Monday, March 06, 2006

Literature As Spiritual Exercise

[T]he intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature. Monotheistic religion offers hope for redemption through entering into a new relation to a supremely powerful non-human person. Belief—as in belief in the articles of a creed—may be only incidental to such a relationship. For philosophy, however, beliefs are of the essence. Redemption by philosophy is through the acquisition of a set of beliefs which represent things in the one way they really are. Literature, finally, offers redemption through making the acquaintance of as great a variety of human beings as possible. Here again, as in religion, true belief may be of little importance.

From within a literary culture, religion and philosophy appear as literary genres. As such, they are optional. Just as an intellectual may opt to read many poems but few novels, or many novels but few poems, so he or she may read much philosophy, or much religious writing, but relatively few poems or novels. The difference between the literary intellectuals’ readings of all these books and other readings of them is that the inhabitant of a literary culture treats books as human attempts to meet human needs, rather than as acknowledgements of the power of a being that is what it is apart from any such needs. God and Truth, are, respectively the religious and the philosophical names for that sort of being. --The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture, by Richard Rorty

As I've progressed in my journey away from Orthodox Judaism, I've found that neither philosophy nor empiricism have been able to replace it.

In my mind, philosophy suffers from the same problem as religion. As F. H. Bradley wrote (and Rorty quotes) "Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct." Historically, philosophers have begun with their conclusions in mind (God exists, or doesn't, goodness exists, or doesn't, truth exists, or doesn't, etc.) and struggled to erect foundations to support their conclusions.

I was tempted to turn towards empiricism, or science. Science is alluring because it tirelessly roots out falsehoods, leaving only what is our best guess at the truth, becoming more correct as time progresses. As Rorty continues,

By the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become clear that mathematics and empirical science were going to be the only areas of culture in which one might conceivably hope to get unanimous, rational agreement—the only disciplines able to provide beliefs which would not be overturned as history rolls along. They were the only sources of cumulative results, and of propositions which were plausible candidates for the status of insight into the way things are in themselves, independent of the contingencies of human history. Unified natural science still seems to many intellectuals to be the answer to Socrates’ prayers.

The problem, though, is that while science may explain the physical universe more accurately than any philosophy ever created, it doesn't address the question of how to live one's life. Rorty:

Modern science, in short, has helped us see that if you want a metaphysics, then a materialistic metaphysics is the only one to have. But it has not given us any reason to think that we need a metaphysics. The need for metaphysics lasted only as long as the hope for redemptive truth lasted. But by the time that materialism triumphed over idealism, this hope had waned...

The literary culture’s attitude toward materialist metaphysics is, and should be, something like this: whereas both Plato’s and Hegel’s attempts to give us something more interesting than physics were laudable attempts to find a redemptive discipline to put in the place of religion, a materialist metaphysics is just physics getting above itself. Modern science is a gloriously imaginative way of describing things, brilliantly successful for the purpose for which it was developed—namely, predicting and controlling phenomena. But it should not pretend to have the sort of redemptive power claimed by its defeated rival, idealist metaphysics.

So if religion's out, philosophy's out, and even science is out, where does that leave us?

For the Socratic idea of self-examination and self-knowledge, the literary intellectual substitutes the idea of enlarging the self by becoming acquainted with still more ways of being human. For the religious idea that a certain book or tradition might connect you up with a supremely powerful or supremely lovable non-human person, the literary intellectual substitutes the Bloomian thought that the more books you read, the more ways of being human you have considered, the more human you become—the less tempted by dreams of an escape from time and chance, the more convinced that we humans have nothing to rely on save one another.

In another essay, Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises, Rorty writes that:

the best way to achieve Heideggerian authenticity—the best way, as Nietzsche said, to "become who you are" —is not to ask "what is the truth?" but rather to ask “what sorts of people are there in the world, and how do they fare?"

Answers to this question are provided by novels like Steinbeck’s, Zola’s and Stowe’s—novels that tell you about the wretchedly poor. They are also provided by novels like James’ and Proust’s that tell you about rich people expanding their horizons. Reading either sort of novel may help the reader to transcend the parents, teachers, customs, and institutions that have blinkered her imagination, and thereby permit her to achieve greater individuality and greater self-reliance...

