Robert Alter and the Bible: A Response to Joseph Adamson

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Following Joe’s critique of Alter, I too went back to Alter’s essay “Northrop Frye between Archetype and Typology.”  I’ll begin with the conclusion to Joe’s post, where he writes that “Alter simply wants nothing to do with the imaginative element, with metaphor or myth in the Bible, or if it must be admitted, since it is everywhere, only as a kind of rhetorical ornamentation that is easily hedged in by a crabbed and mean-spirited descriptivism.”  I agree that Alter wants to distance himself from Frye’s way of reading the Bible – for reasons that I will get to later – but I find in his work a powerful response to the imaginative element in the Bible.  It’s just that for Alter this element exhibits itself in difference rather than identity, and in particulars rather than typological categories.  Alter ends his essay by saying that “The revelatory power of the literary imagination manifests itself in the intricate weave of details of each individual text.”  Going back to Joe’s conclusion, I would also dispute the adjectives “crabbed and mean-spirited”; Alter reads the Bible as a work of great literature, a revelation of what it means to be human, and an exploration of the way that human lives are embedded in history.  I regard Alter as a major humanist critic, not someone I would put on the same level as Frye, but certainly a literary scholar and critic whom I find in many ways exemplary. 

To reiterate a point I made in an earlier post, when teaching the Bible and literature I set up a dialectic between the approaches of Alter and Frye.  For me, both are necessary.  In looking at Milton, or aspects of Shakespeare, Frye’s visionary-typological approach is a powerful way of seeing what these poets have done imaginatively with the Bible.  On the other hand, in discussing the novel, which in the English tradition at least is profoundly grounded in the Bible, Alter’s commentaries on the Hebrew Bible are an invaluable resource, as of course they are in considering the literary qualities of the Hebrew Bible itself.  Not only do the two critics have divergent ways of reading, but for pedagogical purposes it is useful that one of them writes out of a Christian tradition and the other from a Jewish tradition. 

I have a vivid memory of Alter’s paper at the Frye and the Word conference: for me it had the kind of lucid authority that makes you feel you are in the presence of an exceptional scholar.  (You can see him lecturing for yourself here.)  That conference took place as I was getting ready to teach my course on the Bible and Literature for the first time, and I was therefore especially attentive when Alan Mendelsohn, in his introduction to Alter’s lecture, praised Alter’s translation of the book of Genesis for opening up dramatically new perspectives on that text.  In teaching the course, I have found Mendelsohn’s recommendation to be exactly right: Alter’s commentary reveals countless complexities and subtleties in the text of the Hebrew Bible, which with his knowledge of the European literary tradition he is often able to relate to later literary developments.  (He has since translated the two books of Samuel, the whole of the Torah, and the Psalms.)  I was even inspired by reading these commentaries to start learning Hebrew, in spite of the fact that I am not very adept with foreign languages.  Thus through the long hot summer of 2006, I spent several hours a week sitting down with a handful of undergraduates less than half my age, under the guidance of Wendell Eisener, a religious studies professor at Saint Mary’s who most kindly let me sit in on his class.  I would not claim to be a Hebrew scholar as a result, but I learned enough to start to see how the language works and to be able to use reference tools. 

Joe points out some of Alter’s negative language towards Frye, and I think that this language indicates a certain degree of anxiety.  At least twice, Alter uses the word “beguiling” to characterize Frye’s method of reading the Bible.  This word now has the primary meaning of “charming,” or “diverting attention in a pleasant way,” but it also retains the sense embodied in the root guile of “deluding, entangling with guile.”  Alter is clearly aware of, and wary of, the seductive power of Frye’s way of reading the Bible, which he notes is not merely a practice of worldly criticism but something that includes “a certain homiletic touch.” And Alter does acknowledge that the mythological way of reading exemplified by The Great Code is an appropriate description of the way that many poets in the Christian tradition have read the Bible. 

