I’ve gotten distracted recently from a couple of topics I desperately want to return to. A look at Jason Rosenhouse’s sensitive and personal essay on “Ways of Knowing” will have to wait a bit longer, because I finally got ahold of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a copy I’ve had since high school and which I haven’t read since then. I’ll be spending some time, then, on notions of truth in literary contexts.
I do this not to claim that religious truth claims are identical to literary truth claims, but because I think we can sort out some ideas in the less fraught realm of literary criticism that may be able to carry over to a useful understanding of religion. Literature is less controversial a topic, most educated people have read and enjoyed novels, and have at least some of the basic vocabulary and analytical framework. Literature is also accessible to all, in a way religion isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be).
Auspiciously, on the day the book arrived, we also get a new and highly relevant post from slacktivist. He is addressing the Book of Jonah, and treating it, I must say, very much as a literary text, and not as some sort of literal history. Asked “How do you explain the seemingly barbaric actions of God in the Old Testament? God outright ordered genocides, wars and brutal punishments upon his own followers,” slacktivist writes:
The author of Jonah thought this question was so important that he (or she) sat down and wrote the book of Jonah. That book is a relentless attack on the idea that God really is the sort of God who would order genocides, wars and brutal punishments. The book is a brutal satire of such an opinion of the character of God.
References to the author’s intent (a human author, it’s made clear), to literary genre (satire), references here and more explicitly later to the book as a polemic, all clearly mark this as a literary analysis of the Bible. An analysis, it should be noted, that slacktivist takes as telling us something important about God, but set that aside for the moment.
Looking at God’s concluding speech, slacktivist finds:
This isn’t a subtle or sideways point the author is making here. It’s a direct, explicit challenge — a rebuttal — to those other parts of scripture that portray exactly this sort of God, the very parts of scripture [the original questioner] is objecting to as well. You know the sort of thing, where someone like Jonah says that God has declared some great city or another irredeemable and has commanded it to be destroyed utterly, every man, woman and child and every beast within its walls.
Nonsense, the author of Jonah says. God is not the sort of God who would ever command any such thing and anyone who says otherwise is a bitter, disobedient fool. And the author of Jonah then sketches for us a portrait of just such a bitter, disobedient fool.
It’s a vicious, ugly picture. The author of Jonah isn’t interested in fighting fair or in conveying any sympathy for the straw-man embodiment of the nonsense he’s railing against. Jonah is, without fail, disobedient, stupid and wrong — wrong at every turn. He is portrayed this way because the author of Jonah isn’t just trying to raise some doubts about the view he’s criticizing, he wants to demolish it, to render it unthinkable.
Again and again, Jonah’s story is read as just that, as a story. Not as history, not as something where we have to ask what sort of fish it was that swallowed Jonah. By reading it, we learn things. We learn, as slacktivist makes clear, that Jonah is bad, wrong, stupid, venal, and unpleasant. His view of God is wrong, we are told.
But of course, Jonah isn’t the only book here. For instance, the Book of Job begins with God intentionally punishing a faultless man, “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil.” He performs the sacrifices and ceremonies not just for himself, but for his family, lest they forget. God and Satan decide to see just how far he can be pushed before he’ll curse God. This is a capricious act, which God later defends to Job with copious high-and-mighty posturing, but no particular answers. “I wanted to prove a point,” is hardly the answer Job wanted to this central question: “If I sin, what do I do to thee, thou watcher of men? Why has thou made me thy mark? Why have I become a burden to thee?”
Slacktivist continues in this vein:
The difficulty, though, is that so are all those passages of scripture that the author of Jonah is mocking and ridiculing. The book of Jonah’s anti-Jonah-ism is canonical, but so is the Jonah-ism the story condemns. Both are scripture.
This is what freaks out many of my fellow evangelical Christians. It seems to violate what they call the unity of the scriptures — the idea that the Bible cannot and does not ever contradict itself.
Literary criticism has no inherent problem here. Keats coined a phrase that captures such internal conflict, describing “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” This is rather different than the scientific enterprise, but that has not limited its usefulness. John Dewey wrote that the line “contains more of the psychology of productive thought than many treatises,” and cited it as having guided his philosophy of pragmatism, itself a highly science-friendly philosophy.
This willingness to accept uncertainty is a critical difference between fundamentalists and moderate theists. It’s what distinguishes good scientists and bad ones, I’d argue. But a matching account of uncertainty in science had to wait for Gödel on one hand and a full appreciation of statistical dynamics in physics, population biology, and related fields. There are things which cannot be known, and sometimes it suffices to know clearly what is unknown, and what is unknowable.
