…Or the Bible

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

…Or the Bible

CONNECT THESE DOTS: garden, serpent, plagues, flood, parting of waters, loaves, fishes, forty days, betrayal, denial, slavery and escape, fatted calves, milk and honey. Ever read a book with all these things in them?

Guess what? So have your writers. Poets. Playwrights. Screenwriters. Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction, in between all the swearwords (or that one swearword all those times) is a Vesuvius of biblical language, one steady burst of apocalyptic rhetoric and imagery. His linguistic behavior suggests that at some time Quentin Tarantino, the writer-director, was in contact with the Good Book, despite all his Bad Language. Why is that James Dean film called East of Eden? Because the author of the novel on which the film is based, John Steinbeck, knew his Book of Genesis. To be east of Eden, as we shall see, is to be in a fallen world, which is the only kind we know and certainly the only kind there could be in a James Dean film. Or a Steinbeck novel.

The devil, as the old saying goes, can quote Scripture. So can writers. Even those who aren’t religious or don’t live within the Judeo-Christian tradition may work something in from Job or Matthew or the Psalms. That may explain all those gardens, serpents, tongues of flame, and voices from whirlwinds.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), four white men ride up to the house in Ohio where the escaped slave Sethe has been living with her small children. In a fit of determination to “save” her children from slavery, she tries to kill them, succeeding only with her two-year-old daughter, known later as Beloved. No one, neither ex-slave nor free white, can believe or understand her action, and that incomprehension saves her life and rescues her remaining children from slavery. Does her violent frenzy make sense? No. It’s irrational, excessive, disproportionate. They all agree on that. On the other hand, there’s something about it that, to us, makes sense. The characters all see four white men from slave country riding up the road. We see, and Sethe intuits, that what’s coming in the front gate is the Apocalypse. When the Four Horsemen come, it’s the Last Day, the time for Judgment. Morrison’s color scheme isn’t quite that of St. John’s original—it’s hard to come up with a green horse—but we know them, not least because she actually calls them “the four horsemen.” Not riders, not men on horses, not equestrians. Horsemen. That’s pretty unambiguous. Moreover, one of them stays mounted with a rifle slung across his lap. That looks a lot like the fourth horseman, the one who in Revelation rides the pale (or green) horse and whose name is Death. In Pale Rider Clint Eastwood actually has a character speak the relevant passage so we don’t miss the point (although the unnamed stranger in an Eastwood western is pretty much always Death), but here Morrison does the same with a three-word phrase and a pose. Unmistakable.

When the Apocalypse comes riding up your lane, what will you do?

And that is why Sethe reacts as she does.

Morrison is American, of course, and raised in the Protestant tradition, but the Bible is nonsectarian. James Joyce, an Irish Catholic, uses biblical parallels with considerable frequency. I often teach his story “Araby” (1914), a lovely little gem about the loss of innocence. Another way of saying “loss of innocence,” of course, is “the Fall.” Adam and Eve, the garden, the serpent, the forbidden fruit. Every story about the loss of innocence is really about someone’s private reenactment of the fall from grace, since we experience it not collectively but individually and subjectively. Here’s the setup: a young boy—eleven, twelve, thirteen years old, right in there—who has previously experienced life as safe, uncomplicated, and limited to attending school and playing cowboys and Indians in the Dublin streets with his friends, discovers girls. Or specifically, one girl, his friend Mangan’s sister. Neither the sister nor our young hero has a name, so his situation is made slightly generic, which is useful. Being in early adolescence, the narrator has no way of dealing with the object of his desire, or even the wherewithal to recognize what he feels as desire. After all, his culture does all it can to keep boys and girls separate and pure, and his reading has described relations between the sexes in only the most general and chaste of terms. He promises to try to buy her something from a bazaar, the Araby of the title, to which she can’t go (significantly, because of a religious retreat being put on by her convent school). After many delays and frustrations, he arrives at the bazaar just as it’s closing. Most of the stalls are closed, but he finally finds one where a young woman and two young men are flirting in ways that are not very appealing to our young swain, and she can scarcely be bothered to ask what he wants. Daunted, he says he wants nothing, then turns away, his eyes blinded by tears of frustration and humiliation. He suddenly sees that his feelings are no loftier than theirs, that he’s been a fool, that he’s been running this errand on behalf of an ordinary girl who’s probably never given him a single thought.

Wait a minute. Innocence maybe. But the Fall?

Sure. Innocence, then its loss. What more do you need?

Something biblical. A serpent, an apple, at least a garden.

Sorry, no garden, no apple. The bazaar takes place inside. But there are two great jars standing by the booth, Joyce says, like Eastern guards. And those guards are as biblical as it gets: “So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” That would be Genesis 3:24 for those of you keeping score. As we all know, there’s nothing like a flaming sword to separate you from something, and in this case, that something is a former innocence, whether of Eden or of childhood. The thing about loss-of-innocence stories, the reason they hit so hard, is that they’re so final. You can never go back. That’s why the boy’s eyes sting with blinding tears—it’s that flaming sword.