So what is Robert Alter’s problem with Northrop Frye?  Put simply, I would guess that it is the fact that The Great Code is addressed to a diverse community of readers and critics, not to a specifically Christian audience, yet it makes assumptions about the Bible that are those of an evangelical Christian, even if it does not make the dogmatic assumptions that an evangelical would.  It is interesting to note how similar some of the study notes in the fundamentalist favourite, The Old Scofield Study Bible (1917), are to points that Frye makes in The Great Code, e.g. (from Scofield), “The revelation of Deity in the N.T. so illuminates that of the O.T. that the latter is seen to be, from Genesis to Malachi, the foreshadowing of the coming incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.”  For the evangelical Christian the Bible is a unity, an inspired text in which each verse is the expression of the word of God.  Frye’s Bible similarly is that large bound book of the Protestant evangelical tradition.  But in earlier Catholic tradition the Bible was not quite such a coherent text: for one thing before the invention of printing it wasn’t always bound together in one book, and there was ambiguity about the status of the deuterocanonical books, or apocrypha, while in the Jewish tradition the Bible is historically a collection of scrolls, rather than a codex, so that even as a material artifact it is not a unity in the same way as the Christian Bible, and it is divided into parts, from among which the Torah has the greatest authority.  Hence Alter’s comment that “the beastly sea god Yamm is confined within the cage of imagery of Psalms, Isaiah, and Job, but, given the monotheistic scruples of the Hebrew writers, he is not allowed to become a part of the real plot of the biblical books.”  Responding to Joe’s point, these are books from the Prophets and the Writings, and not the Torah, while the word “caged” I think is simply a joke turning the “beastly” Yamm into a zoo animal. 

At the end of Alter’s essay he reveals what may be his most fundamental objection to The Great Code:

The Bible, as a set of foundational texts for Western literature, is an exemplary case for the fate of reading.  Through centuries of Christian supersessionism, Hebrew scripture was systematically detached from the shifting complications of its densely particular realizations so that it could be seen as a flickering adumbration of the Gospels that were understood to fulfil it.  This is hardly a reading practice we want to revive, either for the Bible or for secular literature.

Typology was the dominant way that Christians read the Bible for much of the Christian era, and there is certainly nothing wrong with explicating this as a means of understanding the Bible’s relationship to the literature of that era.  And in discourse addressed to a specifically Christian audience, the resources of typology seem to me still a valid approach to the Bible.  The problem with The Great Code is that it is addressed to a much broader audience.

I think it is a valid criticism of The Great Code, though I wouldn’t make it as vehemently as some have done, that Frye does not sufficiently acknowledge the alternative perspective of Judaism.  Even on the occasions when he does do this, his references can be problematic.  For example, “In the Hebrew arrangement the Old Testament canon ends with II Chronicles, where the last words are an exhortation to the Jews in Babylon by Cyrus of Persia to return to their homeland.  As a type of the future renovation of Israel, this makes a logical and effective conclusion to the Bible from the point of view of Judaism” (207)  This is a standard example for teachers of biblical studies to contrast the bibles of the two religions; what strikes me about the way that Frye uses it is that he ignores the fact that the Jewish Bible ends in within history, in contrast to the Christian Bible’s ending with apocalypse.  Furthermore, Frye’s phrasing subtly suggests that it is the Old Testament canon that is primary, and that the Hebrew Bible has rearranged it.  A more even-handed approach would suggest that in the period following the destruction of the temple, Judaism and Christianity arranged the Hebrew scriptures differently for their own theological purposes.  (Some scholars regard Luke 11:51 as evidence that in the time of Jesus the Jewish canon of scripture already had a fixed order that ended with II Chronicles, but as far as I know this is a point of controversy).

In his book Origins of Narrative: The Romantic Appropriation of the Bible, Stephen Prickett discusses what he calls the “novelization of the Bible,” arguing that the Bible ceased in the eighteenth century to be read typologically, and was instead read like a realistic novel, in a manner which stressed human character and plot.  He further connects this with the rise of the realistic novel, illustrating his argument with effective readings of George Eliot and  Thomas Mann.  There are places in George Eliot where the use of biblical archetypes can be illustrated by Frye’s method, for example the important scenes that take place in a garden and on the top of a hill in Adam Bede.  But her use of typology is highly self-conscious, and she frequently psychologizes it.  Her allusive use of the Bible is sometimes ironic, and often related to characterization and historical contexts, and is thus part of a novelistic strategy that can be best explicated by the kind of analysis at which Alter excels. 

In The David Story, Robert Alter provides a wonderful translation of the biblical books that tell the story of Saul and David, up to the settlement of the throne on Solomon in the early chapters of the first book of Kings, presenting that story as an epic narrative of a human life.  As he puts it in the essay in Frye and the Word, “The story of David offers us the greatest representation of an individual life evolving through time in all of ancient literature.”  This reminds me of D. H. Lawrence’s characterization of the Bible: “The novel is the book of life.  In this sense, the Bible is a great confused novel.  You may say, it is about God.  But it is really about man alive.  Adam, Eve, Sarai, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, David, Bath-sheba, Ruth, Esther, Solomon, Job, Isaiah, Jesus, Mark, Judas, Paul, Peter: what is it but man alive, from start to finish?” (“Why the Novel Matters”) 

