Sunday, March 08, 2009

Notes on Josipovici's "The Bible Open and Closed"

Regular readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to learn that the writings of Gabriel Josipovici have been of prime importance in the evolution of my thinking on matters related to religion and faith. In his case, it is of course through the loving attention he has paid to the Bible itself, along with his illuminating inquiries into suspicion and trust and tradition.

I've always wanted to read the Bible, largely because I felt I ought to, because of its standing as cultural artifact, its importance in history and in literature. I wanted to know what was in it, so that I could better read other things, understand allusions, and so on. And I wanted to know what it really meant, in the face of so many apparent believers in the Bible as repository of Truth and the literal Word of God, and so on. It thus stood tall as the ultimate obligation text. But Josipovici has made the Bible seem approachable for me, just as he has done with so many once-forbidding writers, writers who I'd previously held at arm's length, continually deferring my own reading, writers from Dante to Kierkegaard to Proust. And he has made the Bible come potentially alive for me, as a text. (Which is not to say that I've yet made much headway myself, for a variety of reasons I'll not go into here.)

His marvelous study, The Book of God, is vitally important in this area, obviously, but here I want to discuss a later essay I've recently re-read. In "The Bible Open and Closed", a beautiful essay collected in The Singer on the Shore, Josipovici discusses the decentred nature of the Bible's narrative mode, its openness. The Bible is, he writes, "a series of narratives" (italics his):
Narrative was clearly how these ancient Semitic peoples made sense of the world, as it was the way the Greeks of the time of Homer, and so-called primitive peoples all over the world did. Yet we in our culture have a problem with narrative. What does it mean? we ask. What is the guy trying to say? And if the book in question is a sacred text the problems grow even more acute. For then it is even more important to understand clearly what it is saying, since our very lives may depend upon it. We need to feel we are dealing with a text that is closed, in the sense that its meaning can be clearly understood and translated into other terms; yet the Bible, like all narratives, but, as I hope to show, even more than most, is open, that is, it resists translation into other terms and asks not so much to be understood as lived with, however puzzling and ambiguous it may seem.
He then proceeds to discuss examples of what he means. One involves a certain Phalti or Phaltiel, son of Laish. When David rebels against Saul, Saul gives David's wife Michal to Phalti. Later, after Saul's death, when Saul's son Abner and everyone else realize that David now has the power, Michael must be returned. Here Josipovici quotes the relevant passage from the Bible:
And Ishbosheth sent, and took her from her husband, even from Phaltiel the son of Laish. And her husband went with her along weeping behind her to Bahurim. Then said Abner unto him, Go, return. And he returned. (2 Sam. 3:15-16)
These are the only times Phalti appears in the Bible. It would have been one thing, Josipovici observes, for this obscure character to appear once or twice, and no more. But the narrator "chooses instead to bring this man momentarily to life, to make his pain, whether wounded pride or anguished love, all the more palpable for remaining unspoken." So troubling are such examples, so counter to our expectations, particularly our expectations of how a sacred document should operate, but also counter to how we expect a story to be told, used to novels as we are, that we insist on assigning reasons for it. Indeed, the history of Biblical interpretation is full of just this sort of reason-finding. There must be something missing, or maybe this is meant, or perhaps that. But the Bible proceeds as an open narrative. What this means, he says, is that the text's meaning is not certain, not nailed down, not closed. Meaning is sought, but the Bible does not disclose meaning. There is no center to the narrative. All is rendered contingent--not just meaning, but the stories themselves, whether a given story is told, versus another. The characters, like Phalti, who simply walk on the stage, evidently have lives that could have been narrated too, but are not--and we are made to feel it, however briefly. Looked at from the outside, especially from this late date, we think we know that Phalti is of little consequence, so chances are good we will not even notice his appearance. And the Bible does not offer reasons why things happen or why certain people are affected or chosen--why Abraham? for example; indeed, why the Jews?--and of course this is how life is. Things happen. Things are. What matters is how we respond to things. In this way, he argues, the Bible is above all, realistic, which may seem odd to us, given how used to the conventions of the so-called realist novel we are, and how unlike such a novel the Bible is, regardless of our attempts to read it as if it were one.

Now, Josipovici is primarily talking about the Old Testament--for one thing, the New Testament clearly has a central figure in Jesus--but even the New Testament, he argues, can be seen to operate within this tradition. With the Gospels, he shows how Matthew's and Mark's version of certain events are different, in their mode of narration, than is Luke's. With the former, the narrative proceeds with elements similar to that of the Hebrew Bible: "the deadpan of narration, its refusal to comment on the action from some position outside and above it; and (what follows from this), its depiction of man as a being existing in time. . ." Whereas Luke tries to impose meaning. The former, the way of the Hebrew Bible, and of Matthew and Mark, for example, is "open" because, in the case of Jesus, "we are forced to experience Jesus's anguish [as when he asks 'My God, why has thou forsaken me?'], his sense that what he desires and what he has to be are not one and the same, and his sense that he does not know how things will turn out." His ultimate acceptance is more real, more forceful, when we are not assured, as Luke tries to assure us, that everything will be ok. Only with this openness, this kind of narrative movement, "can Jesus's remarkable acceptance be grasped for what it is: a gesture of trust."

All of this makes the Bible seem like something other than the boring, obligatory religious text I have at times tried to force myself to read. And it's method, it seems to me, does have implications for writing and for literature, as well as for important extra-literary matters--the notion that the Bible resists meaning rather than imparting it clearly seems to me to have radical implications in our politics and our religion. But these are topics to explore another time. For now, let me close with another passage from Josipovici's essay, this one from near the end:
It is remarkable that a religious document should place narrative above theology, reality above consolation in this way. But the Bible does. And it does so, it seems to me, because it recognizes that in the end the only thing that can truly heal and console us is not the voice of consolation but the voice of reality. That is the way the world is, it says, neither fair nor equitable. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to live so as to be contented and fulfilled? And it contains no answers, only shows us various forms of response to these questions. And from Adam to Jesus it is constant in its reliance not on teaching, not on exhortation, not on reason, but on the one human form that can convey the truth that we are more than we can ever understand, the only form that is open, the form of narrative.

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