About halfway through Ben Jeffery’s fabulous Quarterly Conversation essay “What’s Next Isn’t the Point: Philip Roth in Age,” he writes, a propos of the novelist’s latest work:
It was my impression until fairly recently that the word nemesis meant something roughly like “arch-enemy,” but in fact this isn’t quite true. More accurately, nemesis means divine retribution; an inevitable penalty or price. The fear it inspires is the fear of what is due and what cannot be prevented—aging, decline, failure, death. Catastrophes.
Recently re-watching my favorite episode of Miss Marple, “Nemesis” (Joan Hickson edition, thankyouverymuch, and I bet you didn’t think I’d get there from Roth), I finally deigned to look up the source of what is obviously a biblical quotation in the letter Jason Rafiel has written to Jane Marple. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.” It’s always struck me; it’s a very fitting quote for what Miss Marple accomplishes (and what Rafiel knows she can do), but almost absurdly so—it is, after all, a little old lady who will let this justice roll down. And it fits in perfectly with Rafiel’s conception of Marple as nemesis, by Jeffery’s description above.
The novel Nemesis, now that I look it up, says that the verse is from Amos, but I’d never read it so I didn’t have much of an idea (though I suspected Old Testament). Amos was not a book I knew at all, so I read Amos 5 in its entirety to find an unexpected context (though I suspect it should not have been unexpected…). The Lord is angry with the Jews:
18Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD,
For what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you?
It will be darkness and not light;
19As when a man flees from a lion
And a bear meets him,
Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
And a snake bites him.
20Will not the day of the LORD be darkness instead of light,
Even gloom with no brightness in it?
21“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
22“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
23“Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
24“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
25“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? 26“You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves. 27“Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.
(New American Standard translation via Biblos.com)
I love the images of verse 19. Who doesn’t know what it’s like to be running away from a lion only to run into a bear? And the second one so much homier. The angry, perhaps even petulant Lord—“I hate…nor do I delight…I will not even listen to the sound of your harps”!—rejects but still demands, delivering at the end of his tirade the line that for me will always also be sanctified by the memory of Jason Rafiel: “righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Boom!
Among the phrases Jeffery uses above to characterize nemesis is “what cannot be prevented”; he also uses the term “inevitable.” This fatalism (nemesis is Greek after all) also connected to another biblical passage I looked up this week because of a pop cultural reference, this time one from the very end of Revelation:
“Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy.”
The helpful commentaries at Biblos.com confirmed my own confused reading of this verse, “that when these events were consummated, everything would be fixed and unchanging” and that “[t]here is nothing more awful than the idea that a polluted soul will be always polluted; that a heart corrupt will be always corrupt; that the defiled will be put forever beyond the possibility of being cleansed from sin.” The knowledge of the immutability of corruption and defilement is horrible; hell is sin. Which, once again, harks back to that Miss Marple mystery and the claustrophobic, sick lives of the guilty parties.