Way back last January, our stake Leaf-A-Ciety president spoke in our sacrament meeting, mentioning her mission in Finland. I went up and talked to her afterwards, “Onellista uutta vuotta.” She looked startled and blinked a couple of times, like she wasn’t quite sure what she had heard–Did he just say Happy New Year? “Kiitos,” she said. Thank you.
I didn’t serve my mission in Finland. Because of the brain surgery mentioned in #33 the doctor recommended my staying stateside. But my brother Kevin did. He turned 19 shortly after we returned home, and went right back. And my cousin Nathan Soderborg served in Finland. (Favorite family story: Nathan’s mother was talking with her mother on a party line, and to stop the nosy neighbor from listening in they switched to Swedish. The neighbor called the police about spies talking on her party line.)
I had lived in Finland because my father finally took a sabbatical.
I didn’t realize that until I was reading about it in his autobiography a few years ago. He hadn’t taken a sabbatical in 1963 because my older sister got married, and in 1956 he had been in Seattle, working on his PhD. But in 1970 there was no obstacle, so he applied for a Fulbright professorship at the University of Oulu, about 90 miles south of Rovaniemi, the capitol of Lapland. Just below the Arctic Circle, Oulun Yliopisto was (still is?) the northernmost university in the world, without even a campus at that time. When we got there the English Department had just moved from quarters over the sausage making factory to quarters over the cable making factory.
I recall the name of the school I attended as Keitokeskus Normaalilyseo, but it may have been 4 words Keito Keskus Normaali Lyseo. We went over to the university once or twice a week for Finnish lessons. Our textbook was called Finnish for Foreigners, but our teacher’s British edition was something like Finnish for Travelers because, he said, the British don’t like to think of themselves as foreigners. He also told us Finnish is more difficult to learn than many languages because it is related to so few languages outside its own family.
My father found two examples of drawing on other languages in the words for eight and nine. Kahdeksan has the roots kaksi, two, and dec–it’s a Roman numeral: two in front of ten, IIX. Same thing for yhdeksan, yksi in front of ten, IX. But kymmenen, ten, has no relation to dec, and I’ve often puzzled as to why only kahdeksan and yhdeksan have Latin roots. It just occured to me, preparing this post, that the Saami, or whoever the indigenous Suomalaisen were, may have had a number system based on seven (like the monetary system described in Alma 11?).
That is, I suspect the indigenous people only adopted foreign words that were imposed on them because they didn’t have their own words for the concepts. Joulu may be an example, answering to yule, and hyväã means good, not merry, like Swedish God Jul.
And normaali lyseo has Latin roots, but Finnish has its own word for school, koulu, rhyming with Oulu and Joulu. And there was a fourth rhyming word, olut, beer (related etymologically to ale?) So there were four words to rhyme with, phrases like Oulun olut, koulun Joulu, “Oulu’s beer, the school’s yule.” Fun to say. Over and over.
Nearly 20 years later I was driving home along Eastlake Ave East after cleaning a building in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood, listening to a program of 40s music on KUOW. As I neared the University of Washington a song began, “Oh I was born to wander, I was born to roam, but mister and Mississippi made me feel at home.” I had heard my father sing that many times in Finland, though he would say “Brother and Sister Sippi.” I was delighted that the pun also works with the capitol of Lapland, “Herra and Rouva Niemi made me feel at home.”
But I had never heard it on the radio. What a delight. I also heard my mother’s favorite song once, “Vell der Fuhrer sess ve iss der master race, so ve heil pfft! heil pfft! heil pfft! right in der Fuhrer’s face.” But on the Spike Jones recording the raspberries were replaced by ringing bells. My brother Dennis said Mom had remembered it correctly–Spike Jones used the tinkling bells because the raspberries were considered too rude for radio in the 40s.
So I grew up in a family that loved playing with words and sound, nurtured by an older brother out of school with rheumatic fever the year I was born, who taught me whole strings of nonsense words. I thought they were my own until after my mission, when my father gave a reading from his just published Moods: Of Late, and in the poem “Some Couth” were my words in Dennis’s mouth. I was profoundly shocked and embarrassed to hear my private language declaimed. I thought about contesting the renewal of my father’s poetic license.
What to do with all this welter of language? How do I cope with it? Organize it? Imagine my delight when I started reading Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, The Five Books of Moses, to find his note on Genesis 1:1. The phrase he translates as “welter and waste” (“without form and void” in KJV) is “tohu wabohu,” a term that “occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one” (Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23, Jeffrey Needle told me). Tohu has to do with the trackless wastes of the desert. Wabohu “looks like a nonce term” the Genesis poet used to fill out the meter and rhythm (17). That is, in describing God’s creation in the void the Genesis poet apparently created a word.
The play of creation appears throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and throughout literature and art, but where do I find it in biblical scholarship, indeed in literary theory and criticism? That’s not a rhetorical question, implying “nowhere” as an answer. It’s a questioning of the rhetoric I seem to hear in a lot of scholarship. Wait a minute, isn’t that too big a claim to justify in a blog post? Let me tell a story instead.