Turning from Alter’s general approach, and its difference from Frye, to one or two of his specific examples in the essay in Frye and the Word, I think what he is trying to illustrate is something that frustrates all of those readers of The Great Code who have a significant investment in mimetic criticism, namely Frye’s freewheeling chains of association linking various images from throughout the Bible.  Sometimes these are vividly illuminating, for example in discussing the water and storm imagery in the Bible, which informs Shakespeare’s plays or “Lycidas” in very significant ways.  At other times they may seem, to the more skeptically minded, somewhat arbitrary.  The Bible has certainly, in the Christian tradition, been read as a unity, a point Frye makes at the beginning of The Great Code, but that is because it was seen as the Word of God, and because it was bound into a single book.  From a literary point of view, it is in many ways more rewarding to see the Bible as a collection of books, of very different genres.  (I know that Frye rejects this approach in the introduction to The Great Code, but I still think it is a fruitful one.  To use another favourite chestnut from teaching the Bible and Literature, the Bible may be the Book of Books in a superlative sense, but it is also a book of books in a more literal sense: it is both a book and a library). 

Thus I find some of Alter’s specific objections quite valid, especially in view of his own very different hermeneutic principles.  To take one of his examples, I’m not sure why Joseph’s “coat of many colours” should suggest fertility-god imagery (GC 176); in any case, as Alter notes, the exact meaning of the Hebrew here is uncertain, and he himself translates the phrase “ornamented tunic.”  (The New Revised Standard Version has “a long robe with sleeves”).  What is interesting in terms of biblical intertextuality is the series of allusions to the Joseph story in the story of the rape of Tamar in II Samuel 13, which contains the only other biblical occurrence of the Hebrew ketonet pasim (II Sam. 13:18), this time a garment worn by Tamar, and Alter’s commentary on both of these passages elucidates the connections. 

Going back to Joe’s post, the example of hevel is perhaps not Alter’s strongest point, but Frye does say that “dense fog … is one of the roots of the word ‘vanity’” and that “The metaphor of fog or mist present in ‘vanity’ suggests that life is something to find a way through.”  Certainly Frye, who I am sure knew more Hebrew than I do, was aware of the meaning of הבל, which my lexicon glosses as “vapour, breath; fig. vanity” and “fig. of what is evanescent, unsubstantial, worthless, vanity, as of idols.”  The metaphorical extension to fog is Frye’s, and Alter’s point is simply that he is extending the meaning of the word in an unwarranted manner.  Alter thinks, and I tend to agree with him, that sometimes Frye’s enthusiasm for metaphorical connections takes him beyond the meaning permitted by the original text.

 I should note that Alter is seen at his best in his translations, with accompanying commentary, of parts of the Hebrew Bible.  For example, Genesis 7:11 in the King James Bible reads as follows:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.

Alter’s version is:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day,

All the wellsprings of the great deep burst

and the casements of the heavens were opened.

The word “casement,” with its poetic resonance from Keats, adds a dimension to the text that is not present in the King James version’s “windows” and suggests what Alter maintains is an archaic and poetic quality in the word being translated (’arubot, windows or lattices; some other English versions translate the word “floodgates”). 

This has become rather long; in fact it has become a short essay that needs to be brought to a conclusion.  So, to conclude: in defending Alter, I do not intend to denigrate Frye, but I do mean to suggest that Frye’s way of reading the Bible in relation to literature is a partial one, and one that must, in the context of studying the Bible and literature in a postmodern university, be supplemented by other approaches.  Frye himself said that The Great Code is only the expression of “my own personal encounter with the Bible” and a statement that may “stimulate the writing of better books.”  But the authoritative nature of Frye’s rhetoric and the compelling power of his examples tends to polarize readers into becoming either defenders of Frye’s approach or denouncers of his errors.  I would hope that, nearly three decades after The Great Code’s first publication, it can and will continue to be read by those who take a position somewhere in between these poles, appreciating the book’s power and insights while being willing to read the Bible in other ways as well, neither totally beguiled nor full of guile.  The fact that my copy of the paperback first edition of The Great Code is falling apart is evidence of how often I have read and consulted it; on the other hand, when I teach the book of Genesis, I take Alter’s translation to class with me because his commentary often helps me to answer students’ questions.

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6 thoughts on “Robert Alter and the Bible: A Response to Joseph Adamson

  1. Michael Happy

    I’m not sure I understand what the problem with typology is. Not only is Judeo-Christian Bible typological in structure and reference, but it is — as Frye makes clear — the “unique” quality that the Jews bring to their conception of God. The first “Christians” were of course Jews, and they adapted what became their “new” testament accordingly — that is, typologically, in order to be consistent with the holy scriptures up to that point. The subsequent rise of Christian culture was enriched and empowered by this uniquely typological vision, and Frye’s address to what Russell calls the “broader audience” is intended to demonstrate how literature in such a context so readily displays typology’s prophetic power. That prophetic power is why literature possesses an authority that is universally “concerned” rather than merely ideological.

