Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible (REVIEW)

September 19, 2012 10:34 am 0 comments

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom.

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom   (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2011)

Anniversaries generate memories and also books. The Dickens industry is already in production  for the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s birth (1812), and Professor Harold Bloom’s The Shadow of a Great Rock is among the notable celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the 1611 publication of the King James translation of the Bible. Since the Reformation in England (once a Catholic country) made Bible reading essential for Christians, it was important to translate the Hebrew and Greek originals into English. William Tyndale had begun his translation in 1523, but his project was aborted by martyrdom. In 1535 Miles Coverdale  published (in Switzerland) the first complete English Bible. Then came the Geneva bible of 1560, a stridently Protestant work .  King James, dissatisfied with the Geneva version (which he deemed unsympathetic to monarchy) authorized a group of translators to make a new version. Bloom evaluates not only  the relation of King James (KJB for short) to its Hebrew and Greek originals but also to Tyndale, Coverdale, and Geneva. His title, which in Isaiah refers to a shelter from the hot summer sun and is “a  great poem in itself,” refers to the sheltering nourishment  that the Bible provides to  Western literature and civilization.

Speaking of anniversaries—those of us who boast (or lament) having passed “our Biblical three score and ten”  pay unwitting tribute to what Bloom calls KJB’s tendency to “brilliantly mistranslate” the Hebrew original. A glance at Psalm 90  reveals that Tanach gives only the bare “shiv’im” for our allotted seventy years.  Similarly, Ecclesiastes’ “vanity”  deliberately mistranslates the Hebrew (hevel) for breath. Bloom celebrates King James not for anything so pedestrian as “accuracy” but for what he himself has championed during his long and distinguished career as a literary critic: creative misreading. Not that Bloom confers his blessing on all “strong misreading”:  he considers the religion of Akiba, “our normative [rabbinic]  Judaism,” a  distortion of the Covenant code of Exodus, and the Christian New Testament a far more egregious and tendentious misreading of the Hebrew Bible (as well as its literary inferior).

This is not Bloom’s first excursion into the genre he reluctantly calls “the Bible as literature.” In 1990  he published The Book of J, which   posited three  authors of the Pentateuch, most prominently (perhaps to epater les Juifs) the “J” (or Jehovistic) narrative  composed by a witty female intellectual resident of the court of David and  Solomon.  Bloom  rehearses this scenario,  which determines much of his interpretation and  endows him with the ineffable charm of an octogenarian enfant terrible, in the introduction to Shadow of a Great Rock. Yahweh,  far from being  creator of the universe, is himself the creation of “one of the universe’s greatest writers,” and contains within himself “Falstaff’s  vitalism, Hamlet’s ontological denials, Iago’s destructiveness, and Lear’s jealous furies and  shattering madness. The Bible matters most  because the Yahwist imagined a totally uncanny god, human-all-too-human and exuberant beyond all bindings.” This clever gal would, Bloom imagines, be amused and amazed to learn that her ironic invention, with all his “violent, excessive, ill-tempered, unfathomable, and horribly dangerous” passions, would enjoy  a second life as the revered, wise, merciful and just object of worship for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Declaring the Yahwist to be of the female persuasion is part of Bloom’s campaign to give women what he deems their just deserts in the Hebrew Bible. Deborah’s “magnificent War Song” is its most venerable poem, equaled  only by Miriam’s “great song of triumph.”   Ruth is the Bible’s  “most beautiful work.”  Even the murderous Judith and Yael are “godly and lethal, virtuous and deadly.” The Book of Esther is  “splendidly secular”–high praise indeed from  Bloom,  who says that “the commandments, whatever their moral value, need not be considered in an artistic appreciation.” (This is probably why he finds Leviticus, alone among the Five Books of Moses, “unreadable”—a rare instance in which he acquiesces in conventional prejudices.)

Bloom’s introduction deals with  “the  Bible as literature,” a phrase he finds lame and foolish, yet necessary to protect  critical inquiry from religious incursions.  He correctly credits  the Victorian poet-critic Matthew Arnold  with both the phrase and its idea.  Yet he fails to grasp the problem  Arnold faced in the 1870s, when  humanistic education was under assault by science. Arnold’s literary approach to the Bible  offended  religious men (like Cardinal Newman) as blasphemy, and  scientists (like Huxley) as obscurantism.  Arnold contrasted Darwin’s description of our original ancestor as “a hairy quadruped  furnished  with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits,” with KJB’s  account of creation: “God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness.” After publication of The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin’s version seemed validated in the fossils and rocks, but not in our own experience; it was objectively true, but subjectively false.  Genesis seemed subjectively true, but objectively false, validated by experience, but not the fossils and  rocks.  Arnold therefore urged that the Bible  be read  not as exploded science, but as poetry, because in poetry the idea is everything, and there are no facts to be exploded. Besides, added Arnold (and Bloom concurs),  the poetry of the Hebrew prophets  equals  Homer and exceeds Shakespeare and Milton in literary power.