Looking through the course catalog about thirty years ago, or wandering the halls of the English department, I saw that Marilyn Arnold was offering a class on Willa Cather, and signed up. One of the tasks was to look in literary journals for criticism about Cather and company, such as Sarah Orne Jewett. One day I was reading an article (I suspect by a fairly new faculty member at some college or other) and I thought, “I can write better than this.” I mentioned it in class and Dr. Arnold replied, “Well, we would hardly want the criticism to be more compelling than the writer’s work, would we?”
My answer has always been yes (though I didn’t say so). Why would I want to spend my time reading criticism that didn’t engage me at a level beyond “eat your cooked carrots first, then you can have your treat.” More to the point, why would I want to write criticism that people find a chore to read?
I grew up thinking that books naturally had introductions, which were written for general readers, and not meant to be boring. I found out in Richard Cracroft’s Early 19th Century AmLit seminar that after the War there was a huge need for all kinds of education to satisfy the millions attending school on the GI bill. So a lot of the books I saw in libraries, and my father’s bookshelves and around the home had introductions, and they set my expectations for what litcrit should be. And Pauline Kael, of course. “I care about Miss Kael’s criticism as literature,” reads John Leonard’s blurb on the dustjacket of Reeling.
(Of course there is a price to Kael’s lively, combative criticism–”you can always count on ________ to miss the point.” I came across a book of Wilfred Sheed’s essays once where he mentions Kael and other film critics in his foreword and says, “We are all friends, or were.” I didn’t have time to read the book, but I’ve always remembered that poignant tense (recalling the end of Phillip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus”) which I found echoed several years later in Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts’ Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, where they describe the Mormon intellectual community as “a place we both called home.”)
It still puzzles me that a lot of scholarship is not as engaging as what I grew up reading. It reminds me of David Yarn’s comment one day in History of Philosophy, Part I, “Many people read Plato just for the pleasure of his words. I don’t imagine many people read Aristotle just for aesthetic pleasure.”
One reason for the lack of engagement I feel from scholars suggested itself to me when I was putting together my first AML paper in 1991. Lionel Trilling starts his essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” by apologizing for “relating the bare bones” of his experience as a teacher, but he has to talk about his experience to say why he was reluctant to offer the course in Modern Literature his students had asked him for. The “extravagant force” and power of literature from the modern period calls for some caution, or at least cautious reflection. You don’t point a howitzer at your students, he says, without assessing the damage you could do.
But the very thing Trilling apologizes for is what brings me back and back and back to his essay, and makes me want to read the rest of Beyond Culture. I sense his personal engagement with his subject. I understand his need to apologize, sort of. The second essay I looked at in that AML paper was the fifth chapter of Terry Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology, which I read my first semester at the UW in Charles Altieri’s Ethics and Aesthetics class. I chose that essay to report on because I hadn’t read much Marxist criticism, and wanted some background.
It was a bear, very abstract, and I found myself complaining about it, and wondering if Marxist abstraction wasn’t part of what allowed Lenin to kill off Trotsky and others. I said something like, “When my son is sick, I don’t think about it in abstract terms.”
“Oh, this sentimentality has got to stop,” Charlie said (we all called him that). “Literary criticism is a formal, academic discipline.” I replied that I found Eagleton’s abstraction itself sentimental–though I didn’t have any eloquent reason to back it up. If I had read Black Boy/American Hunger at the time I might have cited Richard Wright’s discovery, after committing himself to writing for and about the proletariat, that his fellow Communists, the party leaders, not only didn’t care about proletarian literature, they didn’t want it, felt threatened by it.
(And listening to that section driving up the Columbia river toward Portland around 1 AM, I remember thinking about all the Mormon writers and scholars who have reported some variant of the same discovery.)
As I persisted with Eagleton, I found his theory of literary value similar to what Marden Clark laid out in “Liberating Form,” (whose “Art, Religion and the Humanities: The Profounder Challenge” had introduced me to Trilling’s essay) and decided to compare and contrast for my term paper–adding Trilling into the mix–which became my AML paper. Trilling talks a lot about the destructive project of Modern lit, to tear down a corrupt culture. To ask every question polite society considers impolite, particularly, “Are you saved, or are you damned,” And to insist on an answer.
Parenthetically, The Book Of Mormon, published just before the start of the modern period, asks and insists on every impolite question Trilling mentions, particularly, “Are you saved or damned,” though it goes further and invites you to pray about what you’ve been reading–which seems to me more highly subversive of a corrupt culture than anything in modern literature.
So why does Trilling apologize for being personal about a literature he says demands a personal response? Well, because literary criticism is a formal academic discipline. As I thought more about the question it occurred to me that the formality and abstraction of literary criticism and theory is a way to protect the critic from the loss of privacy a public response to the personal demands of the literature would involve.
Which brings us back finally (finely, I hope) to the question I asked earlier about seeking for the playfulness in biblical scholarship that I find in the Bible itself. Except maybe I’m asking a different question. Maybe I’m asking for something else, not so much Robert Alter’s word play in The World of Biblical Literature, “the oddness and unevenness of the text” (10) or Saul, “prostrated by prophecy” in I Samuel 15 (20), as a hope that critics would think more about the playfulness of the text as integral, not something to ignore in the pursuit of meaning.