The work in question is that of enlarging oneself.
That requires being ready to be bowled over by tomorrow’s experiences—to remain open to the possibility that the next book you read, or the next person you meet, will change your life. Increased rationality—increased coherence of belief and desire—cannot close itself off from this possibility of disruption without falling victim to cant. You are such a victim insofar as you believe that you already possess criteria for judging the value of any books or people you may encounter—criteria that will provide you with good and sufficient reasons for tucking each of them into some familiar pigeonhole. To avoid such victimization, you must give up one of the dreams of philosophy—the dream of completeness, of the imperturbability attributed by the wise, of the mastery supposedly possessed by those who have, once and for all, achieved completion by achieving enlightenment...

[W]hat novels do for us is to let us know how people quite unlike ourselves think of themselves, how they contrive to put actions that appall us in a good light, how they give their lives meaning. The problem of how to live our own lives then becomes a problem of how to balance our needs against theirs, and their self-descriptions against ours. To have a more educated, developed and sophisticated moral outlook is to be able to grasp more of these needs, and to understand more of these self-descriptions...

Novel-reading often increases tolerance for strange, and initially repellent, sorts of people. But the motto of the novel is not "to understand all is to forgive all." Rather, it is "Before you decide that an action was unforgivable, make sure that you know how it looked to the agent." You may well conclude that it was indeed unforgivable, but the knowledge of why it was done may help you avoid committing actions that you yourself will later find unforgivable. That is why reading a great many novels is the process by which young intellectuals of our time hope to become wise. This hope is the same that drove young intellectuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to read a great many religious and philosophical treatises.

I've been a fiction reader since I was three. I've lived a thousand different lifetimes, lived as people from countless cultures, real and imagined, people with philosophies similar to mine and those who were completely alien. It may be that access to this multitude of personalities is what made me feel that Orthodox Judaism was too small for me even before I read Hawking and Dawkins. Hawking and Dawkins may have convinced me that Orthodox Judaism isn't true in a literal sense, but it was fiction that made it seem insufficient in a broader and perhaps more important sense.

I agree with Rorty that there will never be an end to the questions, that no religion, no metaphysics, and no grand scientific theory of everything will ever, ever satisfy our thirst for "redemptive truth." The best we can do is to broaden our experience as much as possible, always growing, always assimilating other people's wisdom.

I suggest reading both essays if you're interested. I've only excerpted small parts.


CyberKitten said...

Interesting (as always) - well, the bits I understood anyway.. [grin].

I agree that you can indeed learn a lot about other lives & other points of view from novels - and that the more you read (especially if you read a variety of novels) the more 'rounded' you become.

However, as to 'redemptive truth' - what exactly do you mean by that?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

A materialist metaphysics is just physics getting above itself.

Well put. In fact, Rorty is a very clear communicator.

(btw, "Journeyman" is me, "Q". I'm having an identity crisis that should resolve itself around the beginning of next month.)

Despite his rejection of religious claims, I find myself in agreement with much of what he says in these excerpts. I don't read much non-fiction, but I have always had a talent for understanding other people's way of perceiving events. And it has kept me (most of the time) from making the mistake of thinking that my perspective is the only valid one.

I'll try to make time to read the whole of both essays.

dbs said...

Great post. I particularly appreciated the comments about metaphysics.

Chana said...

I'm fascinated that you came to this conclusion. I've also been a fiction and fantasy reader since a very young age (and before that, I created stories and plays, skits and enactments that revolved around fantasy and fiction) with a taste that ranges from my ever-present Russian fairy tales to English fairy tales to common 'Brothers Grimm' stories to Roald Dahl to Cornelia Funke to Neil Gaiman and onwards and so on.

What I find interesting is that when I read, so much of what I read supports and invigorates my Judaism. I come to so many realizations when I'm in the midst of reading a book, so many different flashes and intriguing points of thought- I suppose in a way I see God in the books I read. The Arabian Nights, Madame Flaubert, The Master and matter what it is or may be, I think it is that very aspect- the fact that we discover our own humanity and the humanity of the characters and the protagonists- that lends itself to being interpreted and understood by religion.

