Read Adam Kirsch’s review of Robert Alter’s translation of The Wisdom Books (Job, Proverbs, and Kohelet).  That they serve as a kind of counterpoint to the world’s narrative as established elsewhere in the Bible is not a new observation, but one that Kirsch does well to point out — he points it out in the context of language — that of Alter’s translation and that of the literary merit of the texts themselves.  In terms of surface value, a line-by-line basic reading, they perhaps are contradictory.  They are even so in their broader sense — yet they are (and, more importantly, were, millenia ago) accepted as revelatory, just as were (say) the Psalms or the Torah itself.

All of these are, of course, different kinds of revelation: Torah as, in a strict sense, a legal-historical revelation; Psalms as a personal-poetic; then the wisdom books, discussing something more akin to man-in-general, but still a sort of personal-poetic revelation.  The question, however, still remains: can you have revelation that contradicts itself?  Does this revelation, as it may initially appear, contradict itself?  And then what — especially for one who, like me, is inclined to believe that truth is inherent and inhering in these books?

The seeming contradiction and its acceptance by the earlier (now ancient?) generations and its leaders points toward how we can and should (and must, at times?) read the Bible: not as a singular unswerving narrative, but as a mixture of voices, all trying to understand man and God from their position; all of which, the tradition holds, experienced revelation of some kind.  The literary truth of Job or Kohelet may seem to contradict the narrative truth of the Creation, as Kirsch notes of Alter’s translations: but this does not mean that neither is true, or that we must choose one or none.

Biblical truth is closely related to the truth we find in art and literature.  It is various and multiform but exists nevertheless.  What strengthens this truth to something beyond that which is found in art or literature is the idea of revealed truth, if one accepts it.  But the composition of the Bible — that it seems to contradict itself; that it leaves gaps and jagged edges; that the truths of the various books shout, at times, against each other and then with their opponent of a moment ago — is a kind of instruction from those who lived before us — from, in essence, the founders of the religion as a religion of a book — as to how we, millenia later, should read it.  Let the gaps and rough edges stand and try to understand them, and the whole, as they are, rather than try to sand them over into some immaculate unified whole that in the end becomes wholly uninteresting.

After all — even though Kohelet’s men and beasts are equals, unlike the man who is given dominion over beasts in Genesis, the “mere breath” that is all is merely the air which the same earlier book claims God breathed into Adam’s nostrils.  In the end, perhaps, the more interesting truths are those found in the gaps.

Reading Roth Holistically

October 13, 2010

Writing at Tablet, Eryn Loeb remarks:

And in the end, my Philip Roth binge made it hard for me to think of any one of his books as an individual work. Read together, they left behind a web of allusions and cross-references and authorial obsessions and outbursts and reflections that I’m happy to leave all tangled together in my head, letting the Nathan Zuckerman of American Pastoral touch base with his younger self from The Counterlife, having Swede Levov explain his familial knowledge of glove-making to the nameless protagonist of Everyman (who himself has some expertise in the fine jewelry trade), and letting Alex Portnoy and Goodbye, Columbus Neil Klugman swap stories—while all the female romantic interests get together to compare their own notes on this group of tortured Jewish men. Read on a bender like this, the connections between stories and characters and themes all but broadcast themselves, and I got a better sense of the man behind them than I would have had I read American Pastoral by itself, in installments the length of a subway ride.

This runs parallel to some of my feelings about Roth — more than anything, to my feelings about the Zuckerman saga.  On their own, the first trilogy are entertaining and literate, and they pose their questions sometimes and irritate you at others — and I can’t help but feel that were it not for the Zuckerman novels that followed, Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift would have preemptively made Roth’s triplet more or less unnecessary.  But that monumental, Jamesian middle cycle, as brilliant as it is on its own (and, with respect to each novel, individually) is not nearly as tremendous without having known the younger, manic Zuckerman of the previous three.  Exit Ghost, on its own, is middling; as a coda, it feels absolutely necessary.  Some day, it will force me to re-read the whole saga, in order to figure out whether there’s anything more to appreciate at its close.

Relatedly, Roth’s portraits of aging — in the later Zuckerman novels, Sabbath’s Theater, Everyman, and so on — become more vivid in mosaic.  His project strikes one as less to describe the ideal way to age and die, than to describe how these individuals do age and die, and react to that process, and set them side-by-side.  There’s commentary in it, but somehow a far more compassionate commentary than any individual novel would indicate.