The Bible’s Literary Merit

I just read this article and thought it was quite insightful on the ins and outs of biblical narrative. It is written by Tod Linafelt.

From the issue dated April 10, 2009
The Bible’s Literary Merits


It is hard to deny that in many respects the Bible is the most unliterary work of literature that we have. Saint Augustine, already in the late fourth century AD, confessed that biblical style exhibits “the lowest of language” and had seemed to him, before his conversion, “unworthy of comparison with the dignity of Cicero.” It is easy to see what he means. Biblical narrative especially (things are different with biblical poetry) tends to work with a very limited vocabulary and consistently avoids metaphors and other sorts of figurative language, evincing a drastically stripped-down manner of storytelling that can seem the very antithesis of style.

Then, readers have not traditionally gone to the Bible in search of literary artfulness but rather for its religious value — that is, as a source of theology (What can we learn about God?) or of ethics (What can we learn about morality?). For Augustine, as for so many religious readers after him, the Bible’s theological truths and ethical teachings won out over its literary art or lack thereof.

Recent years, however, have seen great advances in our understanding of the particular literary — as distinct from religious — resources of biblical narrative and biblical poetry. So it is perhaps less surprising than it might seem that James Wood, in his recent book focusing on the workings of fictional narrative and the rise of the modern novel, spends quite a bit of time on the Bible. Wood has been chief literary critic at The Guardian and a senior editor and in-house book critic at The New Republic, and he is now a staff writer at The New Yorker. He also holds the post of professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University. The appearance of his book How Fiction Works (published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) made about as big a splash as any work of literary criticism can be expected to these days.

For professional biblical scholars like myself, who work in a literary vein, it is good to see a critic as accomplished as Wood take seriously the literary art of the Bible in such a public way. At the same time, Wood’s treatment of the Bible demonstrates just how difficult it is for even the most discerning of readers to recognize the distinctive literary art of biblical narrative, since Wood, I am sorry to say, gets the Bible very much wrong.

It is in a key chapter of How Fiction Works, titled “A Brief History of Consciousness,” that Wood treats biblical narrative in the most detail, comparing King David with Macbeth and with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. As the title of the chapter indicates, Wood wants to trace the development of the representation of consciousness in literary characters. He begins with relatively simple, ancient characters (“religious lives and biographies of saints and holy men”), who may be vividly drawn and interesting but who give no evidence of a depth of consciousness or a complexity of motivation. He culminates with the complex, layered consciousness of the “deep, self-divided characters” represented in the best of novelistic fiction. And the Bible, for Wood, belongs pretty clearly in the former camp.

Wood frames his discussion in this chapter in terms of “who a character is seen by.” He seems to mean by that the extent to which the inner life of a character is available to be “seen.” David, on Wood’s reading, is seen by God but has no real inner life that might be represented. “David is opaque to us,” writes Wood, “precisely because he is transparent to God, who is his real audience.” David exists for Wood as an entirely “public” character, with “no privacy,” “no memory” that might impinge on his consciousness, and “no inner thoughts” or “subjectivity.” In short, David has “no mind to speak of.”

Macbeth, by contrast, is seen by the audience, which has replaced the God with whom David was supposedly concerned. So David’s “prayers” become Macbeth’s “soliloquies,” revealing to the audience his mental and moral agitation. And according to Wood, Macbeth, unlike David, is the “possessor of a memory.” Macbeth essentially thinks out loud, and in so doing reveals a consciousness that is “retrospective,” cognizant of a lived past that encroaches on the present.

But it is only when we arrive at the modern novel, with Raskolnikov as an illustrative character, that we have truly arrived at full, complex inner life and a full representation of consciousness. While David had no inner life to be represented, and Macbeth’s was tied to the spoken-out-loud soliloquy, Raskolnikov’s is laid open to unmediated scrutiny. The all-seeing reader has replaced both God and the theatrical audience.

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.

Jane Smiley, in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf, 2005), gives this basic definition: “A novel is a (1) lengthy, (2) written, (3) prose, (4) narrative with a (5) protagonist.” One may nuance the definition, but that is a pretty common one. And classical biblical narrative brings together all those elements, probably for the first time in literary history. Indeed, the Bible contains, in the books of Genesis and Samuel, what is very likely the earliest ever extended prose narratives, presenting protagonists who develop and change over the course of a lifetime and who, contra Wood, demonstrate a genuine sense of a past that impinges on their present.

There are more-ancient narratives, of course, including the well-known and justifiably celebrated Epic of Gilgamesh and the lesser-known Ugaritic (or Canaanite) epics; but those ancient epics, like The Iliad and The Odyssey, take the form of verse and not prose, and their protagonists seem to body forth the same essential character traits in whatever situation they find themselves. Thus, Auerbach can write of Homeric heroes that their “destinies are clearly defined” and they “wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives,” whereas biblical characters are often portrayed as carrying the weight of a lived past, opening out into an uncertain future.

