Many Stories, One World

YHWH’s Image

With this clay He began to coat His shins,
cover His thighs, His chest. He continued this
layering, and, when He had been wholly
interred, He parted the clay at His side, and
retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself
to wander in what remained of that early
morning mist.
—Scott Cairns

I wrote a little tepidly about Scott Cairns’s collection “Recovered Body” a little while back. Nevertheless, I find that “YHWH’s Image”–partially quoted above– has been sticking with me, as poems somehow seem to do. I keep coming back to that image of the creation, so different and yet so right, as if Cairns has shown me both the truth of human intimacy with God and our ache at God’s absence.

I may have been thinking about this a bit since I’m leading a discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 at my church this Sunday. No Biblical scholar am I, but I’ve been mulling over the endless troubling that goes on about the two different accounts of creation, as if this somehow counted against the truth of the Biblical passages. “Those silly ancient Hebrews,”  we seems to say, “Didn’t they realize they put two completely different stories right next to each other.”  A modern chauvinism.  As it happens, I also read this week a very fine essay in manuscript by my colleague at Messiah College, Brian Smith, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, who points out that there’s also a creation story in the first part of Proverbs that is very different from the first of Genesis, proclaiming the primacy of Wisdom. And, of course, I  realized that there’s another creation story in the first chapter of John, where in the beginning we have not God brooding over the deep, but the Word with and as God. I’m sure if I knew my Bible better a number of other creation stories might spring to mind–I’ve come to doubt there are only four. And yet even with so many, Scott Cairns’s poem got me thinking about some truth about the creation story that is genuinely new but somehow consistent with all the others and with the teachings that I’ve received about God’s relationship to the world as creator and redeemer.

And yet we worry and fret that there are two stories and they don’t match up.

What if it is the case that the creation of the world out of nothing is so beyond our imagining, that getting the one right story isn’t the point. What if it is the case that the great rupture of creation is so beyond our comprehension that we are set to storytelling, not so we could capture the single truth of what happened, but so we could bear testimony to its mystery.

Testimony, it seems to me, is an important word because it bears witness to a given fact and is in some way accepted as testimony only to the extent that it both repeats what everyone already knows, but in a way that bears an individual stamp.  The truthtelling that is testimony is both repetitive and unique, as we are urged on to bear witness to the facts of a known or remembered world.   The recent rehearsals of oral histories about 9/11 is this kind of record. All of them sound familiar, and yet all of them are unique and different, bearing some new witness to the day a world changed for those who were there. Scott Cairns’s poem strikes me this way. Right and consistent with everything I think I have heard and believed, but bearing its own stamp, its own word, never heard before, such that I know God the Creator in some new may.

For many poststructualists/postmodernists, the multiplicity of stories about events in the world gives credence to the notion of incommensurable realities–in some sense we make the world through our speaking about it.  And so there is no world to be spoken about, instead a plethora of worlds carried and clashing on the wings of our words. In this view, the notion of one world or a singular truth is oppressive, squashing down our human ingenuity.

But what if it were the case that the one act of creation created a world so singular and beyond our knowing that we are called upon to bear testimony to that one world through our own stories?  The one great rupture of creation calls into being our own acts of creation out of testimony to an event we affirm but cannot encompass.  If this were the case, then I would stop worrying about the fact that there were two or three or four or more stories about creation in the Bible. I might be surprised that there weren’t more.

Wouldn’t something as startling and unprecedented as a world need more than one story?

Bodies and Books–II

I’ve continued reading Karin Littau’s Theories of Reading.  The second chapter is mostly a schematic History of Reading that will be familiar with anyone who’s read some stuff about that history.  Still, I was struck anew or again by two aspects of that history.

First, Littau rehearses the manifest distinctions between our own (gradually eroding??) views of textual authorship and those of earlier periods.  According to Littau there’s no real way to distinguish the copying of a text from the creation of a text in the Middle Ages (which makes me think that more than a few of our students would be more textually at home in the middle ages than in our contemporary academy).  According to Littau, one reason for the fluidity between “copying” and “creating”  was “‘the common classical and Christian view of poetic inspiration’, in accordance with which ‘the poet does not originate the poem but is the inspired channel for a divine act of creation’ (Selden 1988: 303).  In pre-print culture an author, or auctor, was therefore less a creator of a given work than its assembler, whose rights to the work extended merely to the physical object of the manuscript he or she had produced in the first instance rather than the text as the fruit of his or her private consciousness, as is the case in the copyright law now” (16).