Maybe a writer doesn’t want enriching motifs, characters, themes, or plots, but just needs a title. The Bible is full of possible titles. I mentioned East of Eden before. Tim Parks has a novel called Tongues of Flame. Faulkner has Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses. Okay, that last one’s from a spiritual, but it’s biblical in its basis. Let’s suppose you want to write a novel about hopelessness and infertility and the sense that the future no longer exists. You might turn to Ecclesiastes for a passage that reminds us that every night is followed by a new day, that life is an endless cycle of life, death, and renewal, in which one generation succeeds another until the end of time. You might regard that outlook with a certain irony and borrow a phrase from it to express that irony—how the certainty that the earth and humanity will renew themselves, a certainty that has governed human assumptions since earliest times, has just been shredded by four years in which Western civilization tried with some success to destroy itself. You just might if you were a modernist and had lived through the horror that was the Great War. At least that’s what Hemingway did, borrowing his title from that biblical passage: The Sun Also Rises. Great book, perfect title.

More common than titles are situations and quotations. Poetry is absolutely full of Scripture. Some of that is perfectly obvious. John Milton took most of his subject matter and a great deal of material for his great works from you-know-where: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes. Moreover, our early literature in English is frequently about, and nearly always informed by, religion. Those questing knights in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queen are searching on behalf of their religion whether they know it or not (and they generally do know). Beowulf is largely about the coming of Christianity into the old paganism of northern Germanic society—after being about a hero overcoming a villain. Grendel, the monster, is descended from the line of Cain, we’re told. Aren’t all villains? Even Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales (1384), while neither they nor their tales are inevitably holy, are making an Easter pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, and much of their talk invokes the Bible and religious teaching. John Donne was an Anglican minister, Jonathan Swift the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet American Puritans (Taylor a minister). Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister for a spell, while Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Catholic priest. One can barely read Donne or Malory or Hawthorne or Rossetti without running into quotations, plots, characters, whole stories drawn from the Bible. Suffice it to say that every writer prior to sometime in the middle of the twentieth century was solidly instructed in religion.

Even today a great many writers have more than a nodding acquaintance with the faith of their ancestors. In the century just ended, there are modern religious and spiritual poets like T. S. Eliot and Geoffrey Hill or Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg, whose work is shot through with biblical language and imagery. The dive-bomber in Eliot’s Four Quartets (1942) looks very like a dove, offering salvation from the bomber’s fire through the redemption of pentecostal fires. He borrows the figure of Christ joining the disciples on the road to Emmaus in The Waste Land (1922), uses the Christmas story in “Journey of the Magi” (1927), offers a fairly idiosyncratic sort of Lenten consciousness in “Ash-Wednesday” (1930). Hill has wrestled with matters of the spirit in the fallen modern world throughout his career, so it is hardly surprising to find biblical themes and images in works such as “The Pentecost Castle” or Canaan (1996). Rich, for her part, addresses the earlier poet Robinson Jeffers in “Yom Kippur, 1984,” in which she considers the implications of the Day of Atonement, and matters of Judaism appear in her poetry with some frequency. Ginsberg, who never met a religion he didn’t like (he sometimes described himself as a “Buddhist Jew”), employs material from Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and virtually every world faith.

Not all uses of religion are straight, of course. Many modern and postmodern texts are essentially ironic, in which the allusions to biblical sources are used not to heighten continuities between the religious tradition and the contemporary moment but to illustrate a disparity or disruption. Needless to say, such uses of irony can cause trouble. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses (1988), he caused his characters to parody (in order to show their wickedness, among other things) certain events and persons from the Koran and the life of the Prophet. He knew not everyone would understand his ironic version of a holy text; what he could not imagine was that he could be so far misunderstood as to induce a fatwa, a sentence of death, to be issued against him. In modern literature, many Christ figures (which I will discuss in more detail in Chapter 14) are somewhat less than Christlike, a disparity that does not inevitably go down well with religious conservatives. Quite often, though, ironic parallels are lighter, more comic in their outcome and not so likely to offend. In Eudora Welty’s masterful story “Why I Live at the P.O.” (1941), the narrator is engaged in a sibling rivalry with her younger sister, who has come home after leaving under suspicious if not actually disgraceful circumstances. The narrator, Sister, is outraged at having to cook two chickens to feed five people and a small child just because her “spoiled” sister has come home. What Sister can’t see, but we can, is that those two fowl are really a fatted calf. It may not be a grand feast by traditional standards, but it is a feast, as called for upon the return of the Prodigal Son, even if the son turns out to be a daughter. Like the brothers in the parable, Sister is irritated and envious that the child who left, and ostensibly used up her “share” of familial goodwill, is instantly welcomed, her sins so quickly forgiven.