It's interesting that you bring reading up as something that deterred you or distanced you from religion because when I sit in my AP English class, every day I thank God for my Judaism/ the way I learned. There are so many allusions in literature and in fiction that you cannot understand or catch unless you have had a religious education, there are so many subtle and minute details that people in my class don't notice, and indeed, the very method in which I learn and read literature has been impacted by my Judaism. My continous sessions of "b'kesher l'ma lamadnu"s really pay off in English class, when I am able to associate quotes made by one character with ideas expressed by another because of the similar wording. People in my class don't know what to make of me; they're amazed by the way I spout interpretations, and I feel like a fraud or at least like someone involved in showbiz, because the least of the yeshiva bochurim learning Gemara can do what I am doing...and yet it is so novel to those seated in the class.

Anyway, that was just to suggest that we read the same books and texts and all find different meanings of them (by the way, I noticed your quote from Nietzsche; he is probably the philosopher I dislike the most) and it's intriguing (to me at least) that you found yourself distanced and I find that I embrace religion the more that I read.

asher said...


Does the term "baalat gayyvah" mean anything to you?

Why not read some Sholom Alechem and Issac Batsheva Singer and tell us how it reinforces your judaism.

From an ex-yeshiva, used be to orthodox person

Jewish Atheist said...


However, as to 'redemptive truth' - what exactly do you mean by that?

It's Rorty's term. I think he means the concept of a single Truth which encompasses everything. He says it's something "philosophy hoped to provide but religion and literature do not."

Despite his rejection of religious claims, I find myself in agreement with much of what he says in these excerpts.

Yeah, I don't think it's really necessary to agree with him on religion to take something from his ideas on literature.


Great post. I particularly appreciated the comments about metaphysics.

Me too. I think it's the first time I've seen someone put their finger on what I've been feeling about philosophy.


As Rorty writes, in the literary culture, religion becomes a genre. He calls it "optional," but obviously in the West, religion has deeply influenced literature. There's no doubt that skills from one transfer to the other.

Literature made religion seem too small to me. Judaism encompasses a lot of truth, but to me it doesn't contain the universality that literature does. On an obvious level, reading certain Asian writers, for example, or Western New Agey Pagan writers, or even Catholic writers, brings you in contact with something completely alien to Jewish thought.

I don't know if you've read Potok's thoughts about Asia, but he writes somewhere that it was a real revelation to him when he went to Japan (Korea?) that there was this whole advanced (in some ways) culture that had developed completely without the influence of Torah.

You and I both liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Where in Torah learning can you get the humanity that Chbosky's characters have? The stories of Genesis are good myths (whether you believe in them as history or not, they also function as myths) but they aren't about humans in the nitty-gritty detailed way that characters in literature are. There are some good stories in Navi and the Megillahs, but again, they aren't on the level (as literature!) as the great works of literature are.

The title of my post (paraphrased from Rorty) is "Literature as Spiritual Exercise." I think you and I probably feel the same thing when we read great (or just plain good) literature, and I can call it "spiritual" (meaning it metaphorically) and you can call it "seeing God," and that's okay. I just think that the "God" of literature is somehow bigger than the "God" of Judaism. Literature contains so many widely diverse characters and countless worldviews, while Judaism (in my opinion) contains only a subset of each.


Don't be a jerk.

Orthoprax said...


"Literaturism" just seems like curious Humanism to me. It's also rather existential, or more specifically, that "true" reality just isn't important.

Actually, what it most reminds me of is Hegel; that the conclusions aren't really important but that "truth" lies in understanding the discussion.

Jewish Atheist said...


I kind of had you partially in mind when I wrote this post. Rorty doesn't seem to believe in "true" reality, so it clearly can't be important to him. ;)

You should really read those essays.

The question “do you believe that truth exists?” is shorthand for something like “Do you think that there is a natural terminus to inquiry, a way things really are, and that understanding what that way is will tell us what to do with ourselves?”

Those who, like myself, find themselves accused of postmodernist frivolity do not think that there is such a terminus. We think that inquiry is just another name for problem-solving, and we cannot imagine inquiry into how human beings should live, into what we should make of ourselves, coming to an end. For solutions to old problems will produce fresh problems, and so on forever. As with the individual, so with both the society and the species: each stage of maturation will overcome previous dilemmas only by creating new ones.

Jewish Atheist said...

Oops, didn't mean to publish. Orthoprax, you might also be interested in this essay. Excerpt:

Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister--corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.

The public becomes incensed, however, when rogue philosophers come upstairs, buttonhole the tenants and tell them that there really are no foundations--that their industrious colleagues are just providing "bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct" (F.H. Bradley's description of metaphysics).