The day after Christmas I listened to the rebroadcast Doug Fabrizio’s Radio West interview with Reza Aslan about Zealot, his biography of Jesus the man. I wasn’t anxious to hear it again, but the next morning I was glad I had when I read Adele Reinhartz’s comment in The Jewish Annotated New Testament on John 4:22, “for salvation is from the Jews,” Jesus’s statement to the Samaritan woman at the well. “The Gospel’s only unequivocally positive statement about Jews. It may refer to the view that the people of Israel were God’s special people with a special mission” (166).
I wrote, “Here and in other places I’m impressed with the tentative nature of the commentary. The commentators suggest readings rather that stating them authoritatively.” In contrast, Aslan is very authoritative in stating his views. He told Fabrizio that the ancients didn’t make the same equivalence we do of truth and fact. The details in a story are there to reveal the deeper truths. For example, if I tell you about Bob, who went out on a cold night and saw a man naked and freezing and took off his shirt and gave it to the man and went on his own way naked and rejoicing, and you said, “Did Bob really do that?” the question wouldn’t make any sense. The story is meant to tell you the kind of person Bob is, not state the facts of his life.
But if Bob never actually gave someone the shirt off his back, how do I know he’s the kind of person who would? And if he didn’t give the shirt off his back, why use that example? If no one has to actually go away shirtless to earn that story, what does the story actually mean? More than anything Aslan’s example reminds me of something my supervisor said when I was working for a business directory compiler just after I graduated the UW. Jim also had a master’s in English, and devout religious beliefs (Episcopal) so we’d genially argue literary theory and sometimes religion and politics. One day he said, “I would defend to my death your right to say that.” I don’t recall if he added, “but you’re wrong.” He certainly meant it, though.
It was a striking expression, but I couldn’t help thinking, “No you wouldn’t. If my right to speak error was a matter of your life and death you wouldn’t die so I could continue speaking error.” Maybe I should have actually said that. And I wouldn’t have been missing the point. If figures of speech are just words with no experience to back them how do I know they have any authority? I much prefer Joyce Nelson’s comment in our AP English class on a passage in The Brothers Carry Mats Off about God’s loving us enough to suffer immense bodily pain for us. She said that what Jesus did for us was astonishing, and if you want to understand why, consider this, “I love you all, but I wouldn’t cut off my little finger to save any of you.” What wonderful, bracing playfulness. I’ve never had to wonder if her expression of love was just rhetorical.
Before listening to Aslan the day after Christmas, while my wife took advantage of some wholly covered preventive care before we changed insurance, I had been sitting in the waiting room reading when I came across Robert Alter’s comment about Saul prostrated by prophecy, and thought, “That’s the kind of playfulness I’m looking for. I would have written that.”
Alter suggests that scholars who consider it unlikely that Saul had two encounters with the prophets aren’t paying attention to the structure of the story, to how the second encounter comments on the first. Rather, they’re thinking of the two as doublets, variants of the same story, and trying to figure out which came first. Alter objects, because that approach stops them from considering the story as a story, and the storyteller as an artist, rather than a redactor cobbling together variants.
I know that if I were writing a story where a historical character had repeated encounters with a group, I would repeat the etiological formula “Wherefore they say…” as an ironic comment on the first stating of the etiological formula. And, having thought about Alter’s essay, it seems to me that what we have is an inclusio, not a collection of variants. An inclusio is a rhetorical device where the writer signals the end of an episode not by blank lines and a new chapter number, but by coming back to the beginning. Though I would add that it doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me that Saul would go back to Samuel in times of crisis. Consider his visit to the witch at Endor.
So in the spirit of an inclusio, let me go back to my beginning wish for a good yule and happy new year, by looking briefly at the story that calls forth those words.
Aslan said the claim that Jesus is the son of God is a literary convention, the same as claiming that Caesar is a God. John Dominic Crossan made the same claim on Radio West a few years ago, saying that when someone is telling you a story good manners demand that you try and understand what kind of story they’re telling you. Meaning that good manners demand that we see the story of the Nativity and of Jesus as the Son of God as parables.
But if I try to imagine myself as a Roman soldier arresting a Christian who tells me Jesus is the Son of God, I can hear myself saying, “Well, you’ve just committed blasphemy and treason against Caesar. Why would you do that?” the answer I hear coming back is, “Because my Lord really is the Son of God.”
It’s difficult to imagine a devout Jew–”Maurice, they were all Jews” as a friend said when Maurice Sendak asked how he, a Jew, could have the background to write and illustrate a Nativity story–I say, it’s difficult to imagine a devout Jew writing a story that would make YWHW, the creator of the universe, equal to Caesar. That would be both blasphemy and idolatry.
So my decision to start reading Alter when I was thinking through this post and how to lay it out was serendipitous. Almost as serendipitous as listening to Isaiah 31:3 yesterday, and thinking, “I hadn’t noticed that phrase before. It’s the perfect response to the claim that devout Jews would lower YHWH to Caesar’s level.”
Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit.