09 April, 2007

The rhythm of response

God. Abraham!

Abraham. Here I am. . . The night is filled with thy voice. Here am I. What dost thou demand of me?

God. Thy son. Thy only son.

Abraham. What sayst thou?

God. Take now thy son, thy only son, Isaac, whom thou lovest, and go into the mountains where I shall show thee, and offer him there for a burnt offering.

Abraham. Wouldst thou I do even as the Canaanites, who lay their firstborn on fires before idols? Art thou truly the Lord my God?

God. Thou knowest.

Abraham. No! NO!

Abraham marches up the hillside, cursing and shrieking. He rests on a large rock.

Abraham. Thou wilt not ask this thing of me. . .
This dialogue is from John Huston's 1966 film The Bible, which would be more accurately titled Genesis 1:1-22:19, and which stars George C. Scott as Abraham, alongside such luminaries as Peter O. Toole, Richard Harris and Ava Gardner. You'll notice that this passage, like much of the film, is written (when it is not merely quoting) in a decent pastiche of KJVese; 'even as the Canaanites', especially, has a plausible ring to it. But how unlike the telling of this story in Genesis (22:1-3)—
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah: and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
The prose style of this passage has acquired a particular fame since Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, in which he contrasts it to a paragraph from the Odyssey. The Biblical epic style, he argues, is spare, shadowy, and psychological, where the Greek epic style is descriptive, bright, and essentially superficial. An equally illuminating contrast can now be drawn between the Biblical passage and its cinematic translation.


Huston presents his scene as a conflict of forces—in other words, as a drama. This is an obvious point, but it needs nonetheless to be stated, because our notion of narrative as drama is so deeply rooted that it tends towards the status of an unrecognised assumption. When stories from the Bible are retold, they are always told as dramas. But the Bible itself is virtually without drama.

At first, this statement seems flagrantly false. Isn't the entire Old Testament full of drama? From Adam's expulsion and Abel's murder to Job and the moral conflicts of Kings—the scripture narrates one conflict after another. But each scene, examined closely, turns out to be fundamentally undramatic. Take God's rebuke of Cain, for example—instead of a conflict of forces, we read this (Gen. 4:9-10):
And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
God does not answer Cain's question, but rather asks another of his own; both are rhetorical, not directed towards one another, but rather revealing inner states. God knows what has happened—for he hears the voice of Abel's blood—before asking Cain where his brother is. There is no meeting of forces, because in reality there is only one force—that of God. Cain is merely a foil, a dummy. Or take another example: the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:17-39). Here, again, Elijah stands in for the divine force; his success over Ahab's minions is so well anticipated that Elijah can nonchalantly flood his altar with water, and taunt the struggling villains:
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god, either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.
The prophets, like Cain, are a dummy, essentially one character although enumerated at 450. And what about that dramatic tour de force, the grandest and most heartfelt book of the entire Bible, not to mention the most beautiful—the Book of Job? In the Middle Ages the book was called a syllogism; but I find this account completely false. There is nothing reasonable in its resolution; the setup, in which Satan wagers God, has been forgotten by the end, and the arguments of Job's interlocutors have no role in its conclusion. Their claim that Job must have sinned is rebuffed without humility. Job is in this respect a Nietzschean hero, refusing to accept the arguments of a 'holier than thou' ressentiment. Here, perhaps alone in the Bible, there is some semblance of drama, although Job's outpourings are at right-angles to the speeches of his four visitors. God's final discourse offers no justification, and therefore no engagement with Job's plight—it asserts instead that God's majesty renders all human debate impossible. (We note, as with Cain, the introduction of this speech with a rhetorical question, 38:2: 'Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?') In dramatic terms, this is a cop-out; in the terms of the Old Testament, it is utterly sublime.


The story of Isaac's sacrifice, especially, is without drama. The narrative reads to us like a clockwork mechanism, with each participant contentedly playing his part in the whole. Abraham offers no resistance to God's command. And one of the insights of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (1843) is that if Abraham had offered resistance—if, in other words, there had been real drama—then he would not have been a paragon of religious faith. Kierkegaard opens his book with several retellings of the story, introducing into each a dramatic aspect, however slight. In one version, Abraham decides to convince his son that he is a monster, lest Isaac think ill of God; in another, Isaac looks up to see 'that Abraham's left hand was clenched in despair, that a shudder went through his body'. These stories show by contrast that the moral perfection of the real Abraham lies in his unquestioning obedience. This is why George C. Scott can only be a modern hero, conventionally pious, without obtaining the existentialist heights of the Biblical Abraham. It is why the Bible can never be filmed.

