Measure for measure, it's pounds for me

Click to follow
The Independent Online

'And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." Matthew 5:41. Sermon on the Mount. My thought for the dog days. Imagine it - going a mile more than you have to in this heat!

They don't write them like that any more. They don't say them like that any more, either, now that the modernisers have had their way and every whosoever is become a who, and every thee a you - though it should be plain to anyone with half an ear that a "you" doesn't have anything like the sweetness and intimacy, and therefore doesn't carry anything like the same quid pro quo of obligation, of a "thee". In language is morality. And whosoever would compel thee to think differently is a scoundrel.

Yes, I know Jesus wasn't an Englishman. And I know it's all a translation from the Greek. And I know that we do not fully plumb the significance of Jesus's words on this occasion, nor comprehend how they would have been received by those listening, unless we bear in mind that the mile is a Roman measurement - mille passum, meaning a thousand paces - and that the reference is to the rights Roman soldiers enjoyed in the pre-Christian Empire, or in pre-Christian Israel anyway, to press whomsoever they fancied into carrying their equipment for that distance: a sort of imperial fagging.

If we wanted evidence that the Sermon on the Mount preached politics no less than ethics, then here it is. To the Zealots, that sect dedicated to resistance of the Roman occupation, Jesus issues his warning - cool it! Turn the other cheek, only be wittier about it. Give the squat little bastards what they want and then double it. Confound them with kindness - figli di puttane!

So there is no justification for removing Jesus's words from their context and treating them as an expression of pure and unassociated humanity couched in unmatchably evocative English. Except that that is what they have become. Which is justification enough for me.

We are not averse to a little xenophobia in this column. Nationalism when it has an entire nation by its ears is to be avoided, but during moods of national self-dislike it is a desirable corrective. Whatever vile uses we are putting language to, whatever deceits we are practising in the name of government or journalism - and frankly I am finding it difficult to tell them apart, since media men appear to be controlling both - we were once upon a time capable of framing a thought which was elegant, expedient and moral - "And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain". And who's to say? Maybe once upon a time we were even capable of acting upon it.

The other thing we were capable of doing was relishing our own system of measurement and calculation. Yes, yes, I know all the arguments against believing anything belongs to us - Fahrenheit is named after the Prussian physicist who invented the mercurial thermometer, Mercury is a Roman divinity, and the mile marks 1,000 Latin steps - but the fact is that the accrued associations are ours; the poetry of temperature and distance is ours; the manner in which we signal extremity is ours, no matter that it's Jesus of Nazareth talking on a hillside in Galilee.

Need I labour the point. "And whosoever shall compel thee to go one-point-however-many-it-is-kilometres, go with him two-point-however-many-kilometres that comes to." Try keeping your audience spellbound with that. Had the world gone metric a couple of thousand years before it did, we would not have had Christianity.

The kilometre doesn't work. Never has worked. Put metre or meter on the end of any word and you can kiss goodbye to language as an instrument of music. "I'd walk one point seven million kilometres for one of your smiles..." I don't think so. "Gloucester: Is't not the king? Lear: Ay, every centimetre a king." What do you think? Precisely: you cannot measure authority in metrics. Metre at the end of a word, death. Kilo at the beginning, likewise. "The words expressly are 'a half a kilogram of flesh;'/ Take then thy bond, take thou thy half a kilogram of flesh."

I've never gone with the anti-Semitism charge against The Merchant of Venice myself. The play's dramatic subtlety, I have always believed, defies so blunt an accusation. But have Shylock weighing his recompense like someone working in a delicatessen and I'm not so sure. Too precise, a division of a kilogram. Whereas a pound is simply gestural - a token amount. You can reason with a man who merely plucks a pound out of the air. Does that mean I am arguing that pounds and ounces protect us from racism? I didn't know I was, but yes, why not. In language is morality.

But of course it's weather that's on my mind. Like everyone else I have been sweating through the past week, enjoying the exhilaration of crowded city streets, the atmosphere of party in the middle of the working week, and the excitement of wondering whether this day or that will be the hottest ever. It's nice to break a record. But who can feel that 35C or 37C is a record? 35C is unassociated. 37C reminds us of no milestone - MILESTONE, note. To break a record you have to be around 100. Christ, it's 102! Whew, it's 111 in the shade!

There's no point telling me this is just old fogeyism, and that the young, accustomed to another scale, feel differently. Show me a young person energised by 37. It's not a question of accepting a new system; it's about hearing achievement in language. A hundred isn't just a number - it's a sound with a history of meaning. In 100 you hear all the others.

Just as in one mile extended to two, we hear those famous words ringing around the Mount of Beatitudes.