This thing of darkness

I’m starting to wonder if I was misled during those halcyon days on my father’s knee. It was a time when heroes and villains were easily recognizable -like the white and black hats on the cowboys in the movies that were in vogue then. Apparently, I needed to know who to root for when I was a child -life was a battle between good and evil, God and the Devil. I thought that maybe all stories were supposed to be like that in one way or another -that, in fact, perhaps without that tension, there would be no story worth listening to -nothing and nobody to cheer for. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I suppose it’s natural to assume that the early patterns learned are special -sacrosanct, even- when you are a child. Deviations are regarded with suspicion. Doubt. And even now, I usually expect there to be recognizable traits in the characters, and a direction of the storyline that helps me to pick out which side to pull for. So maybe it has been that way from the time stories were first told -the one inviolable rule to keep an audience attentive. In a chaotic world, people must have longed for order, justice -something to hope for, if only in the imaginary tales told in the flickering firelight as eyes watched hungrily from the forest. The eventual triumph of good over evil -surely that’s the purpose of a good story…

But it seems that in the glimmer of recent historical analysis, that’s not how it used to be. I came across a fascinating essay by Catherine Nichols which suggests that the Ancients did not see it quite like that: https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-pop-culture-obsessed-with-battles-between-good-and-evil

Entitled The good guy/bad guy myth, she writes that ‘In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

‘Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.’

That’s interesting, don’t you think? Although I suspect the final verdict is not yet in, we have -all of us- been guilty of inadvertent historical revisionism: we have felt the need to interpret stories as having morals, unaware of the ‘historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values.’ In other words, we are judging, or appending qualities, that originally may not have been intended.

‘The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.’

‘In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’’

But now that I am in my autumn years, and have had time to reflect on these things, I think that Nichols only partially captures what’s really going on: although the revised stories incorporate values that have shaped (or been shaped by) society as a whole, they also encompass a whole range of feelings from my childhood, that I am rather loathe to abandon. Her analysis seems a bit too reductionist for me.

I suppose I am a product of my era, a result of its prevailing zeitgeist, and yet when I was a child, I think I wanted to believe, not so much in the continuing battle of Good with Evil (whatever either of those concepts mean), but more in the hope of an acceptable ending to the story. So, for me, the success of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example, didn’t hinge on a moral dichotomy -a Life-lesson. It’s a story that doesn’t really need that kind of tension. A child doesn’t impute evil to Goldilocks for eating Baby Bear’s porridge -okay, I didn’t, anyway. It left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, and I don’t think I learned a lesson from it -I was entertained. I was fascinated. I was just a child sitting on a lap wanting to hear my father’s reassuring voice. Surely you have to have some stories that don’t teach you anything, except how to smile…

Of thinking too precisely on the event

The right not to know -now there’s an interesting concept in today’s competition for instant news, ‘breaking stories’, and the ever present titillation of factoids. It seems almost counterintuitive -why would anyone choose not to know something? Surely knowledge trumps ignorance. Surely Hamlet’s timeless question ‘Whethertis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?’ has been answered in the modern era: it is better to know what hides behind the door than to turn one’s back… Or is that just naïve? Hopelessly romantic?

And yet, at least in Medicine, there is the potential struggle between beneficence -promoting and advocating for the well-being of others and autonomy -the right of someone to determine their own fate. And when the two are in conflict, there is an ethical dilemma.

But what about the right not to know something? Something that neither party had any reason to anticipate, and of which ignorance could be disastrous? Does the knowledgeable party have an obligation to inform the other, even if they were instructed not to? In everyday affairs, that seems an unlikely scenario, but an interesting article in Aeon by the writer Emily Willingham outlines some examples from medical research that probably cross the line: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-right-to-know-or-not-know-the-data-from-medical-research

A blood sample targeting cholesterol for example, might show another, seemingly unrelated abnormality. Should your doctor tell you about it, even though the cholesterol value was normal? Of course she should, you would assume. ‘But what if the finding turned up in samples donated for medical research instead of taken for medical testing? … [The] UK Biobank offers a case in point. When participants submit samples to be mined for genetic information, they agree to receive no individual feedback about the results, and formally waive their right to know…’ But that seems unethical, does it not? ‘The reality is that the ‘right’ thing to do about these competing rights to know and not know – and to tell what you do know – varies depending on who’s guiding the discussion. For example, a clinician ordering a test and finding something incidental but worrisome is already in a patient-doctor relationship with at least a tacit agreement to inform. But a researcher collecting DNA samples for a big data biobank has formed no such relationship and made no such commitment.’

