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Monday, 16 May 2011

The Bible: Backward and forward influences

For T. S. Eliot, Malcolm Guite writes (in Faith, Hope and Poetry), "there was a sense in which all poetry is contemporary" as what is written now "is not only influenced by what has been written in the past but in itself modifies the way we read the poetry of the past."

Guite gives as example:

"a powerful moment in The Waste Land when Eliot describes London commuters walking mechanically in a great dull crowd all looking down and seeming to breathe in unison and he says: ‘So many, I had not thought death had undone so many.’ When I first read this poem I felt this line simply as a poetic insight into the ‘nightmare life-in-death’ that modern living had imposed upon ‘lost’ souls, but later I came to read Carey’s great nineteenth-century translation of Dante’s Inferno and came to his harrowing description of his first sight of the dead, the crowd of souls in Limbo who had just drifted through life neither struggling to the heights of real virtue nor sinking to the depths of real depravity. Looking on them in horror as they trudge in step together endlessly round and round in a circle, Dante exclaims, ‘… I should n’ere / Have thought that death so many had despoiled’."

Guite then asks, "what happens at such a moment of echo and allusion, congruence and connection?" His answer is that:

"At one level I am remembering The Waste Land and suddenly realising that Eliot had been alluding to Dante and seeing what a brilliant thing it was to compare the rush-hour crowd to the crowds in Limbo. But at another level, at the level of the effect that Dante’s poem is having on me now, it is Dante who is alluding to Eliot, Dante who is brilliantly comparing the crowds in limbo with the London rush hour! There is a profound sense in which, after Eliot, Dante’s poem is changed forever. Each poem subtly modifies all the poems with which it is connected running backwards and forwards through time across the great web of Poetry itself."

Maggi Dawn has noted in The Writing on the Wall a similarity between the middle style of Dante which moves between different modes of expression and the way "the Bible tells its stories, moving backwards and forwards between primitive and sophisticated forms, and covering a wide range of genres, again conforming to Dante’s ideal of an unmediated accessibility to God." Dawn uses the standard image of a small library to describe the diversity within which this movement occurs: "It’s stories are not laid out chronologically, and it is the work of so many different authors, in different genres and from different times, that although it seems like a book it would be more apt to call it a small library." Other helpful images for this diversity of form and content include Mike Riddell’s description of the Bible as "a collection of bits" assembled to form God’s home page or Mark Oakley’s more poetic image of the Bible as "the best example of a collage of God that we have".

Similarly, Gabriel Josipovici, in The Book of God, quotes James Barr’s comment "about the Bible needing to be thought of not so much as a book but as a cave or cupboard in which a miscellany of scrolls has been crammed." He notes that "many modernist works might well be described as more like cupboards or caves crammed with scrolls than like carefully plotted nineteenth-century novels or even fairy stories and romances." As a result, a "generation which has experienced Ulysses and The Waste Land (to say nothing of Butor’s Mobile and Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi)" should be to view this image of the Bible positively more easily than would a generation "whose idea of a book and a unity was a novel by Balzac or George Eliot."

One key aspect of what Josipovici is referring to is the modernist generations’ ability to recognise the diversity of scripture and to note the significance of the movement backwards and forwards within its form that Dawn mentions which also has synergies with the way in which contemporary poems subtly modify all the poems with which they are connected running backwards and forwards through time across the great web of Poetry itself.

Josipovici has described how this effect occurs within scripture. The Bible works, he argues, "by way of minimal units laid alongside each other, the narrative being built up by slotting these together where necessary":

"This is an extraordinarily simple and an extraordinarily flexible system, which can lead from what could almost be described as shorthand to rich elaboration ... a narrative which can spend nine chapters getting from the Creation to Noah and his descendents, or else cover the ground in just four verses, as in Chronicles: ‘Adam, Sheth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalaleel, Jered, Henoch, Methusalah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth’ (1 Chron. 1: 1-4)."

Each new element or unit "helps to bring into focus prior elements which we would have overlooked had we not been alerted to them by what follows" but, because the events are laid out alongside each other without comment, "we are never allowed to know whether the pattern we see emerging at one point is the true pattern."

As a result, he concludes that "the Hebrew Bible … chose not to stay with the fulfilment of man’s desires but with the reality of what happens to us in life. We all long in our daily lives for an end to uncertainty, to the need for decisions and choices, with the concomitant feeling that the choices we have made may have been the wrong ones. Yet we also know that life will not provide such an end, that we will always be enmeshed in uncertainty. What is extraordinary is that a sacred book should dramatize this, rather than be the one place where we are given what we desire. But that is precisely what the Hebrew Bible does …"

Bob Dylan - Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Deep Heat).

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