Robert S. Kawashima, in his important book Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode (Indiana University Press, 2004), has shown how the emergence in ancient Israel of a third-person prose narrator — as distinct from the first-person singer, or rhapsode, of epic poetry — is a major technical innovation. The flexibility of this new prose medium allows for, among other things, the representation of consciousness in literary characters. Sometimes designated by the French phrase style indirect libre, the German erlebte Rede, or the English “free indirect style,” represented consciousness essentially collapses the distance between third-person narration and the direct discourse attributed to a character, allowing readers access to the inner life of characters without having to “quote” either their speech or their thought. Given the reticence of biblical narrators to make such inner life available in an extended way, however, the technique is used sparingly and briefly, usually as an indicator of figural perspective, so that we briefly “see” a scene through a character’s eyes or, to use Kawashima’s language, as it registers on the character’s consciousness. Such perspectival shifts contribute to the sense of a depth of consciousness in biblical characters and, as Kawashima makes clear, are unavailable to a traditional epic poet, for whom there is only ever a single perspective — that of the singer of the tale.

Wood’s book opens with a lucid and helpful discussion of free indirect style, rightly emphasizing its importance for the specific effects achieved by the novel. He seems unaware, however, that ancient Hebrew authors, writing close to three millennia ago, had already developed the linguistic resources to represent consciousness. Such an awareness would have made it much harder for Wood to mischaracterize biblical figures as transparently pious figures, lacking in depth of thought and consciousness.

How is it that such an astute reader as James Wood can overlook much of what is most distinctive in the literary art of biblical narrative? Part of the answer lies, I suspect, in his emphasis in How Fiction Works on what he calls “thisness.” “By thisness,” Wood writes, “I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” Beginning in the 18th-century novel, the description of seemingly insignificant details — the pungent smell of a character’s cigar, the wax picked up from the dance floor by a pair of slippers, the greasiness of a minor character’s hair — lends an aura of realism to fictional narrative. According to Wood, “if the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style, it can no less be told as the rise of detail.” If the Bible manifests the first of those, as I have argued, it is true that it lacks the second, the “thisness” of detail, rarely describing either objects or characters and including very little in the way of specifics not strictly necessary to the plot.

That should not be mistaken for the absence of style but should be recognized as a particular style, one that pushes the reader’s attentions from the foreground, where such details might be described and where character motivation might be made explicit, to the background, where objects are dimly perceived and motivations left unexpressed.

Beyond the question of style, however, it seems clear that Wood, like so many readers of the Bible, simply expects the Bible to be dominated by thoroughly religious concerns, to the exclusion of any literary artfulness, and then proceeds to find those concerns even where they seem not to be. How else to explain his claim that David, lacking inner thoughts, “speaks to God, and his soliloquies are prayers,” when in fact the books of Samuel record, over some three dozen chapters, only two or three prayers of David’s, the longest of which (in II Samuel 22) is more notable for its poetic line articulation, its metaphorical imagery, and its claim to martial prowess than for any spiritual content? Or the idea, quoted above, that David’s “opaqueness” as a character is due to his transparency to God, “who is his real audience”? Even if God were David’s “real audience” within the world of the story (an assumption that I do not think actually holds, since David is consistently portrayed as artfully playing to his various human audiences), as a literary character his audience is, as with any literary character, the reader.

And what can be made of Wood’s homiletically tinged statement that David has “no past, to speak of, and no memory, for it is God’s memory that counts, which never forgets”? It is hard to imagine such a statement arising naturally from a close reading of the grittily realistic story of David. For example, the failing and bitter king shows an unrelenting memory when, on his deathbed in the first chapter of II Kings, he bids his son Solomon to murder the minor character Shimei, who made the mistake of publicly calling David a usurper and “a man of blood” some 15 chapters and many years earlier in the story. David himself had pledged not to kill Shimei, no doubt for political reasons, but he has not forgotten the slight, and he trusts that his equally ruthless son will settle this old score. Alas for Shimei, Wood is quite wrong in his claim that David has “no memory,” as Solomon arranges the murder after David’s death.

One does not need to deny the theological and ethical content of the Bible in order to recognize its distinctive and intentional literary style. It is true that the Bible is religious literature, but it is no less true that it is religious literature. As such, it may be read not only as a foil to Flaubert (and other novelists) but also as a precursor. Not all of the Bible’s narratives (or its poetry, which works with a very different set of conventions and techniques) are equally compelling or equally artful; but the best of them both demand and reward the sort of close literary attention that Wood gives to modern novelistic fiction.

Tod Linafelt is an associate professor of biblical literature at Georgetown University and a humanities professor in the English department at Loyola College in Baltimore.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 31, Page B6


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