It is important to reiterate, however, that the Genesis narrative never states that Abraham is unquestioningly obedient; this is not an aspect played up in the text. The events just happen. Those who know the Bible stories well, but do not know the Bible itself, will be repeatedly impressed by this aspect of the scriptures. It is an aspect impossible to render on the silver screen; this is because cinema, like theatre, has moral drama—the conflict of wills—at its core. George C. Scott cannot merely do as God says, because that would not make any sense to us. He must protest; he must explicitly demonstrate the enormity of his charge. This is a question of rhythm—thesis, antithesis—a rhythm that we need to make meaning of narrative, as a reassurance.


If the Bible does not use the dramatic thesis-antithesis rhythm, what sort of narrative rhythm does it use? Perhaps many: but for the purposes of this post I am interested in the rhythm of 'call and response', where the response echoes the call, and makes it manifest. This rhythm is often achieved by perfect (or near-perfect) verbal repetition. It is established at the very beginning—'And God said, Let there be light: and there was light'—and carried to extraordinary lengths in Exodus 25:1-39:31, where God's elaborate designs for the ark and priestly vestments are executed to the letter, his imperative words transposed almost verbatim to a narrative voice, for pages on end:
And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. (25:10)

And Bezaleel made the ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half was the length of it, and a cubit and a half the breadth of it, and a cubit and a half the height of it. (37:1)
The same rhythm can be clearly seen in the Isaac-sacrifice passage (Gen. 22:1-3) quoted above: God tells Abraham what to do, and Abraham does it. It can even be seen in miniature within the first verse—God calls out for Abraham, and the patriarch replies, 'Here I am'. As Auerbach acknowledges, the latter's words really mean, I await your command: 'a most touching gesture expressive of obedience and readiness is suggested'.

Whereas the dramatic rhythm is dynamic, the rhythm of response is static. It underlines the relationship between God and man: God speaks, and man (if he is good) does. It also gives the Biblical narrative a timeless or eternal quality: when God and man are in accord, there is no change, because change is seen as deviation from an ideal, as in the archetype of Eden. It is characteristic that Milton uses this same rhythm in a key passage of Paradise Lost. Adam has come to understand his sin, and now repents—he assumes a voice of leadership, and action exactly follows intention. At the end of Book 10 (in the original 12-book edition):
What better can we do, than, to the place
Repairing where he judged us, prostrate fall
Before him reverent; and there confess
Humbly our faults, and pardon beg; with tears
Watering the ground, and with our sighs the air
Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeigned, and humiliation meek.
And at the beginning of Book 11:
. . . they, forthwith to the place
Repairing where he judged them, prostrate fell
Before him reverent; and both confessed
Humbly their faults, and pardon begged; with tears
Watering the ground, and with their sighs the air
Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeigned, and humiliation meek.
To make better sense of this I turn to a wonderful little book, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy's The Origin of Speech, written during the Second World War but only published in 1964. Nothing in this slim volume is true. . . but sometimes we need a religious man to tell us about language, and not a linguist or a historian. For ERH, modern communication is based excessively on indicative statements, and especially on abstract, 'reflective' statements of universal truth. This he regards as a negative deviation from an earlier and more 'authentic' mode of communication. (The narrative of decline is typical of religious writing.) In authentic discourse, statements of fact can only be understood in the context of other sorts of speech—imperatives, subjunctives, optatives, and questions. An order is given, and ratified by its execution; the execution in turn is ratified by the order which instigated it. As ERH puts it, '"Break" is said because "broken" will be said. And "broken" makes sense because "break" preceded it'. He invokes a curious fact well-worn by linguistic investigators—that in many languages, the imperative is morphologically the simplest form of the verb (for instance fac from fac-ere)—concluding from this that the imperative is also the earliest and most fundamental form of the verb, and therefore the most 'authentic'. In valorising the command-execution relationship, or in other words the rhythm of response, ERH insists on the necessity of a hierarchical separation between speaker and actor, for to remove this hierarchy would be to create a mob—an ochlocracy. Language is inseparably linked to politics and society, the ills of the latter being results of linguistic shortcomings. Anarchy, he argues, is the disease of speaking when one should be listening, as to God.

Can you imagine thinking like that, dear reader? No? Perhaps, then, that is why you are reading a blog about unreligious experiences.


Zumbas said...

This one feels like one of your longer post, but something compelled me to read through it. Maybe it is my Monday morning work malaise. Who knows...

Anyway, I think that I would prefer much less drama in my life, at home and at work. It would be a treat to take people at their word, and know that within a certain degree of confidence that they would do what they would say. Here at work, I always have to be on the lookout for the posturing, subterfuge, backstabbing, and incompetence. Ugg, what I would do to work at a place where the people are a few standard deviations above the mean! Er, above what mean, you ask, well, hell, “any mean” really. --Z

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Z; yes, less drama would definitely be good for both of us.

John B. said...

There's much to think about here, but I wanted to throw in a few words about "drama" in the Old Testament. There are rare exceptions to your argument that it's absent from the OT: Moses is not shy about expressing either his own inadequacies or those of the Israelites to God. He does obey, but God has more than a little persuading to do. Its drama, if that's the right term, bears some similarities to that found in the Aeneid when Aeneas needs an occasional nudge from the gods to get a move on to get to the place that he's been destined to get to. And the story of David is nothing if not the story of a deeply-flawed man who loves God and knows the Law but whose baser impulses cause him not merely to disobey but to arrange to have people killed in order to have his way.

