrative must be developed. The natural, correct response to noticing a small problem would be to view that one problem in need of fixing, rather than to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Runeberg’s progression from a bare-bones argument to a radical conclusion makes it even clearer that his conclusion preceded his premises.
The relationship between Runeberg and his critics is one of mutual feeding. When criticized for using his de Quincey epigraph, he turns against it, conceding that it is not the case that everything recorded of Judas is incorrect. Some of our documentation is certainly right: “we know that he was one of the apostles.” Runeberg twists this small detail, seemingly a shallow objection to his argument, into further ammunition. Precisely because Judas was an apostle, and thus among twelve men spiritually “singled out by the Redeemer,” our inclination should be to think well of him; his actions should receive the most charitable interpretation from us. He swings pendulum-like between severity and moderation so rapidly that his progression is hard to follow. In critically examining Judas (nuanced), he claims everything ever said about Judas is false (dogmatic), then admits we know essential biographical facts about Judas that motivate charity (nuanced), and therefore vindicates him (dogmatic). Is there any real difference, one wonders, between a writer’s expression of nuance and dogmatism? For Runeberg, the dividing line is hair-thin.
I have no problem with dogmatism or contrarianism. (Slate Star Codex gets it right when he writes, “I thank God for the annoying obstructionists, for the nitpickers, for the devil’s advocates” because those who will always react against anything will certainly react against large-scale injustice.) Nor is the problem nuance itself; certainly it is unobjectionable to entreat readers to carefully examine claims. What worries me is the pretentious air of superiority that accompanies words of nuance and neutrality; the idea that firm belief of any kind is juvenile; the cultural pressure toward universal agnosticism manifested as a moral rather than epistemological claim. The pundits who present themselves as the sole inheritors of logic in a feverish world of dispositions are swept away, just as Runeberg was, to extreme conclusions.
Borges’ introductory sentence rings clear: “In the second century of our faith. . . Nils Runeberg, with singular intellectual passion, would have led one of the Gnostic conventicles.” Runeberg’s underlying disposition toward extremism is not hidden by his arguments or his pretensions to nuance, nor is it shrouded by the seeming sincerity of his opinion or by his slow fade into obscurity. Runeberg would have been a prominent heresiarch in the 100s A.D.; Dante would have earmarked a pouch of Malebolge for him. But, as Borges stresses, God did not place Runeberg at the head of a conventicle. The writer lives and dies instead in a metropolitan, modern setting, where his theological experimentation is given none of the sober gravity it would have been afforded at the Council of Trent. This detail tells us, perhaps, how best to respond to the epidemic of nuance. To Runeberg’s contemporaries, his books constitute a failed exercise in demagogy: “slight and pointless.” No “fiery sepulcher” of Dante’s invention awaits Runeberg now. He is the recipient of a far worse destiny. His provocative rhetoric unexamined, his conclusions cavalierly thrown away, he succumbs to anonymity.
Featured Image: Judas. Painting (1901) by Edward Okuń via Wikimedia Commons.
Tessa Murthy is currently pursuing a PhD in philosophy and is a graduate of Yale College. In her free time, she plays ragtime piano and reads and rereads Borges. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.