Garry Wills
What the Gospels Meant.
Penguin, 224 pages, $24.95

Garry Wills, translator
Martial's Epigrams: A Selection.
Viking, 207 pages, $23.95

Back in 1961, Garry Wills wrote a pretty good book called Chesterton: Man and Mask. In 1970, he published a pretty bad book called Nixon Agonistes. His 1978 Inventing America was lively, and his 1983 Lead Time was dull. His 1984 Cincinnatus was smart, and his 1987 Reagan’s America was stupid. His 1992 Lincoln at Gettysburg deserved the Pulitzer Prize it won, and his 1997 John Wayne’s America stank on ice. Saint Augustine in 1999: cooking with Crisco. Papal Sin in 2000: burnt to a crisp.

Anyway, you get the picture. Remember the Two Moods of Voltaire? None of the man’s acquaintances could tell beforehand whether it would be the savage Voltaire or the courtly Voltaire they would greet in the morning, and no one, picking up a new essay from him, could guess in advance which mood he had employed in writing it.

Well, that’s sort of the way it is with Wills. If we can’t quite call it the two moods, then maybe we could name it the two modes of Garry Wills. The division isn’t perfect. The 1972 Bare Ruined Choirs was good work from the bad Wills, for instance, and the 1968 Jack Ruby was bad work from the good Wills. But, with his two new volumes in 2008, he has now published thirty-seven books—thirty-seven books, for goodness’ sake, which is surely enough for us to make some generalizations about his writing.

And the most obvious generalization to make is this: If Wills decides that he wants a topic to have immediate political applications—if he decides that he has a dog in the fight—then the result is usually disappointing. If he chooses instead to treat a topic as interesting in its own right, then the result has a reasonable chance of being worth a reader’s time.

It’s always a shame when a writer with genuine talents insists on writing outside the fields in which his talents lie. Wills was a conservative, once upon a time, the incredibly productive protégé of William F. Buckley at National Review. And he was a liberal, after his sea-change in the late 1960s, a darling of the New York Review of Books. But, conservative or liberal, the hunger to matter has been his undoing. Throw out the political half of his books, then throw out the weaker portion of his apolitical books, and you would have left from Wills some truly first-rate work. But, man, thirty-seven books is an awful lot of dross to sift through in search of gold. The best writers make the mining a little easier, don’t they?

Well, yes, they do. The two latest books from Wills are more of the same: Both have a lot of dross and a few nuggets. But What the Gospels Meant generally goes wrong whenever Wills decides that he has found a rock with which to beat contemporary Christians (especially the ones in the Vatican these days). And Martial’s Epigrams: A Selection is fairly interesting—mostly, I think, because all Wills seems to want to do is attempt a straightforward poetic translation of the snippets left by that scurrilous, obscene, and brilliant first-century Roman poet, Martial.

Let’s start with What the Gospels Meant, the third book in a series that Wills began with What Jesus Meant in 2006 and What Paul Meant in 2007. The dedication of this new volume to the late Father Raymond Brown—the leading Catholic biblical scholar of his generation, and a wise and careful man—perhaps explains why Wills intrudes himself less often in this new book than he had in his earlier volumes on the roots of Christianity, to the general improvement of the writing.

What the Gospels Meant starts by dividing the gospels according to what Wills sees as their dominant strain. Mark concerns “the Suffering Body of Jesus.” Matthew is about “the Teaching Body of Jesus.” Luke takes up “the Reconciling Body of Jesus.” And John expounds “the Mystical Body of Jesus.” Thus, claims Wills, “Mark dwells on the meaning of Jesus to his persecuted members. Matthew collects the sayings in an orderly way. Luke stresses the healing aspects of Jesus’ mission. John keeps the divinity of Jesus always in mind.”

Fair enough. This kind of thing is always a little artificial, and Wills’s claim that “all of the gospels” are “authentic” isn’t much answer to those who had criticized his previous books because “I drew indiscriminately from all four gospels to find the true Jesus.” But one of Wills’s aims is to defend the canonical gospels against Elaine Pagels and her ilk—the academics who, in the tired spirit of épater le bourgeois, deny the authenticity of the biblical texts while lauding what Wills rightly calls the “elite and snobbish” gnostic texts of the second century.