As for Job, his real beef is not with the Comforters but with God: He has been taught that obedience to God's will prospers a man; he's played by the rules, but look at him now. He rejects the Comforters' arguments--and so does God, for that matter--because they have no validity. They argue Job MUST have sinned for all this to have happened; Job (and we, because the narrator says so, too) knows he hasn't. So he wants an accounting from God--that is, a reasonable explanation. Job doesn't get that explanation, but he finds peace anyway because he realizes that he is obedient, ultimately, because he has faith (as he puts it earlier, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him"). The very definition of unreasonableness . . . but that's the nature of faith, after all. And though the Bible has literary elements, it's not literature, in the end. It seeks to do something else. None of this, I know, does anything to clear up Job's theological difficulties, but the problem of suffering is just that--a problem. Pat, one-size-fits-all answers simply don't exist, if we're being honest with ourselves. So, let's call Job the "problem play" of the OT.

chris miller said...

This is the one biblical film that might be an exception.

Is it completely drama free ?

That's how it felt to me.

As I recall -- it had this stillness - sense of certainty - of "everything is happening as it has been written"

Today - yesterday - tomorrow --- it's all the same -- you only need to see it as such.

(maybe I lost my sense of time -- a long time ago)

BTW - Conrad -- you have been studying Hebrew, haven't you ?
If you ever need a job -- you could
probably work as a rabbi. (I'm told that most of them are atheists as well)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris: I mentioned this film in a New Testament round-up here. I agree that this is easily the closest thing I have seen to dramalessness. Sadly, however, I have no Hebrew (except a few isolated 'key words' from the Bible), and no knowledge of the Talmud or Midrash--so Rabbidom would have to wait.

John: I grant your point, but think about how the stories of Moses and David are told. David sins twice--first he kills Uriah to marry Bathsheba, then he takes the census. In the first instance, David does the dirty (2 Samuel 11), and Nathan calmly tells him what will happen--which then does happen (2 Samuel 12:1-19). Same with the census (2 Sam 24), when God calmly gives David three choices for his punishment. The deaths of 70,000 people by plague are calmly stated in a few words. What could be less dramatic? The closest we get to drama in this book is 2 Sam 18:33, David's lament ("O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom...!") but this is entirely self-contained and outside of the action (David "went up to the chamber of the gate"). David's sins are not forces which rise out of him, to be met by an opposing force; they are forces which rise up and then fall limply to the ground. This is why there is no sense of violence in his punishments, only justice being coolly done.

As for Moses, just for one example consider how unexpected is God's command for him to die in Deut. 32:48-52: "Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah". The reasoning is so opague that scholars disagree about just what Moses did wrong (Numbers 20:11). There is a coldness everywhere in the telling, a total lack of drama.

In terms of dramatic structure, the closest the OT comes to classical tragedy in my opinion is 1 Samuel, the story of Saul and David--Saul here being a muted version of a Greek tragic hero, hubris and all. The crucial difference is that the OT wants you to condemn Saul, whereas the Greek tragedy wants you to admire its hero, despite his downfall.

Raminagrobis said...

Excellent post. As happens so often with this blog, I have found that whatever connections occured to me as I read were already covered or touched upon by your ranging gaze by the time I reached the end of the post.

It seems to me that you say about the ‘call-response’ rhythms in the style of the Bible can also be predicated of the overall dynamic of interpretation, Auerbach’s figura. Is that what you were driving at, or have I missed the mark? The early-Christian chruch making of the Jewish tradition a series of figures that pre-echoed the coming of Christ. That retroactive figural reading introduces a new dynamism into the ‘static’ style of the OT – and allows for an opening out of the say-do relationship between man and God. Or is it rather that ‘figura’ as the intellectual force that connects past to present and makes meaning out of narrative is essentially a matter of forcing the bare call-response style of the OT into a ‘dramatic’ framework?

Conrad H. Roth said...

This is an interesting line of development, and would require another essay; I think broadly that the typological analysis of the OT creates a new level of 'calls' to which the NT can respond, and does introduce some dynamism (though not a dramatic one) between what is essentially the mythical past of the OT (the Viconian age of heroes), and the realist present depicted in the NT (the age of men).

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to bring in a discussion of meaning generated out of repetition, like that of Kierkegaard's (to return to him again). Maybe you should write something on these themes?

Anonymous said...

so many thoughts....

the easist to type here is an observation about how odd it is that certain certain words appear more and less frequently in daily life... a rhythm of occurance.

Just last night I finished reading:

Imagining Flowers:
Perceptual Mimesis
(Particularly Delphinium)

by Elaine Scarry