I shall use the term ‘redemptive truth’ for a set of beliefs which would end, once and for all, the process of reflection on what to do with ourselves. Redemptive truth would not consist in theories about how things interact causally, but instead would fulfill the need that religion and philosophy have attempted to satisfy. This is the need to fit everything—every thing, person, event, idea and poem --into a single context, a context which will somehow reveal itself as natural, destined, and unique. It would be the only context that would matter for purposes of shaping our lives, because it would be the only one in which those lives appear as they truly are. To believe in redemptive truth is to believe that there is something that stands to human life as elementary physical particles stand to the four elements—something that is the reality behind the appearance, the one true description of what is going on, the final secret.

Orthoprax said...


"I kind of had you partially in mind when I wrote this post. Rorty doesn't seem to believe in "true" reality, so it clearly can't be important to him. ;)"

From the quotes you provided, it seems that Rorty doesn't make a stand as to whether a final truth is out there or not, but that the human condition is so that we can never appreciate it. This is worse than calling it nonexistent - it makes it irrelevant.

The philosophy of post-modernism is the intellectual equivalent of throwing in the towel. We can't seem to justify our beliefs in ontologically reliable ways so we're just going to remove ontology from consideration. They know there's a big hole in their philosophy, so they just build around it.

I, for one, though have felt fatigue, do not think that all routes have been exhausted.

"You should really read those essays."

In due time. ;-)

Chana said...

It's interesting you say that, because I see the biblical figures and characters as archetypal figures after whom much modern literature is based.

Abraham and the moral dilemma that swirls around him- to sacrifice his son? Not to sacrifice his son? After hearing the prophecy that stated he would have a son, waiting so long, and finally receiving an heir, he faces the most terrible of choices. What is choice if not Abraham?

Isaac and Rebecca, foils for one another, Isaac who appears to be fooled by the rich and spicy game his son Esau feeds him; Rebecca, the shrewd woman who deceives her husband in order to ensure the proper heir- in her eyes. Jacob's moral dilemma, fearing his father's curse, and his subsequent exile to Laban...what is all that if not drama on the highest scale?

Moses, born and raised a prince, son of Bityah, the future king, choosing his enslaved people over the glory and kingship that awaits him...a fateful choice, for when he allies himself with his people he must flee, disguised as an Egyptian..and then, the subsequent years in the desert, where he must wonder whether it was all worth it, for he exclaims so often that "A little more and they will stone me!" or "Am I a wetnurse for these people?"

David, the man to stand up against a giant, facing Goliath against all odds- only to earn the hatred and contempt of a great king fallen into the straits of depression, but who serves him all the same, strumming his lyre even as Saul plots against him.

The villains, men like Doeg and Achitophel, as clever if not cleverer than men like Iago in Shakespeare's Othello... They are brilliant men, trusted viziers, and yet they bring about the King's ruin...the Othello story is uniquely similar to this.

And what of the women? Heroines who have no equal, stories of Judith cutting off Holifernes' head and hiding it within a basket, the blood soaking through. Or of Yael, woman who gives her body to Sisra while she plots to kill him and eventually succeeds in doing so, a woman triumphing where Barak's army failed!

What are these characters if not rich, colorful, multilayered and multitextured? None of them are flat, static characters, each of them grow and change in so many ways throughout the Bible. Can we equate the princess Sarai, beloved of Emirs, Emperors, Pharoahs and the like, with the mother of nations whose bitter disbelieving laugh we hear in the tent? Do we not see Moses' development, from his fateful choice the day he decides to join with his people, onward as he becomes sick at heart, continously praying for a wayward nation, and finally is denied his only wish- entrance to the Land? Are we not amazed by the drama, not only by the supernatural miracles when the parts for the Hebrews or crashes down amongst the enemy chariots, but also when bread rains down from heaven? And can we not feel for the Hebrews and understand their mental torture as they watch this food melt away, melting under the sunlight, so close and yet so far, for God has only allowed them to take an omer...and no more?

What of Korach, courageous and rebellious man, warring with Moses in an attempt to instate equality, the main protagonist of our 'common-sense rebellion'? What of the grandeur and glory of the most beautiful temple ever to be raised, or the pivotal moment where Moses smashes the Tablets to the ground? The Bible is filled with so much majesty and grandeur; its characters are so real and so very human- that I see them as archetypes or as beginnings, men who shape the world.

