Friday, August 18, 2006

Scriptural Tedium

I’ve been buzzing quite happily thru Genesis & Exodus over the past few days, reminding myself just what an absorbing reading experience the Bible can be. Now there are friends of mine – well-read, cultured folks, with finely developed literary sensibilities – who are under the impression that all of the Bible is insufferably tedious. Well that’s certainly not the case – but after about 70 consecutive chapters of mostly rivetting stuff, I’ve run (in the 2nd half of Exodus) into one of those patches that only a masochist could love: the deity’s endlessly detailed instructions to Moses on how to construct the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant (remember Indiana Jones?), & various other doodads the Children of Israel will need in their upcoming travels.

It got me to thinking about scriptural tedium, about how there’s exciting bits and dull bits in the Bible, & that got me thinking (as is my wont) about taxonomies. It seems to me the dull bits of the Bible fall into a limited number of categories. First, there are things that are dull in and of themselves:
•Genealogies, those endless lists of ancestors most of whose names sound alien & indistinguishable to the English-speaking reader – I mean, this could be Commander Whorf reciting his Klingon ancestry, for all I know

•Construction blueprints: it’s bad enough when Ruskin goes off on the proper angles at which the roof is to meet the wall, but at least he has the decency to include illustrations; I have no idea what the Tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple actually looked like, & even if I’ve got a fancy Bible with speculative illustrations, I don’t really need the do-it-yourself instructions, thank you very much

•Specifications for ritual observances: see above on the non-applicability of these instructions (tho it’s nice to know that the priests wore knickers so that they wouldn’t expose themselves as they ascended into the Holy Presence)

Then there are things which are inherently rather interesting, often quite fascinating – but only in moderation; in quantity they become a blur of repetition:
•Psalms – yes, I know, great poetry much of the time, but let’s face it – when you’re spinning 150 of these things out of maybe a half-dozen repeated themes, & recycling the same imagery over and over, it all gets a bit redundant

•Prophecy – ditto; great poetry, grandly delivered, much of the time: but the message is pretty much the same over and over (with different names slotted into the important slots, I grant): “Come back to Me, O Israel, or have your butt kicked in various ways…”

•Wisdom: proverbs are good in moderate doses (fascinating article on Blake’s proverbs this week in of all places PMLA), but heaven knows they start to blur together when you get an entire book of them; and while Job is one of the basic great reads of Western Lit, as Samuel Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “no-one ever wished it longer.”

•Theological disputation, such as you get in the bulk of the New Testament: now there are those who’ll insist that knowing the details of this stuff is crucial to your eternal salvation etc. – & I’m convinced that one is at a real disadvantage in dealing with most English literature from say 1600 – 1900 without a working acquaintance with at least Romans & Hebrews – but if you don’t have a vested interest in the stuff being argued about, much of it is precisely as fascinating as hearing a poetics argument between Robert Lowell and WD Snodgrass.
Somewhere in the morass of my office, I have a copy of the Bible which not merely included a lot of snazzy line drawings and helpful maps, but went to the trouble of printing the really dull stuff – the genealogies, the ritual directions, the construction manuals – in a smaller typeface. Now if we can only get New Directions to do that with The Cantos.

5 comments:

Henry Gould said...

Reading the Bible is like entering an archaeological dig. What fascinates me is the mixture of extremely ANCIENT OLD things with the strikingly humorous, humane, sympathetic people & tales.

When I was 19, working on a ranch in Wyoming, I read it from cover to cover. Changed muh life, pard.

Josh_Hanson said...

Pound doesn't have the excuse of multiple authors and wacky redactors, though he often gives that impression.

Brian said...

There were some parts of the ritual observations that made for interesting reading--the ones that dealt with what was allowable sexually is what I'm mainly thinking of. I remember wondering when I was a kid at the Kingdom Hall why God needed to tell the Israelites not to screw the sheep.

Michael Peverett said...

Somewhere along the line the bizarre aesthetic appeal of long screeds of boredom got into modernism - someone got tired of books that were too straightforwardly digestible. I think it begins with Portrait of the Artist - that chapter where the hellfire sermon just goes on and on, (judged by the standards of what earlier novelists and readers would have considered tolerable - they'd have extracted about a page, merely enough to make the narrative point). Must have been a reaction gainst conventional ideas of what was considered proportional (I guess the that behind Joyce lay Flaubert, Bouvard and the Tentation... authors intoxicated with pursuing parodic lines far beyond the limits of anecdote - and then there was Ulysses...

What's striking about devout readings of the bible - I'm thinking of 17th c Independents here but many times and faiths would exemplify it - is the way they snowplough through all generic distinction, Leviticus as rewarding as the Psalms; religious reading is (as it seems) powerfully reconstructive of the text; or perhaps it's really secular reading that's reconstructive...hmm

Alex Davis said...

For me, Monty Python and the Holy Grail fundamentally altered my appreciation of the OT--far more so that a year of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield.

King Arthur: Consult the Book of Armaments.
Brother Maynard: Armaments, chapter two, verses nine through twenty-one.
Cleric: [reading] And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy." And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large chu...
Brother Maynard: Skip a bit, Brother...
Cleric: And the Lord spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.
Brother Maynard: Amen.