Bloom’s book is seriously flawed, yet illuminating. It is often allusive when it should be expository.  We get many  long quotations –useful when  showing how KJB  “fully matches the splendor of the Hebrew,” less so when from other translations or  Thomas Mann,   Victor Hugo, and the omnipresent Herbert Marks,  with little accompanying analysis. Nevertheless, Bloom’s fleeting apercus nearly always strike one as both new and natural.  Examples: “The outrageousness of what Yahweh imposes upon his wretched chosen people somehow has escaped commentary, ancient and modern, rabbinical and scholarly. Who can journey forty years in the waste lands without anguish and discontent? Is that part of the Blessing?”  King David is “the first portrait of an artist who is also a national leader…[He] anticipates Hamlet as a masterpiece of contraries…[he] incarnates the whole truth of our contrary existence.”

Bloom’s “divine Oscar Wilde”  said that “The highest, as the lowest, form  of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” This book illustrates both extremes. It is often quirky, self-indulgent, and dogmatic.  But it is also wonderful in its self-revelation.   An early chapter  provides  a glimpse of the child who is father of the man and can ” still remember my childhood awe at the wineglass set aside for Eliyahu hanavi at every Passover seder, with my sleepy fantasies that indeed he had come by to drain it!” The  Ecclesiastes chapter, following Jewish tradition,  identifies the author of “this strikingly heretical meditation upon wisdom”  as  “the eighty-year-old Solomon,”  confirming its verses on vanity through personal experience: “This is one of the KGB’s miracles. I brood, at eighty and counting, daily on these verses, as my fingers tremble, my legs bow themselves, my teeth cease, my eyes darken, my ears shut, birdsong grows fainter, heights increase my fear of falling, and even walking finds fears in the way.  Spring will begin again (in Jerusalem) with the flowering of the almond tree, but …will bring no seasonal renewal to desire, because the ‘long home’ …is prefigured by my generation’s mourners.”   The heretic of the Bible and the heretic of New Haven become one:  “I feel odd finishing this book because I have been writing it all my long life and I am eighty.” Literary criticism may ultimately be no more than character.

Edward Alexander’s most recent book is THE STATE OF THE JEWS: A CRITICAL APPRAISAL (Transaction Publishers, 2012).

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Jewish former CNN host Larry King asked a Saudi Arabian fan if taking pictures with Jews is allowed in his country, before agreeing to pose for a photo with the man, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The world-famous interviewer was leaving the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. with a New York Times reporter when a “dark-skinned man” approached and asked to take a picture with him, according to the publication. Whereupon, King asked the fan where he was from. When the man said Saudi […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    British-Jewish business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar joked on Wednesday that London synagogues will likely be empty during Yom Kippur with congregants fleeing to watch the match-up of two leading English soccer teams known for having hordes of Jewish fans. “Spurs V Arsenal cup game drawn on most important Jewish festival,” Lord Sugar pointed out on Twitter. “Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion Synagogues will be empty.” North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC will go head-to-head in the Capital One Cup third-round […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Two Jewish men were the only unwitting participants in a social experiment conducted by Jimmy Kimmel, for his popular TV show. As part of a candid-camera-like sketch featured Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host devised different street scenes to observe human behavior — in particular, to see how long it would take people walking down California’s bustling Hollywood Boulevard to notice and interact with others in distress. One scene involved a man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume who had “fallen down” on the sidewalk and needed help […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    A major Jewish organization rebuked actress Natalie Portman on Monday for saying in a recent interview that Jews put too much emphasis on teaching about the Holocaust relative to other genocides. The Israeli-born movie star told the U.K.’s Independent that the Jewish community needs to examine how much focus it puts on Holocaust education over other issues. She said she was shocked when she learned that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda while she was in school learning only about the horrors of the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    JNS.org – A new book that draws parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence) has sparked outrage ahead of an official book launch, to be hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Sept. 7. The Zionist organization Im Tirtzu wrote a letter to the institute demanding that it cancel an event it planned in honor of the book’s authors, under the title The Holocaust and […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Famed actress Natalie Portman warned on Friday against the use of Holocaust education to evoke fear and paranoia. In an interview with the U.K. Independent she added that the trauma should make Jews more empathetic to others who have also experienced hatred. “Sometimes it can be subverted to fearmongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” the Israeli-American star said. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, antisemitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.) The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    JNS.org – Rugelach (singular: rugala) are a beloved traditional Jewish pastry, with a quirky history to boot, but they often present a kosher conundrum. Though parve rugelach are often a preferred dessert after a meat meal for those observing kosher laws (which stipulate a waiting period between eating meat and dairy), some of today’s most popular rugelach are known for their dairy fillings. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer—author of the books “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” and […]

    Read more →