Who is Samson if not the first Hercules, far before the time of the Greeks or Romans? And yet he perishes for the love of a woman, for Delilah, whom he lusts after...Each of our heroes has his Achilles heel, each man his tragic flaw. We have tales of courage, of brilliance, of wit...we have Eglon, who arises to honor a God he does not even truly serve, and Ehud, left-handed man of the double-edged sword...

We have daring escapes, as Rahab lets men down rope ladders...insurrections and mutinies in the form of the spies turning against their God...rebellions by Ba'al Pe'or and the Golden Calf.

We have men, real and true men, living and breathing, characters that are so real we can feel them as we read about them. We have flawed men, tortured men, men faced with moral dilemmas, men who complain, who are angry, who cry out, who rail against God... (Jonah) or who suffer (Job)...we have archetypes of all kinds, but we go beyond archetypes to a world of characters, male and female, man and woman...

The Bible is not a simple tale of a nation who hears God, submits and obeys, but it is rather the tale of a struggle between a nation and God- a fight, a people who rebel and mutiny so many times, a God who responds passionately and angrily but who allows them second chances, and the cycle is repeated again. No choice is easy, our greatest leaders exhibit flaws in judgement...what is Saul, if not compassionate, saving King Agag and his Queen in a misguided attempt at kindness? And for that he must lose his kingdom! For that Samuel revokes his kingship?!

Solomon, the wisest man of all time, visited by Sheba, courted by so many, and yet not even he is exempt from humanity and mortality; even in his wisdom he is considered to have sinned...Joseph, so handsome that the women "stood on the rooftops" to gaze at him, almost succumbing to the lures and wiles of the seductive wife of Potiphar...who are all these people if not living, breathing examples of humanity?

Surely many of these characters are symbolic- they are identified by certain attributes, by attributes of kindness, strength, compassion, wisdom or prophecy...but they are more than these attributes. They are known for one quality, but they exhibit more, they do not mindlessly obey; they, too, suffer and struggle; they, too, question; they, too, ask why...

The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Oh The Perks of Being a Wallflower is beautiful and moving, touching and poignant, because it describes Charlie and his passivity, but above all because of its humanity- and the Bible, for me, is the same. Abraham must choose between his father, his relatives, the world itself- and his God. Moses, between all the treasures of Egypt- and his people. Saul- between God's command and his compassion. These are difficult, difficult choices and the men who act out the great drama that is our history and that is the Bible are so layered, so complex, and so fascinating that I could study them forever and never figure out all their motivations...

Hamlet is the character we often deem to be fascinating, because we do not know if he is mad or feigning madness, active or passive, willing or unwilling avenger...but if Hamlet is brilliant, how much more so the characters of the Bible! Hamlet has to choose between avenging his father or remaining true to himself; these men must choose between God, their beliefs, and so many they love...some choose correctly and wisely, some incorrectly, but they all gather together in one of the greatest dramas I have ever read.

I warrant there is no classic that contains as many different, changing and evolving characters as the Bible- everyone from the great characters, like the Matriarchs, to Avishag or Avigail, Nadav's wife- who helps David, or Izevel, villainess par excellence, Ahab's evil Queen (a wickeder Lady Macbeth could not be imagined!)

You ask why I love the Bible? This is why...because the characters are so real and their lives so intricate, and so, whether one regards the Bible as true or as literature, either way it is absolutely amazing- as are the people who walk its pages.

Jewish Atheist said...

The philosophy of post-modernism is the intellectual equivalent of throwing in the towel. We can't seem to justify our beliefs in ontologically reliable ways so we're just going to remove ontology from consideration. They know there's a big hole in their philosophy, so they just build around it.

I don't know, it seems like after enough trying, over enough millenia, with enough brilliant minds, to justify beliefs in ontologically reliable ways, and failing regularly, reliably, it seems reasonable to believe that there is no foundation to our beliefs. Moreover, it's a fact that at present there simply is no foundation to our beliefs. If there is a foundation but we haven't found it than for us there is no foundation.

Rorty et al say, well, what's left? What's next? It seems to me far more reasonable to side with them than to say, well, let's just make up some more BS and hope it lasts ten years before being completely discredited.

I, for one, though have felt fatigue, do not think that all routes have been exhausted.

Well, hell, keep looking! I think you're searching for a dark cat in a dark room when it almost definitely isn't even there, as they say, but if you found it, it'd be pretty cool.