Then there are all those names, those Jacobs and Jonahs and Rebeccas and Josephs and Marys and Stephens and at least one Hagar. The naming of a character is a serious piece of business in a novel or play. A name has to sound right for a character—Oil Can Harry, Jay Gatsby, Beetle Bailey—but it also has to carry whatever message the writer want to convey about the character or the story. In Song of Solomon (1977), Toni Morrison’s main family chooses names by allowing the family Bible to fall open, then pointing without looking at the text; whatever proper noun the finger points to, there’s the name. That’s how you get a girl child in one generation named Pilate and one in the next named First Corinthians. Morrison uses this naming practice to identify features of the family and the community. What else can you possibly use—the atlas? Is there any city or hamlet or river in the world that tells us what we’re told by “Pilate”? In this case, the insight is not into the character so named, for no one could be less like Pontius Pilate than the wise, generous, giving Pilate Dead. Rather, her manner of naming tells us a great deal about the society that would lead a man, Pilate’s father, to have absolute faith in the efficacy of a book he cannot read, so much so that he is guided by a principle of blind selection.

Okay, so there are a lot of ways the Bible shows up. But isn’t that a problem for anyone who isn’t exactly . . .

A Bible scholar? Well, I’m not. But even I can sometimes recognize a biblical allusion. I use something I think of as the “resonance test.” If I hear something going on in a text that seems to be beyond the scope of the story’s or poem’s immediate dimensions, if it resonates outside itself, I start looking for allusions to older and bigger texts. Here’s how it works.

At the end of James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” (1957), the narrator sends a drink up to the bandstand as a gesture of solidarity and acceptance to his brilliantly talented but wayward brother, Sonny, who takes a sip and, as he launches into the next song, sets the drink on the piano, where it shimmers “like the very cup of trembling.” I lived for a good while not knowing where that phrase came from, although to the extent I thought about it, I was pretty sure. The story is so rich and full, the pain and redemption so compelling, the language so wonderful throughout, I didn’t need to dwell on the last line for several readings. Still, there was something happening there—a kind of resonance, a sense that there’s something meaningful beyond the simple meaning of the words. Peter Frampton says that E major is the great rock chord; all you have to do to set off pandemonium in a concert is to stand onstage alone and strike a big, fat, full E major. Everybody in the arena knows what that chord promises. That sensation happens in reading, too. When I feel that resonance, that “fat chord” that feels heavy yet sparkles with promise or portent, it almost always means the phrase, or whatever, is borrowed from somewhere else and promises special significance. More often than not, particularly if the borrowing feels different in tone and weight from the rest of the prose, that somewhere is the Bible. Then it’s a matter of figuring out where and what it means. It helps that I know that Baldwin was a preacher’s son, that his most famous novel is called Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952), that the story already displays a strong Cain-and-Abel element when the narrator initially denies his responsibility toward Sonny, so my scriptural hunch was pretty strong. Happily, in the case of “Sonny’s Blues,” the story is so heavily anthologized that it’s almost impossible not to find the answer—the phrase comes from Isaiah 51:17. The passage speaks of the cup of the Lord’s fury, and the context has to do with sons who have lost their way, who are afflicted, who may yet succumb to desolation and destruction. The ending of the story is therefore made even more provisional and uncertain by the quote from Isaiah. Sonny may make it or he may not. He may relapse into addiction and trouble with the law. Beyond that, though, there is the broader sense of the residents of Harlem, where the story is set, and by extension of black America, as afflicted, as having drunk from that cup of trembling. There is hope in Baldwin’s last paragraph, but it is hope tempered by knowledge of terrible dangers.

Is my reading greatly enhanced by this knowledge? Perhaps not greatly. Something subtle happens there, but no thunder and lightning. The meaning doesn’t move in the opposite direction or shift radically; if it did, that would be self-defeating, since so many readers would not get the allusion. I think it’s more that the ending picks up a little greater weight from the association with Isaiah, a greater impact, pathos even. Oh, I think, it isn’t just a twentieth-century problem, this business of brothers having trouble with each other and of young men stumbling and falling; it’s been going on since forever. Most of the great tribulations to which human beings are subject are detailed in Scripture. No jazz, no heroin, no rehab centers, maybe, but trouble very much of the kind Sonny has: the troubled spirit that lies behind the outward modern manifestations of heroin and prison. The weariness and resentment and guilt of the brother, his sense of failure at having broken the promise to his dying mother to protect Sonny—the Bible knows all about that, too.

This depth is what the biblical dimension adds to the story of Sonny and his brother. We no longer see merely the sad and sordid modern story of a jazz musician and his algebra-teaching brother. Instead the story resonates with the richness of distant antecedents, with the power of accumulated myth. The story ceases to be locked in the middle of the twentieth century and becomes timeless and archetypal, speaking of the tensions and difficulties that exist always and everywhere between brothers, with all their caring and pain and guilt and pride and love. And that story never grows old.