The relationship to our own modes of electronic creation almost don’t bear pointing out.  How many blogs are simply compilations of materials generated elsewhere, and yet we still think of them as something we’ve somehow produced or written, unique only in their assemblage, not in creation?

Still, I’m more interested in the implications of the latter part of the quote.  I wonder especially whether this doesn’t reaffirm the notion that trying to get back to original intention springs from a god-like view of authorship.  However, in the ancient world, the idea that the words were divinely inspired allowed them to be disseminated endlessly into new texts and new assemblages, without worrying fastidiously about the point of historical origin in a particular writer in a particular time and place.  By contrast, our own view of the author as Godlike locates that divine authority in a specific moment of history, to which we have to return to the point of exhaustion.

I wonder how this plays out especially among Christian views of scriptural authority and inspiration.  Our own view of historicism insists that grappling with the historical uniqueness and situatedness of the point of creation–with the author is one can be determined–ironically discards a sense of authorship, authority, and inspiration that would have been common at these earlier points in history. To some degree we make the text captive to history, rather than releasing it to new and unforeseen forms of assemblage and creativity.

Well, this is too much for me to flesh out right now, and I’m not sure it would go anywhere anyway.

In the Valley of Elah; or suffer the little ones

I watched “In the Valley of Elah” on DVD last night. As with most things, I find the pace of my life puts me about 4 steps and six months behind the rest of the world, and most often my very long list of things I’m going to get to later ends up being a private fantansy. Still, I’m glad I actually did get to this film. Most of In the Valley of Elahthe commentary in the immediate aftermath of it’s release was relatively laudatory, especially of Tommy Lee Jones performance, but also noted the distaste of the American populace for hard and depressing films about the war. One wants to say, “duh.” This is unsurprising. Several reviews I’ve read since last night take Haggis to task for disjointed storytelling and for not making his references clear. A number of folks complain that the title of the movie makes no sense.

Au contraire.

I think what’s central to the film is not the question of David’s heroism against Goliath in the Valley of Elah. What’s central is that old men send children to fight their wars without armor and without weapons. The film is, of course, an essay against war in general and the war in Iraq in particular, and if you can’t stand films that have a thesis, however poignantly rendered, then you’re not likely to enjoy the film. But more specifically the film is a powerful meditation on the notion that old men start wars and young men, or children, fight them. Several reviewers comment on how old Tommy Lee Jones looked. Well, of course. He is, and magnificently so. But almost no one remarks on just how young and unprotected the soldiers look, childlike even when drunk and hanging out in topless bars and strip clubs. Perhaps the most chilling scene of the film isn’t anything to do with Iraq and the immediacy of its violence. The most chilling scene for me was watching the young man–who looked mostly like an all star blond high school quarterback–confess to killing Tommy Lee Jones’s son, Mike, and then laugh as he reflected on how Mike would torture prisoners by probing their open wounds, a practice that earned him the Menglesque nickname of “Doc”.

The point of the Valley of Elah is that the mythology of David and Goliath is a lie, that children do not destroy giants in war. They kill and maim and destroy one another, and in the process destroy themselves. We discover that in the first week of his tour of duty, Mike, had run down a small Iraqi boy who appears to be throwing a stone at his Humvee. And while there is a certain domestic delight in seeing Hank Deerfield tell Charlize Theron’s son the story of the story of David and Goliath, in the context of the film as a whole this is a terrifying scene, showing that the mythologies of domestic safety are actually the training ground of a violent imagination, one that would encourage this small boy to believe that he too, perhaps, could throw stone at Goliath, or at a Humvee, and emerge unscathed. The same imagination requires us, of course, to imagine that a small boy throwing stones at a Humvee is really a Goliath to be destroyed.