Happy hunting.

Jewish Atheist said...


Great comment. I've always seen the people in tanakh as archetypes, yes, but NOT as fully developed characters. Adam and Eve and the first sin is great mythology, but can be only the most basic sketch of a story. Their drives and motivations are only hinted at, the potential interpretations of the snake's symbolism tantalizing but ultimately ungraspable. I think of most Biblical stories as the bare bones of stories, able to be fleshed out, but in themselves incomplete.

The passion with which you write about the Biblical stories is great. You're obviously more familiar with some of them than I and perhaps I haven't given them enough credit. I remain skeptical that they have as much depth as Shakespeare's characters (Hamlet being sort of a weird exception in that his character has its own insubstantiality to it) or that they can cover the range that all the collective characters of modern literature cover.

Every generation can reinterpret the old stories, and must do so, but without writing and reading new stories, stories that somehow push the envelope, I think that there's a part of our 21st century souls that can never be touched by the old stories. Unless the Bible's right about there really being nothing new under the sun. :)

Orthoprax said...


I find most Biblical characters to be rather basic formulations actually. The stories themselves and the positions that characters are put in can have deep significance, but I think your perceived complexity of the characters is due more to your own additions than anything that was intended.

Orthoprax said...


"Moreover, it's a fact that at present there simply is no foundation to our beliefs. If there is a foundation but we haven't found it than for us there is no foundation."

We can admit that and at the same time not give up on the quest. Perhaps it is the quest and the conviction that success is a real possibility which keeps life from falling into existential, post-modernist madness.

Honestly, "Literaturism" is nothing else but a validating effort to keep oneself busy so one doesn't realize the giant darkness that surrounds life. We know our own minds and emotions fairly well, so lets study others' thoughts and feelings and forget that the rest of the universe is fundamentally a complete unknown.

Jewish Atheist said...

Honestly, "Literaturism" is nothing else but a validating effort to keep oneself busy so one doesn't realize the giant darkness that surrounds life.

I think it's a little more than that. Literature's an opportunity to expand one's horizons as much as possible, to find solace and companionship with other souls, to find not Meaning, but a thousand meanings.

I don't think even Rorty is claiming that literature is the end. His whole point is that there is no redemptive truth. He's not so much saying even that literature is the best way to live; he's just describing the culture that many Western intellectuals are currently living in.

asher said...

Chana left out many bibilical characters whose personalities we can understand:

Jacob..a man obviously addicted to sex...2 wives and 2 concubines. Yet in all his wisdom he gives one son a coat of many colors to show his higher love for him

Solomon,...the man who asked God for wisdom, winds up with over 1,000 wives (most of them heathens) and builds the Temple with money from his people thus alienating half the nation and causing civil war.

Aaron, brother of Moses who helped Moses defy Pharoah, makes good use of his gold making abilities to cerate the Golden Calf in the desert, thus showing that how a brother can defy his own brother and the God of his brother.

Mordechai who (some say) married his neice, allows her marry a gentile King and then insists she risk her life to save her people whom he told her never to reveal to the king.

You can read anything into anything..and it can sound logical. I still remember someone showing this really arcane book from England where the author proves that Alice in Wonderland has direct references and parallels the bible. This is literary criticism at it's best.

And no one mentions Ulysses by James Joyce?

Sadie Lou said...

I find most Biblical characters to be rather basic formulations actually. The stories themselves and the positions that characters are put in can have deep significance, but I think your perceived complexity of the characters is due more to your own additions than anything that was intended.

obviously from someone who hasn't read the book of Job.

Hrafnkel said...

"...but I think your perceived complexity of the characters is due more to your own additions than anything that was intended."

This is a very interesting point ("can your interpretation of something unintended also be valid for literature to be taken seriously?"). When combined with Asher's "you can read anything into anything", you have the reasons why I can't fully grant to literature what Rory seems to attempt to do. However, I wouldn't completely disregard literature due to these qualms. As far as the Tanakh goes, I will remain undecided, but leaning towards not great literature. Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes are two books that I think could stand up to modern scrutiny better than the surrounding elements of the canon.


Anonymous said...

"...but I think your perceived complexity of the characters is due more to your own additions than anything that was intended."

