We could never know the source–not us–
Of those noises all, your third-grade teacher said,
That she had never heard before–and some
She’d never imagined possible.
–Marden J. Clark, “Some Couth”
Dennis was long out of third grade by the time his youngest brother was born, indeed was out of school that year with rheumatic fever, so he babysat a lot and had a lot of time to teach me all those joyous mouth sounds–to pass on his delight of odd noise, so that when I came across two delightful noises in American Literature: The Makers and the Making, I held them in my mouth.
One is Ezra Pound’s description in Canto LXXXIII of William Butler Yeats
that had made a great Peeeeacock
in the proide ov his oiye
had made a great peeeeeeecock in the . . .
made a great peacock
in the proide of his oyyee
proide ov his oy-ee
I find myself repeating it as if I was a pirate’s parrot, “Proide ov his oyyee, proide ov his oy-ee.”
Another is John Greenleaf Whittier’s version of a downeast accent in “Skipper Ireson’s Ride”
“Here’s Flud Oirson, fur his horrd horrt,
Torr’d an’ futherr’d an’ corr’d in a corrt
By the women o’ Morble’ead!”
I particularly like the three stressed syllables in “his horrd horrt,” and the way the last line speeds up like a cart going faster.
Sometimes I Duckduckgo random phrases to see who else is interested in them. I found “Skipper Ireson’s Ride” on The Poetry Foundation’s website, which featured an essay by Austin Allen, “Wallace Stevens: ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream:’ The chilly heart of a whimsical poem.” Allen works out a narrative for the poem. He sees the first stanza as taking place in the kitchen where people are preparing for a wake, and the emcee is telling someone to whip up the concupiscent curds into some ice-cream. The second stanza moves into the bedroom where they’re laying out the old woman.
Reading the essay I started thinking of the poem as a scenario for a short film, with voice-over narration.
When I started thinking about the narration I quickly wondered, “Why assume the two stanzas happen at the same time?”
bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Is an exuberant phrase. Maybe not quite as exuberant as
Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
“Bantams in Pine-Woods”
but still more exuberant than you might expect from mourners preparing a wake. The first stanza could represent a childhood memory, like when Uncle Von would bring his ice cream maker to family reunions and we’d all take turns cranking it. And, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” could be a family motto proclaiming the freedom and joy of summer. Imagine Robin Williams reciting it as Mork from Ork.
Or the first stanza could be a wedding feast, the feast for the old woman being laid out in the second stanza. Imagine Lauren Bacall reciting it with the sexual energy implicit in “You know how to whip up a cup of concupiscent curds, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”
That might sound too exuberant for Stevens. Most of the commentary I’ve read treats the poem like a more complicated, elliptical version of “‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,’ saith the roller of big cigars.” But the vanity in this poem isn’t a full vanity, it’s only a dresser made of cheap white pine. The poem is too playfull to convince me that the author really believes all is vanity.
To move from a tribute to recently departed actors to something more to the point of this column, consider Genesis 20:16.
And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, he is to thee a covering of the eyes, unto all that are with thee, and with all other: thus she was reproved.
This is the end of the second of the three sister-wife type-stories in Genesis (and the first involving Abimelech). It’s my favorite verse in the story, not just for the irony in referring to Abraham as “thy brother” but for the last four words, “thus she was reproved.”
But what does that phrase mean, “a covering of the eyes”? Robert Alter renders the verse thus:
And to Sarah he said, “look, I have given a thousand pieces of silver to yur brother. Let it hereby serve you as a shield against censorious eyes for everyone who is with you, and you are now publicly vindicated.”
All the other translations I looked at–Moffatt, New English Bible, New World Translation (often useful for its excessive literalism), Revised Standard Version, and 2009 LDS edition of the Reina-Valera Santa Biblia–all talk about Sarah being vindicated, not reproved. I generally read scripture for 15 or 20 minutes each morning before I scramble to get to work. Right now I’m working my way through Alter’s The Five Books of Moses at about a chapter a day, but I spent more than a week on this verse, because I didn’t have quite enough time on any one day to write out my thoughts.
How did the King James translators come up with reproof when the concept is vindication? Well, get out the magnifying glass and the compact OED Dennis’s father-in-law got for signing up for a book club or something and passed along to my father. No, there’s not an archaic meaning of reprove as re-prove, as in reestablish Sarah’s reputation among the general public. All its meanings circle around the concept of rebuke.