This, too, I note, is the essence of Popper’s approach to science demarcation, an essence that carries through in highly modified form in current approaches to that problem.
In the context of literature, this sort of uncertainty is inevitable. And, slacktivist seems to be arguing, this sort of uncertainty is inevitable in religion, as well:
The book is a polemic, and we can’t have a polemic without also having two poles — two contrasting and opposing points of view. … Whatever else that means, … It means that there is more than one side, more than one identical view.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the Bible contains more than one identical view. This is an anthology of 66 books by a host of different authors, written over a span of many centuries. That all of those authors and all of those books do not present lockstep unanimity doesn’t mean we’re being presented with contradictions so much as that we’re given an ongoing conversation — one that includes and encompasses many points of view, some of which disagree, sometimes vehemently.
Walt Whitman captured this feeling, too, in his opus Leaves of Grass, asking the reader: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Literary meaning comes not from a simple drawing out of what the author meant, or wanted, but from asking whether the narrator is reliable, whether the author is reliable, and taking contradictions not as stopping points, but as chances to delve deeper and find the more profound truth which unifies these disparities.
From here, slacktivist goes on to show that such disparities can occur within our interpretation of a single word, a New Testament quote of an Old Testament prophet, in which the lack of vowels in Hebrew produces translations which are not only different, but directly contradictory, between the standard translation of the prophet’s meaning, and the meaning he’s given in Acts.
What matters here, with regard to Andrew’s question, is that we have both meanings, both views, both perspectives, in the Bible we Christians read. Both are a part of our canon. And given these two opposing perspectives we must, like the author of the book of Jonah, choose one. We have to take sides.
We can choose the exclusive vision of Jonah-ism, the view that says we alone are blessed and the rest of the world can go to Hell. Or we can choose the expansive, inclusive vision of the book of Jonah, the view that sees God as madly in love with the great city of Ninevah and indignant at the suggestion that there could be any such city, any person or beast, beyond the scope of that love.
The power to make such choices runs deeply in literature. Is Hamlet crazy, or his he merely playing. Is Shylock an anti-Semitic stereotype, or a plea for tolerance and love of the Jewish people?
Auerbach takes up these questions in his oft-reprinted opening chapter – “Odysseus’ Scar.” In this chapter he lays out his interpretive style, to take a small scene from one or two works, to dig deeply into the passage and to wring from it insights into the text itself, into the authors, and by drawing comparisons, to better understand how people think in general, and how stories shape the world in which they are told. In this sense, I rather think Neil Gaiman must be a fan of Auerbach’s.
So Auerbach looks at two moments in literary history: the moment where Odysseus returns, disguised, to his home, and fears that his childhood nursemaid will recognize him by a scar on his leg, and Abraham’s tortured decision to offer his beloved and miraculous son as a sacrifice. In this comparison, he finds Homer’s characters rather flat:
the complexity of the psychological life is shown only in the succession and alternation of emotions; whereas the Jewish writers are able to express the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them.
Of Homer’s characters, Auerbach writes:
so long as we are reading or hearing the poems, it does not matter whether we know that this is only a legend, “make-believe.” The oft-repeated reproach that Homer is a liar takes nothing from his effectiveness, he does not need to base his story on historical reality, his reality is powerful enough in itself; it ensnares us, weaving its web around us, and that suffices him. And this “real” world into which we are lured, exists for itself, contains nothing but itself; the Homeric poems conceal nothing, they contain no teaching and no secret second meaning. Homer can be analyzed, as we have essayed to do here, but he cannot be interpreted.
There are small lessons to be learned from a close reading (e.g., “that in misfortune men age quickly”), but Homer, Auerbach finds, is characterized by “a calm acceptance of the basic facts of human existence … [but with no] passionate impulse either to rebel against them or to embrace them in an ecstasy of submission.”
“It’s all very different in the Biblical stories,” he adds:
Their aim is not to bewitch the senses, and if nevertheless they produce lively sensory effects, it is only because the moral, religious, and psychological phenomena which are their sole concern are made concrete in the sensible matter of life.
Later in the essay, this mixing of the metaphysical with the physical is put in terms of Auerbach’s major focus throughout the book, the separation of styles: the elevated from the mundane. “With the more profound historicity and the more profound social activity of the Old Testament…,” he writes, “a different conception of the elevated style and of the sublime is to be found.”
For the great and sublime events in the Homeric poems take place far more exclusively and unmistakably among members of a ruling class; and these are far more untouched in their heroic elevation than are the Old Testament figures, who can fall much lower in dignity… and finally, domestic realism, the representation of daily life, remains in Homer in the peaceful realm of the idyllic, whereas, from the very first, in the Old Testament stories, the sublime, tragic, and problematic take shape precisely in the domestic and commonplace… The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable.
