Shoddily Redacted Literary Scraps?

or The Bible is Smarter than We Are

Robert Alter, on reading the Hebrew Bible, again:

To understand a narrative art so bare of embellishment and explicit commentary, one must be constantly aware of two features: the repeated use of narrative analogy, through which one part of the text provides oblique commentary on another; and the richly expressive function of syntax, which often bears the kind of weight of meaning that, say, imagery does in a novel by Virginia Woolf or analysis in a novel by George Eliot.

Attention to such features leads not to a more “imaginative” reading of the biblical narrative but to a more precise one; and since all these features are linked to discernable details in the Hebrew text, the literary approach is actually a good deal less conjectural than the histoical scholarship that askes of a verse whether it contains possible Akkadian loanwords, whether it reflects Sumerian kinship practices, whether it may have been corrupted by scribal error.

In any case, the fact that the text is ancient and that its characteristic narrative procedures may differ in many respects from those of modern texts should not lead us to any condescending preconception that the text is therefore bound to be crude or simple. Tzvetan Todorov has shrewdly argued that the whole notion of “primitive narrative” is a kind of mental mirage engendered by modern parochialism, for the more closely you look at a particular ancient narrative, the more you are compelled to recognize the complexity and subtlety with which it is formally organized and with which it renders its subjects, and the more you see how it is conscious of its necessary status as artful discourse. It is only by imposing a naive and unexamined aesthetic of their own, Todorov proposes, that modern scholars are able to declare so confidently that certain parts of the ancient text could not belong with others: the supposedly primitive narrative is subjected by scholars to tacit laws like the law of stylistic unity, of noncontradiction, of nondigression, of nonrepetition, and by these dim but purportedly universal lights is found to be composite, deficient, or incoherent. (If just these four laws were applied respectively to Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, Tristram Shandy, and Jealousy, each of those novels would have to be relegated to the dustbin of shoddily “redacted” literary scraps.) Attention to the ancient narrative’s consciousness of its own operations, Todorov proposes, will reveal how irrelevant these complacently assumed criteria generally are.

And this from a scholar who doesn’t even believe the texts are divinely inspired. How embarrassing!

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