This is a very interesting point ("can your interpretation of something unintended also be valid for literature to be taken seriously?"). When combined with Asher's "you can read anything into anything", you have the reasons why I can't fully grant to literature what Rory seems to attempt to do. However, I wouldn't completely disregard literature due to these qualms. As far as the Tanakh goes, I will remain undecided, but leaning towards not great literature. Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes are two books that I think could stand up to modern scrutiny better than the surrounding elements of the canon.


Anonymous said...

sorry about the double post. i got an error the first time i tried to post a comment.

David said...

Biblical narratives are thumbed and fingered by more writers than any other "secondary text" in the Western world, and for good reason. From Steinbeck to Faulkner to Gluck to Franzen to (gasp) Frey--the complexity and symbolic garden of such stories (from Jacob to Job)is, frankly, unparalleled.

-Published poet/essayist/Jewish educator & diety rejector

Chana said...

Jewish Atheist, Orthoprax, and whoever would like to listen in,

I think that we have to make an important distinction when we refer to the stories and tales of the Bible. Do we refer to the unaccompanied text, or the text alongside the commentaries and various interpretations? It's the difference between reading Hamlet alone and reading Hamlet accompanied by praise, literary criticism and derisive reviews by different critics, ranging from T.S. Eliot to Harold Bloom and so on and so forth.

I think that the way we read is also important. There are people who read on a superficial level, gaining information, remembering it for a short period of time, and then promptly forgetting it. Then there are those that really do read, in a process of intake and comprehension to be respected and valued. There are some who identify with the character because they have undergone similar experiences or situations. And then there are those that become the character, feeling what the character feels, facing the moral dilemmas and choices, the forks in the road, divergent paths.

There are those who cannot use this method of identifying with/ emotionally becoming the character, and who prefer an aesthetic method. Such a one was Nabokov, who regarded emotional identification with a character as vulgar. He preferred to weigh and value a book quantitatively, observing the way it was structured, the language used, and puns/ witticisms engaged. These two different methods could perhaps be better expressed through the metaphor of a painting. One viewer sees the painting and exclaims at the grand depth and beauty within it, and judges it based on the emotional evocations. Another viewer sees the painting and critically evaluates it, judging it with regard to skill, texture, size, color, perspective, proportion- in effect, the correctly applied techniques.

We may view the Bible and different literary works differently simply because we are different kinds of readers, valuing different types of things. However, I think that so long as an idea or opinion can be proven by and supported by textual evidence, it cannot be viewed as having been injected or projected onto the source. If I were to take the verse out of context, manipulate it, distort it, twist it, or leave out words, that would be wrong. If I were to come to the Bible with the preconceived notion that all the characters must be good, then I would project my ideas onto the text. But if I approach the Bible as a human being, compassionately, then I see the characters for what they are, and judge and value them accordingly.

I think that all humans are by nature compassionate (until they are wounded too deeply or hurt too bitterly) and if we view the heroes, villains, and characters of the Bible through the lens of a compassionate reader, we see that they are extremely real. I previously mentioned the villains like Jezebel, Doeg and Achitophel, and compared them to people like Iago or Lady Macbeth. That comparison stands. Consider Jezebel. She is extremely real, human (if you regard the Bible as literature, she is well-crafted) because at the same time that she openly defies the law herself, she offers her husband halakhic and moral justification so that he can seize Naboth's vineyards. The grisly ends these villains come to- her bones being licked and eaten by dogs, for example- are mimicked in much of later literature.

Or consider Assalya. A villainess with a grand motive, she kills all the male heirs to the throne, but there is one survivor- Joash, hiding within the Sanctum Sanctorum. We can understand Assalya, empathize with her, consider her plight and the way she wants the throne, even if we do not agree with her actions.

Or take Ahab...what is Moby Dick without Ahab, the name with all its connotations contrasting with the openness and savage nature of the sea? Captain Ahab, a man more feared and frightening possibly never created...

A side point to JA- I think that most major themes are the same, and we are simply repeating them in different settings. The Gothic novel, the teenage story- different coming-of-age accounts, but telling the same tale, simply tweaking bits to make them more up to date. While there is enough in Perks, especially in the style (the letter-writing) to make it fascinating, the idea of a coming-of-age novel is not new. There are very few new and original books out there, actually...which make it a pleasure when we find one that is really different in significant ways.