On this score, I think several people have misread the scene where Jones tries but fails to read “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” to Charlize Theron’s son. It is yet another story where children are encouraged to believe that they should be at the forefront of the fight against evil. I’m not completely sure myself of what to make of that particular reference, but Hank Deerfield/Tommy Lee Jones does say he can’t Deerfield trying to read Lewisunderstand a word of it. In my own view, this book has a confused take on the role of violence in confronting evil–on the one hand insisting that Aslan self-sacrifice is the key to victory and on the other using his resurrection as a means of wreaking a satisfactory bloody end on all the evildoers. Still, in the context of the movie as a whole, I think what Hank Deerfield can’t read in the book is that Aslan would lie down on the altar to take the knife willingly, rather than take up a stone or a gun to destroy the White Witch. I’m not sure about this, again, because of the confused take on violence and self-sacrifice that I think is at the heart of the tale. Still, it does strike me that the book is a book about children at war, and yet it is a partially different take than that offered by the story of David and Goliath.

A final note, given that this blog is mostly about reading and writing. I was struck by the role of text and reading and visuality and orality in this film. Notably, the father and the son are in touch with each other less through words than through images. In the film itself, we are shown emails that we can’t really read (or at least I couldn’t), but the email is merely a pretext for the really important stuff, the images that the son sends to his father and through which he attempts to communicate with him. I was struck watching this film how much email and media files had changed the war film convention of the letter home from the front. Soldiers don’t send letters home, they call home, they email home, and most importantly in this film, they send images home.

The failure of text, and of language more generally, is a central trope of the film. Hank Deerfield can’t really talk with his son on the phone. The soldiers lie repeatedly. Deerfield can’t read The Lion, The Witch,and the Wardrobe–indeed, for a moment I wondered if Deerfield were really illiterate in some way, though I knew it was impossible given other moments in the film. On the other hand, it’s not clear that images are any better. The files are corrupted. They are without context. Deerfield can’t understand what to make of theDeerfield asks for an image to be explained pictures until he has some of Mike’s comrades explain them to him. The only genuine communication in the movie–or at least the appearance of communication–is in those moments when first Jones and then Theron are talking with the little boy about David and Goliath. And this communication itself is, in the context of the film as a whole, based on a lie that the rest of the film everywhere exposes.

In the end, Deerfield is left with what feels like a futile gesture (and to be honest, the only one in the film to my mind that was absolutely over thesis-like) when he hangs the American flag upside down on a local flag pole. Earlier in the film Deerfield told an El Salvadoran immigrant that hanging the flag upside down was the ultimate distress signal, a sign telling others that you were in “deep shit” with absolutely no way out unless someone came to get you. The film as a whole suggests that it is America itself that is in “deep shit” with no way out.

Who will see this sign and come to save us?

Reading, Listening, and Form: Or, where is literature?

Hugh Mcguire from over at Librivox (and also at hughmcguire.net) left some very good comments on a couple of my recent posts, and also posted them to an online forum over at Librivox. They’re well worth reading in their own right, as are the comments on the forum. You can see Hugh’s comments here and here, and also access the librivox forum for a variety of interesting and useful responses on the issues I’ve been taking up lately. I thought I’d go ahead and keep these up with a couple of continuing posts over the next couple of days on the issues that Hugh and the folks over at Librivox raise (at least raise for me).

When we listen to a book are we more or less experiencing the same literary phenomenon as when we read a book? In his responses earlier to me , Hugh seems to assume so (update–Hugh just sent me another post indicating this is not his position; that comment is accessible at the previous links), and certainly some of the folks in the Librivox forum state this more explicitly—in either case we’re experiencing the same literary work, yes? The reading historian and cultural critic in me—as well as the person who’s amateurishly interesting in the way language is processed in the brain—says…well…maybe. Our tendency to say “Of course it’s the same work of literature. It’s all words!” usually assumes that what is literary about literature is the content. One of the respondents in the forum is getting at something along these lines when he says what’s really important is what the words are pointing to, not the words themselves.

In other words form and media are just part of the delivery system. Who cares how it gets there, as long as it gets there, right?!

Maybe I can illustrate like this. John, Joan and Jimmy are traveling from point A on the east coast to point B on the west coast. They use a road that has a lane for cars, a lane for bicycles, and a lane for walking. John chooses to drive, Joan chooses to ride her bike, and Jimmy chooses to walk. The content theory of journeys would suggest that all three have had approximately the same experience because they have all traveled the same geographical terrain and have moved from point A to point B.

