April 30, 2009


The Bible's Literary Merits (TOD LINAFELT, 410/09, The Chronicle Review)

[James] Wood's description of the workings of biblical narrative strikes me as not only wrong, but as almost precisely the opposite of its real nature. Far from presenting characters who exist solely in the public realm and who are solely concerned with God, the Bible exploits to good effect a genuinely private self in its characters, one that is largely unavailable to readers and to other characters. Biblical narrative consistently, though not slavishly, avoids giving access to the inner lives of its characters, to what they might be thinking or feeling in any given situation, even though that inner life is often vitally important to character motivation and to plot development and cannot always be filled in with reference to God.

The classic modern articulation of this aspect of biblical narrative is Erich Auerbach's essay "Odysseus' Scar" (the opening chapter of his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature), first published in German in 1946 and in English in 1953. Auerbach compares biblical narrative with Homer, describing Homeric style as being "of the foreground," whereas biblical narratives are by contrast "fraught with background." In other words, in The Iliad and The Odyssey both objects and people tend to be fully described and illuminated, with essential attributes and aspects — from physical descriptions to the thoughts and motivations of characters — in the foreground for the reader to apprehend. But with biblical narrative such details are, for the most part, kept in the background and are not directly available to the reader. On the question of the relationship between dialogue and characters' interiority, for example, Auerbach writes that the speech of biblical personages "does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts — on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts that remain unexpressed." Wood, like many readers, has mistaken lack of access to characters' inner lives for a denial of the existence of those inner lives. But the literary convention is for the narrator to report action and dialogue (what the characters do and what they say), and not, for the most part, what they think or feel.

So when Wood writes about David's sexual taking of Bathsheba that "he sees and acts" but that "as far as the narrative is concerned, he does not think," he is at best only half right. David is indeed reported as seeing Bathsheba bathing and then acting to bring her into his bed. David's thinking isn't reported, but the reader is nonetheless encouraged to imagine what David is thinking. After seeing Bathsheba, David pauses and considers his next action: He sends to "inquire about the woman" and learns that she is "the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite." Only after learning those things does David carry out his act of adultery.

Why? Well, he learns that the woman's husband is a Hittite, and so perhaps we are to understand David as having fewer scruples about taking the wife of a non-Israelite. (There is irony in the fact that, as the story unfolds, Uriah in fact proves a much better keeper than David of Israelite law.) David learns too that Bathsheba is the daughter of Eliam, who in turn, the attentive reader will notice, is the son of Ahithophel, one of the court counselors who will soon betray David by siding with David's son Absalom in his attempted coup.

What, then, motivates David's taking of Bathsheba? Wood assumes that David is "instantly struck with lust" upon seeing her. Perhaps, but in fact the narrator never reveals whether David lusts after Bathsheba or not. And it is possible to imagine his taking of Bathsheba as a calculated political act against a rival faction within the court. Besides, lust and political ambition are far from being mutually exclusive. The point, in any case, is that though we are not told David's motivations, he clearly has some.

In biblical narrative, such examples of unstated but important character motivation abound. What are Eve and Adam thinking when they reach for the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? What is God thinking in forbidding that fruit? (Despite Christianity's long tradition of original sin, the answer to neither of those questions is immediately clear, and both prove quite interestingly complex if taken seriously.) Why does Moses kill the Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew slave in Exodus 2? (It is not clear whether Moses, raised an Egyptian, knows that he was born a Hebrew; and so his motivation might range from an elemental sense of justice, unrelated to ethnicity, to a specifically ethnic identification with the victim.) What is going through Aaron's mind when his two sons are burned alive with fire from God in Leviticus 10? (The narrator reports only that "Aaron was silent." Does that indicate mute acceptance? Crippling grief? A barely controlled anger? Pure shock?) Why does Naomi try to send Ruth back to her Moabite family in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth? (Is she genuinely concerned for Ruth's welfare, or does she simply want to be rid of the burden of a non-Israelite woman as she returns from Moab to Bethlehem?)

As those examples show — and there are many, many more that could be adduced — biblical narrative counts on and exploits exactly that which Wood claims not to find: a genuine inner life and a private, complex subjectivity. Again, Auerbach is much closer to the mark when he describes biblical writers' expressing "the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them." King Saul, for example, loves the charismatic David who soothes Saul's demons with his lyre playing, even while he hates and fears the David who is clearly destined to take Saul's throne. And David, many years later, will in turn be torn between his love for his son Absalom and the need to put down Absalom's rebellion, leading to one of his most famous (and rare) expressions of feeling, upon hearing of Absalom's death in battle: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"

What makes Wood's mischaracterization of biblical narrative so disappointing is the opportunity that is lost, the opportunity to have one of our best and most subtle analysts of fictional narrative go to work on our most ancient example of fictional narrative. For whatever else the Bible is or contains — scripture, ethics, history, lyric poetry — it also represents a genuine precursor to the modern novel.

...if the Bible were individualist rather than universal. We are all Adam. No one is Leopold Bloom.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2009 11:39 AM
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