Asher, you mentioned various flaws within the characters in the Bible. I agree with you. The characters are flawed and they are human. I think a new difference in readings has to be introduced- whether we approach the Bible as literature or whether we approach it as truth. If it is literature, then the complexities and the problems the characters face, while disturbing, need not truly offend our sensibilities- for they are mere tools, there to teach us, instruct us, and provoke thought. If, however, we regard the Bible as being true, we must evaluate charactesr, regard their actions in the light of their time-period, stop ourselves from looking at everything through our modernity-tinted glasses, and consider the humanity that unites them to us. Were they punished for their actions? Is it a sufficient punishment for their actions? The judgement calls are expressed by many of the commentaries, and we ourselves must also think about them.

You inquired, Asher, as to how books by the likes of Singer or Shalom Aleichem could inspire or provoke thought in the Orthodox Jew. One example I could offer you is that of The Penitent, a work by Singer. The protagonist of this book has suffered very much, as a survivor of the Holocaust, he abandons his religion and sets out for modernity. However, he becomes "a penitent," but his new philosophy is flawed. He speaks in tirades and diatribes, his every word angry and filled with hatred, blasting Americans and modernity throughout. I feel very sad for him and for his character. A book like this makes me think and reevaluate my own Judaism, and consider why I am Jewish. Is it because I need meaning in my life, and am so deluded that I will create it where there is none? Is it because I see myself as higher and more mighty than everyone else? Is it because I'm scared that there might not be a God? And once I decide to be Orthodox, do I treat peope the way Joseph treats them?

Or take Shalom Aleichem. Best known for Fiddler, his other stories also expose the hypocrisy he considers to be an innate quality of Orthodox Jews. He criticizes the flaws, and most times he is right. His books provide the impetus, again, for us to assess what we are doing and consider our lives in the light of what he has said. Are we hypocrites? Are we truly religious, in ways more than outward show? And why?

Books like that can support and foster religiosity in purer and truer ways than many others...and like I said, my Judaism can be made stronger because of it.

TgdyCmdy said...

Wow. What a wonderful piece.

I just finished reading Primo Levi's Moments of Reprieve, and although his stories are accounts of real characters rather than strictly fictional ones, the book had the enlightening affect that I often get from reading a good novel; That of seeing the world through the eyes and imagination of another, whose life experiences are both like and unlike my own.

Orthoprax said...


"obviously from someone who hasn't read the book of Job."

One, I said "most" not all. Two, I've read the entire Tanach and much of the New Testament, FYI.

Orthoprax said...


"This is a very interesting point ("can your interpretation of something unintended also be valid for literature to be taken seriously?")."

Literature is not science, but the Bible's worth is not in the skill of the writing (which can often be excellent but is also regularly stilted and uncomfortable) or in the compelling nature of the stories (which can be highly intriguing but at other times extremely dull and repetative). The value is in that these foundational stories, themes and messages resonate throughout the Western world and the Jewish civilization.

Don't get me wrong, I very much like Biblical stories and so on. I just don't think that the authors put as much thought into the characters as many readers are taking out of it. If you read Tanach there is hardly any character development. You don't even really get to know the characters very well. Heck, any of the stories between Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could be interchanged with the other and you'd probably not notice.

In a few of the royalty in Samuel and Kings you'll find significant character, but most kings you could switch with one another and the story wouldn't miss a beat.

My measure of knowing a character is in having the ability to predict how they would act in situations other than the stories in which they are found. No, that's not right, the measure is in understanding what would be going on in their heads before they act. And the more complex the thought considerations, the more complex the character. For most Biblical characters you can't even predict how they'll act in the stories for which they are written. And for those that are predictable, they are predictable in simplistic ways.

Oh, Samson, I bet he's gonna get angry now and kill a bunch of people... y'know?

B. Spinoza said...

My favorite author is Dostoevsky and his novel that I liked the most is The Brothers Karamazov

Chana said...

*smiles* Dmitri, devils, interrogations, Grushenka, Smerdyakov, Ivan and Alyosha...what could be more fun? Suspenseful, disturbing, filled with plot twists, wrenching, and thought-provoking. Oh, and Katya! And so many more. Do you have a favorite scene?

B. Spinoza said...

>Do you have a favorite scene?

The Grand Inquisitor

Hrafnkel said...

Alas Orthoprax, literature is not science. I am fully aware of this fact. My statement and parenthetical question were merely musings on what I find wrong with literaturism as a replacement of religion/philosophy/science/metaphysics, as referred to in JA's original post.