So if the KJV translators got it wrong, why? Well, first, the phrase “a covering of the eyes” is a literal translation, but, Alter says, its meaning is a longstanding puzzle to scholars. “The phrase may mean ‘mask,’ but its idiomatic thrust seems to be: something that will ward off public disapproval” (101). So their translation had something to do with making sense of an idiom they couldn’t make sense of.
When I finally had enough time to make some notes about the verse I noticed that KJV and Alter use different pronouns in the second half of the verse. KJV has “behold he is” and Alter has “let it be.” So while Alter sees the pronoun, and therefore the covering of the eyes, as referring to the thousand pieces of silver, KJV sees it as referring to Abraham.
So the KJ translators made sense of the strange idiom by making it a warning about Abraham: “Your husband covers your eyes from seeing the world clearly.” Thus he reproves her, telling her to see the world clearly. That fits the situation very well. Abraham has come to Gerar apparently fearing the men there will treat him the way the men of Sodom treated Lot and the heavenly messengers. That’s an insulting thing to think about your hosts, and when Abraham tells Abimelech what he was thinking (verse 12) he doesn’t apologize for the insult, he changes the subject, telling his host that his wife is indeed his sister.
So while the King James translators got the translation wrong they captured the psychological and emotional mood of the scene quite well–captured nicely the reproof you can hear in that ironic phrase “I have given your brother . . .”
It’s tempting to think interpretation is something we do only when dealing with obscure or puzzling texts. Everything else is just reading, right? With decades of experience decoding words spoken and heard, decades of experience ordering the world around us into patterns that make sense to us, interpretation becomes transparent. We don’t notice that we’re interpreting something until we come to an opaque text, or someone comes up to our chariot and says, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” or someone falls in beside us on our walk of grief and says, “Didn’t Isaiah testify that the Messiah must suffer grief and pain, must be whipped in our place to heal us?” (Think of Saddam Hussein scourging the concupiscent Kurds.)
One of the delights of Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is his portrait of strife among the leaders of the early church. Years ago Bela Petsco (Nothing Very Important and Other Stories) told me he had written a term paper for one of his religion classes examining Paul’s attitude toward the Twelve and the First Presidency, and wondering how he became an apostle. I asked him about it several year later and he gave me a few examples, but Aslan looks at it at length.
Consider that passage that probably appears in every anti-Mormon book:
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.
Aslan says this is not a general warning, it’s directed against James, the head of the mother congregation in Jerusalem, and Peter, the head of the church, who had summoned him to Jerusalem to defend his teachings and sent around a delegation to correct his teachings (192). (I suppose a modern example of such division might be if an apostle were to warn over the Tabernacle pulpit of a Judas in the First Presidency.)
Interpretations like this can be so illuminating that we may think of them as the correct interpretation, that is, the one true interpretaion, or rather the straight uninterpreted meaning–intepretation being a way of spinning the verse to one camp or another’s advantage.
Aslan told Doug Fabrizio, on Radio West, that once he understood crucifixion was a punishment reserved for insurrectionists, all the ideas about Jesus as the Savior of the World fell away as he saw Jesus in his true historical context. He says the same thing at the beginning of Zealot, but doesn’t explain in either place why Jesus couldn’t be both a threat to the Roman Empire and the Savior of the world, why he sees the two roles as mutually exclusive.
It’s important to be able to see two stories playing out in the Gospels, indeed, to see the possibility of many correct interpretations of any passage. I’ll talk more about why next month, but I want to end this post with a shout out to Mitri Raheb’s Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes.
As a Lutheran pastor you would expect Raheb to have a different perspective, and he does, not only a Lutheran perspective, but the perspective of a man born across the street from the traditional site of the Nativity, a man who can say, “I am just fifty years old and have already lived through nine wars” (51)–ten now, and can see those wars as part of a continuous three thousand year history, indeed, a man whose father was born Ottoman, became a British subject as part of Mandate Palestine, then was part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and died under Israeli occupation–all in one place, Bethlehem, all in one span of three score years and ten.
And as part of that continuous history Raheb has no difficulty in seeing Jesus as both the Prince of Peace and someone Rome would kill in a manner reserved for violent insurrectionists. The empire always brands those it wants to kill as terrorists, insurrectionists, threats to peace and stability. The empire uses abstraction to make what it doesn’t like seem less than human, less than civilized and therefore undeserving of civil rights.