Most students of literature or linguistics would start pulling their hair out at this stage, since a basic tenet of what we do assumes that form matters. Those of us who believe in the centrality of form as well as the significance of time and context to experience would emphasize that John experienced a dramatically different journey in his car trip across country as compared to Jimmy or Joan, and not only because he got there faster. His environment was completely different, he noticed different things and processed them in different ways. A mountain that occupied a half hour of John’s attention, loomed in Jimmy’s pathway for perhaps four or five days. The mountain was a thing of beauty that John experienced from the distance of his car, while the mountain’s beauty was complicated for Jimmy by the fact that he had to walk up one side and down the other, that he worried about mountain lions rumoured to be in the hills, and by his knowledge that if it rained he was in for misery. So though the terrain is identical in one sense, we might well say these folks haven’t experienced the same thing at all.

We don’t have to assume that one journey is necessarily superior to the other—though, I don’t think the question of evaluation can be ruled out—but it’s not quite clear that John, Jimmy and Joan have experienced the same journey despite covering the same terrain. Because the delivery systems of their journies differed, the experience itself–in some sense even the terrain itself–was completely different.

Though the analogy is inexact, it seems to me that something similar applies to the journey we take through a text. It makes a difference whether we read it via scroll, papyri, book, e-book, e-mail, cell-phone, or audiobook–all methods of delivering text, of making the journey. Thus, I would say reading Huckleberry Finn and listening to Huckleberry Finn may not be the same experience delivered in different ways. I’m willing to say they might both be described as valuable cultural experiences, and we may want to even describe both experiences as literary. But it’s not clear that the same “work of literature” has been experienced regardless. In literary and in communication studies more broadly, media matters, in some respects matters at least as much as the content itself. Marshall McLuhan’s dicta that the media is the message gets at this idea. This doesn’t assume that reading is superior to listening; only that you aren’t experiencing the same literary thing when you listen as when you read.

A different take on this suggests how different media and different cultural contexts make it possible to process something as literature when it had never been literature before–which, presumably, might also mean that these same things could cease to be literature in a future cultural context (or that “literature” could cease to be a useful description for the experience of texts entirely.)

The one example I use in my earlier post is the Bible. Many parts of the Hebrew and Greek testaments were oral tradition prior to being written down. And when they were first written down they were written down on scrolls, which enable a particular kind of reading that is very different from that afforded by books. Now one way of talking about this would be to say that all of these things are merely different ways of delivering the same content. The cultural historian in me would point out that these different forms of the Bible led to and resulted in the Bible being read in very different ways and meaning very different things at different times. Protestantism is all but predicated on a particular mode of reading and receiving books that is probably unimaginable in an oral world or a world of scrolls.

(My saying things like this drives my fundamentalist brethren bonkers, but there you have it. When it comes to literature or the bible, most people are content-driven fundamentalists. A word is a word is a word is a word. It says what it means and it means what it says. And we literary theorists, poor dears, fold our hands and say, no, no its not…no, no it doesn’t).

The Bible is also a good example of the peculiar way in which media affects our understanding of what we are experiencing, and even shapes how we experience it. For instance, courses in the Bible as literature are primarily a modern development. People didn’t start talking about the Bible as a literary text until after Gutenberg; that is, right at the time when other books started taking their place alongside sacred texts as cultural authorities. Indeed, our entire concept of “literature” is really a development of the Gutenberg revolution, a result of the great mass of available things to read and the need to distinguish some things as really worth reading. Prior to Gutenberg, so few things were actually collected in to books that everything in print was, by definition, worth reading.

Thus, my qualified “maybe” to those who would say that in listening to a book you are experiencing the same “work of literature” as you experience in reading the same book. Indeed, we are already in a period that can probably usefully be described as post-literary—which includes, but means really much more than “a period when people don’t read books.” That is, we are probably in a period when the culture that needed the term “literature” to distinguish a particulary important form of cultural activity is in decline or has already passed. Ironically, though it is out of a love of “literature” that Librivox pursues its work and through which the devotees of audiobooks pursue their listening, the shift toward the aural/oral that such things signify may also point toward the end of literature as a usefully important concept in our cultural moment. And this may be so without making any judgment as to whether that is a good or bad thing. It may just be a different thing.