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  2. Joe Adamson

    This is very useful, Russell. You are educating me, and I intend to do more reading in Alter and in some of the other critics you have mentioned. I may not have been using the rule of charity in my depiction of Alter, whose work I clearly need to be more familiar with.

    I still find Alter’s treatment of Frye dishonest and distorted, but I don’t want to get obsessive about it; I’ve made the point.

    Your points about the realist tradition and to what extent Frye’s work and approach neglect that tradition, and to what extent it can or cannot be given its due in his grand theory of literature, are good ones.

    It raises interesting questions as to different “pleasures of the text,” to quote a famous French theorist, and the different modes of criticism appropriate to them. How useful, in other words, is Frye’s approach in the context of the realist or mimetic tradition? I think it is a very good question, and another question may be too: are concrete particularism, historical texture and real human character all we need look for in a realist novel? This is certainly not the case in writers like Stendhal and Balzac, who are–as is Eliot I would argue–powerfully allusive, archetypal and typological, to use the latter word not entirely in a biblical sense.

    It does seem unfair, moreover, to suggest that Frye’s typological way of thinking is simply a Protestant tic. The model he turns to in The Great Code is not in the Protestant tradition at all, but a Catholic poet, THE Catholic poet I guess you would have to say: Dante. It is, as you know, to Dante’s Letter to Can Grande and Dante’s way of reading in The Divine comedy that Frye looks to as the best illustration of his typological, polysemic and dialectical way of reading the Bible and literature. (See The Great Code, p. 221ff)

    Also, I don’t understand your insistence that Frye’s mistake is not so much his approach to the Bible, but the fact that he argues for such a reading of the Bible to a wider audience than a Christian one. The book, in fact, is presented primarily, not to religious communities, but to the community of literary scholars and critics and lay readers who have an interest in the Western literary tradition. The title of The Great Code is the Bible and Literature, not the Bible as Literature. In that context, it seems an entirely appropriate approach. The Western literary tradition is not reversible: it will always have been Christian. Clearly, that is changing now, as is our knowledge and view of the past, but you can’t change the overall reality of what was.

    Nor can I see, in the passage you quote concerning the arrangement of the Hebrew Bible, anything approaching the kind of implications you present. In what way is Frye suggesting that the Judaic version of the Bible has–that is, in terms of actual authenticity or real truth claims– been superseded, preempted and made “preposterous” by the Christian one, so that what comes first is made to look like a rearrangement of something coming later, or what comes later is made to look prior. That is, indeed, the logic of Christian typological thinking, but Frye simply refers to a different conception and tradition of the Bible. He does not say rearrangement: he says arrangement. There are two different Bibles here; that seems to be the point. You say that the suggestion is subtle on Frye’s part: it must be very subtle indeed, or perhaps I am just being obtuse. Nor can I see in what way he is ignoring the fact that the Hebrew Bible ends within history, as opposed to the Christian Bible ending with apocalypse? By not mentioning it at this particular juncture? And if he is ignoring the fact, what is the significance of that in particular? Why is such a mention called for?

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  3. Russell Perkin

    Joe (and Michael),
    Re the realistic novel: certainly one can look for archetypal elements along with the mimetic elements you mention: I agree with you absolutely about that. I remember discovering while teaching Jane Austen at the same time as Frye how Austen’s use of the seasons sometimes reproduces the Persephone myth. And of course even the naturalist Zola makes use of archetypal structures, as I think Frye points out in the _Anatomy_.

    I didn’t meant to suggest that Frye’s method of biblical interpretation is Protestant, but only that the Bible that he writes about is the unified Bible of Protestant print culture. And I wanted to suggest that different visions of the Bible produce different ways of reading both it and the literary tradition.

    With the point about history, I was rather elliptically trying to suggest that the Jewish Bible does not have the same “sense of an ending” as the Christian Bible. Your point about European culture having been Christian is of course absolutely true from a historical point of view, as you note by talking about “what was.” I think as someone who is rather committed to historicist criticism, I am resistant to Frye’s more anagogic moments – although those of course are one of the things that makes his criticism so distinctive and powerful. I guess I would admit to taking things from Frye and blending them with a more cultural-historical approach. That’s why I find Stephen Prickett’s numerous books on the Bible and literature so helpful.