Auerbach finds the Bible compelling as literature because of this willingness to break boundaries, and also for its ability to capture multiplicity. The Bible contains three rough domains – “legend, historical reporting, and interpretive historical theology” – but:
the men who composed the historical parts are often the same who edited the older legends too; their peculiar religious concept of man in history, which we have attempted to describe above, in no way led them to a legendary simplification of events; and so it is only natural that, in the legendary passages of the Old Testament, historical structure is frequently discernible – of course not in the sense that the traditions are examined as to their credibility according to the methods of scientific criticism [any more than Shakespeare examines the legends around Caesar before writing his play on the topic -Josh]; but simply to the extent that the tendency to a smoothing down and harmonizing of events, to a simplification of motives, to a static definition of characters which avoids conflict, vacillation, and development, such as are natural to legendary structure, does not predominate in the Old Testament world of legend. [The patriarchs] produce a more concrete, direct, and historical impression than the figures of the Homeric world – not because they are better described (the contrary is true) but because the confused, contradictory multiplicity of events, the psychological and factual cross-purposes which true history reveals, have not disappeared in the representation but still remain clearly perceptible.
To summarize grossly, then, the Bible captures a certain sort of truth about the world and of humanity, about its multiplicity and self-contradictory nature in particular. It captures this not by saying “people are complicated,” but by showing people being complicated. It puts Abraham in an impossible situation, and confronts us with his agony as he decides between the God who gave him what he most desired (a son), and the son he loves and sees as proof of his covenant with God.
Auerbach distinguishes clearly between a commitment to realism and a commitment to truth:
The Biblical narrator was obliged to write exactly what his belief in the truth of the tradition (or, from the rationalistic standpoint [which Auerbach just called "psychologically absurd"] his interest in the truth of it) demanded of him – in either case, his freedom in creative or representative imagination was severely limited; his activity was perforce reduced to composing an effective version of the pious tradition. What he produced, then, was not primarily oriented toward “realism” (if he succeeded in being realistic, it was merely a means, not an end); it was oriented toward truth. … The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical – it excludes all other claims. The world of Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality – it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, the do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us – they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected, we are rebels.
All this comes not from the level of religion, but from the literary analysis. Things get tricky when folks try to jump across and take that literary level of meaning and say that it speaks to an absolute truth, just as it is problematic when readers of Atlas Shrugged try to take that book’s claims to universal truth beyond the book’s pages
On a sidenote: I’d take people a lot more seriously if the ones who think NCSE shouldn’t have anything to do with supposedly reality-denying religious people would invest at least occasional effort in dinging Objectivists. Note that NCSE has been happy to work alongside groups like the Ayn Rand Center to defend evolution education, and no one seems to be complaining about that.
So where does this leave us? Jerry Coyne recently summarized critic James Wood as arguing that “the merit of fiction is not so much in conveying truth about the world as in conveying what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation.” I wonder whether Wood agrees that this distinction really matters, or whether, in fact, this is what truth means in a literary context. A book can make a claim to truth, even if that claim is not about the reality of particular events or individuals. The Bible is, Auerbach seems to be saying, true but not realistic. Its truth lies both in an assertion about its own scope (an assertion which cannot be proven merely based on the book’s own statements!), and in its ability to capture certain features of reality, the complexities of people’s motives, the ability of mundane events, settings, or people to have profound significance, and so forth.
And for all the absoluteness of its truth claims, it also sets (some of?) those claims in opposition, as slacktivist said. In any text, we have to take such self-contradiction as evidence of something deeper at work. And as slacktivist lays out, one message one can draw from the Bible’s self-contradictions is that faith is about choices, not absolutes. One can be Jonah or anti-Jonah. Had Abraham refused God’s order, we don’t know what might have happened, any more than we know what would have happened if Admiral Zheng He had reached and colonized the Americas, or if Xander and Willow hadn’t revived Buffy after The Master killed her. In the historical examples, the question is barely meaningful, because it didn’t happen. In literary examples, it didn’t happen because someone thought it would be a bad idea, and it’s useful to think about why that was, and what that reveals about their worldview.
This is the essence of Auerbach’s approach. Literature is, for him, a window into the past of a sort that we can’t get otherwise. Not just a record of events, but of attitudes and ideas. Pondering the Book of Kells doesn’t just give us lovely art, but also because of the marginal notes and poems that illuminators and scribes left behind. Such marginalia are lurking beneath the words of Genesis, of Shakespeare, and of Joss Whedon. Those hidden signs tell us what people truly thought who are no longer alive to speak to us. That’s a truth, and a truth worth talking about.