The effect is to draw from all the gospels a high Christology and to view them as composed within the early Church by the heirs of believers who had followed Jesus during his time on earth with a strong sense of his divinity and his founding of the Church. Scholars will recognize that the ghost of Fr. Brown looms over much of the book, particularly in Wills’s reading of the Gospel of John. But, in truth, the account of each gospel, individually, is entirely pedestrian: the usual walk-throughs that fill the pages of “Introductions to the Bible.”

Again, fair enough. Such books serve a purpose—but to read the praise heaped on Garry Wills is to think that this pretentiously titled series of works on “What X Meant” will rescue us all from the rot of contemporary anti-Christian (or, at least, anti-Church) biblical scholarship. It won’t. The problem, as the major biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson declared in one review, is that “Wills simply did not know enough to do the job.”

What the Gospels Meant, like the books on the meaning of Jesus and Paul, incorporates pieces of Wills’s own translations of the Greek originals. He started out life as a classicist, and the effort to find new phrasings—to break through the calcifications that have built up around the biblical words—is not an unworthy one. Every once in a while, though, Wills betrays a tin ear. The words in Luke 6:23, for example, which the King James gives as “leap for joy,” Wills renders as “be frisky”—a doggy joy. And in John 1:14, we learn about Jesus’ pup-tent when the Word became flesh and “bivouacked with us.”

The same tin ear is sometimes apparent in Garry Wills’s new translation of Latin epigrams. Martial is something of an acquired taste, I suppose. The better your Latin is, the more you realize how perfect his composition is—though far too often, he uses that perfect composition to say something like how his lover has gotten too old and ugly for him to enjoy oral sex from her any more.

It’s no wonder this translates into English poorly. Like nearly all determined poetic forms, the epigram came to English from Romance languages during the Renaissance. And yet, something in the epigram, unlike the sonnet and the ode, resisted English—or maybe that’s better put the other way around: Something in English doesn’t want to do the epigram. Perhaps it lies in the looseness of English grammar that requires a sentence to tell us its structure clearly, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that rhyme is required in English to show that a short burst of words is poetry, and rhyme requires at least two lines.

Of course, that resistance has never stopped English poets from writing epigrams. Nearly all major poets have turned their hands to the form, but English poetry has only produced three genuine masters of the epigram: Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, and J. V. Cunningham, all of whom knew Martial well.

Garry Wills is not about to join that pantheon. Martial’s Epigrams: A Selection renders Martial mostly in pentameter couplets. Sometimes it works well: Wills renders 8.25, for instance, as “When I was sick you made one visit only./ I hope in time to make you far less lonely.” But the text forces far too many inversions and grammatical awkwardnesses to get its meter and rhyme. “She told me, my misdoubts to end,” 10.40 begins. Okay, you think; sometimes things just break that way. But then 10.41 opens, “Your husband why divorce, who’s doing fine?,” and you squirm a little. And then 10.42 starts, “Your hint of beard just barely is,” and you give up on the translator.

Wills seems willing to take real liberties with the original. It’s a long jump from Martial’s 7:16, “Aera domi non sunt, superest hoc, Regule, solum,/ Ut tua vendamus munera: numquid emis?,” to Wills’s “My house is out of funds—all things I lack/ Except your presents. Want to buy them back?” If you’re going to be that loose with the Latin, why not do it consistently enough to make the English sound like English? Curiously, Wills’s occasional forays into tetrameter work better, as though he works more easily in a shorter meter. Look at 2.20, for example: “A poet’s name is what you sought./ The name, you found, is all you bought.” Or 12:20: “Of course we know he’ll never wed./ What? Put his sister out of bed?”

Ah, well. Some good Garry Wills, and some bad Garry Wills. Where’s the surprise? Thirty-seven books in, and the man isn’t going to change now.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 4, on page 69
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