    Perhaps the other points you mention, and the one Michael raises, are partly a result of my conflating a defence of Alter and a discussion of Frye. To try to be more clear: _The Great Code_, to some readers, gives the impression of being both a study of the Bible and literature and a kind of literary-visionary sermon on how to read the Bible. I feel myself wanting to resist the latter – but when I (or Robert Alter) try to give specific examples, they are not always very satisfactory. You may say that it must therefore be a result of what Frye calls anxiety. Perhaps, but there must be a reason why so many people resist the more homiletic dimension of Frye.

    Maybe I can illustrate this in a more positive and coherent manner by a brief description of what I have recently been working on with reference to theology, the Bible, and the 19th century novel: I will leave that to form the subject of a future post.

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    1. Joseph Adamson

      Thanks, Russell, for the clarification. My point about Dante, of course, who is a Catholic poet, writing well before the Reformation, is that his way of reading the Bible would appear to be in many respects Frye’s way. He reads it typologically and anagogically.

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  4. Russell Perkin

    That’s a good point, Joe. Presumably Dante, like Aquinas – and Cyrus Scofield much later – believed that the literal level of the Bible was historically true, and that it was important that it was. But then Dante applies the method to the interpretation of his poem, which is no doubt what makes him so appealing to Frye in formulating his own version of typology. (I need to reread the Letter and Frye on Dante before I can take this train of thought any further).

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  5. Robert D. Denham

    One of the fundamental differences between Frye and Alter is that they have such different views of metaphor. For Alter, metaphor is an ornamental frill. He calls it a “rhetorical embellishment” and an “elaboration,” somewhat like an embroidery stitched onto the surface of the literal text. Anything that is not attentive to “the factual report of historical events” becomes, for Alter, “a linguistic gesture.” Similarly, for Alter, typology produces only “lovely designs,” which are not text based “but artefacts of interpretation.”

    Frye’s view of metaphor is completely different. Among the numerous theories of this trope––from Aristotle’s transference view through the theories about metaphor as substitution, comparison, transaction (I.A. Richards), and interaction (Max Black)––Frye’s theory seems to me to be unique, based as it is on the principle of identity. His views on metaphor form a part of his expansive theory of language, where identity is both a grammatical and a religious principle, as well as a principle for defining the sense of self (personal identity). Metaphor tells us, as Frye never tires of repeating, that X is Y. Alter, who, as Russell points out, is interested in difference rather than identity, says that “there is no such thing as a truly synonymous narrative event of literary articulation.” This completely rules out Frye, for whom myths and metaphors are synonymous. The principle of identity entails the extraordinarily radical position that X is literally Y. Such different assumptions about how poetic language works means that there is very little common ground on which Alter and Frye can stand. Similarly, if your Bible is the Hebrew Bible, then the question of typology doesn’t even arise.

    Alter does grant the obvious, that in the poetic forms in the Bible, one often encounters figurative language, but, he argues, “In the predominant prose narratives of the Hebrew Bible, only the most sparing use is made of either metaphor or simile.” He then illustrates the point by citing a verse from Genesis about Esau’s selling his birthright and one from 2 Samuel about David’s encounter with Bathsheba. What Alter means by “sparing use” is uncertain. Outside of the poems in chapters 1 and 22-23, which contain more than forty metaphors and similes, the rest of 2 Samuel is not without a fairly generous supply of figures: there are more than fifty. While the author of 2 Samuel focuses on the more or less literal account of David’s rise to power and his wayward ways, the author can hardly be said to have been sparing in his use of various tropes. As for Genesis 25, half of which is given over to genealogy, the author’s account of Jacob and Esau is not without a generous measure of linguistic play: “red” (‘adom)—Edom; “hairy” (se`ar)—Seir, land of the Edomites; “Jacob” (`aqeb)—heel. Even the Lord, who speaks to Rebekah in quatrains, is given to troping: “Two nations are in your womb.” The tension between Esau the hunter and Jacob the shepherd point backward to the Cain and Abel story. This is not necessarily metaphorical, but it is an archetypal example of the story of the two brothers, one good and one bad, that we encounter everywhere in our stories.

    As for Frye’s identifying Joseph’s coat of many colors with fertility, which Alter says is “altogether arbitrary,” this goes back a long way. In an Emmanuel College paper he wrote on “St. Paul and Orphism” (he was 22 at the time), Frye says in a discussion of fertility rites that “Joseph’s coat of many colours is an evident vegetation symbol.” That’s because he read somewhere, as he says later in the paper, that “Dionysos, the fertility god, wears a coat of many colours.” I don’t know Frye’s source here (perhaps Sir James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray, or W.K.C. Guthrie, one of Frye’s principal sources for his paper—he lists twenty-four books), but I doubt that he made it up.

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