Still, there should be some way -perhaps a retroactive clause that would enable a researcher to inform. One way, for example, might be to recognize that ‘people who submit samples for research might benefit from the same process that’s provided to people undergoing genetic testing in the clinic. Genetic counselling is strongly recommended before such testing, and this kind of preparation for research participants could clarify their decisions as well. Investigators who engage with these data on the research side deserve similar preparation and attention to their rights. Before getting involved in such studies, they should be able to give informed consent to withholding findings that could affect a donor’s health. Study investigators should also be unable to link donors and results, removing the possibility of accidental informing, and lifting the burden of the knowledge.’

Of course, the problem doesn’t just start and stop with whether the study participant decides she doesn’t want to know, does it? If the problem has a genetic component, ‘what about the people who were never tested but who are genetic relatives to those with an identified risk or disease? … After all, your genes aren’t yours alone. You got them from your parents, and your biological children will get some of yours from you…  in reality, the revelations – and repercussions – can span generations.’

On a lighter note, I can’t help but be reminded of my friend Brien. Readers of some of my more retirement-centered feuilletons will recall that he is a rather eccentric individual who seems to enjoy living on his porch and watching the world go by, no matter the weather. Rain or shine, summer or winter, I see him ensconced in his seat with a beer in his hand and another one on the railing in case I happen by. A harmless sort, and barely noticed by those who amble past, he is not an infrastructure man. His porch ekes out an existence from day to day in terminal decline. Every time I visit, he assures me that because the sidewalk leading to the house is also deteriorating, it discourages unnecessary visitors. And those who brave the path -me, I suppose he means- know and accept the risks -especially of the dangerous and disintegrating steps onto the porch.

But the last time I was over there, I almost put my foot through a rotting board near his chair, and I felt it had gone too far; I thought he should know. “Brien,” I started, somewhat hesitantly, given his explicit instructions to avoid any criticism of his porchdom, “I just…”

But he silenced me with a regal wave of his beer-hand -a sure sign of displeasure. “You’re gonna tell me something bad, I just know it…”

“No… I was just going to suggest that…”

“Remember the rules, eh?”

Brien can be so annoying sometimes. I think he honestly believes that naming a problem -identifying it by whatever means- gives it the right, formerly denied to it -of existence. So I shrugged, and decided to acquiesce and similarly ignore its right to life. Autonomy, after all is a right as well.

I didn’t see Brien for a week or two, but when I next happened by, as I often do on my way to the store, he seemed unusually bulky on his chair. He was covered in a thick Hudson’s Bay blanket, of course, but I assumed the cold autumn wind had made him bring it out early this year.

He waved at me from the porch and told me not to worry about the steps anymore. And as I approached, I noticed they were brand new and ready for painting. In fact, as I neared the porch, I noticed some of the boards near his chair had been replaced as well.

“What’s going on?” I asked as soon as he handed me a beer.

He smiled and pulled back the blanket to show me the cast on his leg. “I decided to take your advice…”

“But, I never…”

He held up his hand to silence me. “Sometimes I can hear what you don’t say, G…” he interrupted, calling me by my nickname. “And just because I don’t want you to tell me, doesn’t mean I don’t want to know about it, eh?”

I’m still not sure I feel good about not telling him, though…

More than kin and less than kind

Am I really the me I think I am -the cogito ergo sum I have been led to believe? Or have I been naïve all these years in assuming my identity rests solely inside somewhere -in the uniqueness of my brain, maybe, or in the peculiarities of my experiences that no one else could ever hope to share in the same intimate fashion? Am I, in other words, a self-portrait?

I was raised in a society that values self-fulfillment as if were a birthright. Even the motto of my high school was ad maiora natus sum –‘I was born for better things’. Not we, you understand but I… me. And, of course, my teachers were only too happy to inculcate the values of independence and self-reliance in each and every one of us. Competitions on the sports field, and gradations in our marks, only heightened the feeling that each of us was separate, and in charge of our ranking, somehow. It seemed only natural -to some of us, at any rate- to see ourselves as nascent statues seeking our own pedestals.

There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, except that as I grew older and gained more experience, I began to realize that I was not alone. Much like my shadow that followed me everywhere, so did the world. Indeed, everything I did, and much of what I thought, was influenced by others -either by assimilation, or unwitting imitation. The opinion of others, although sometimes shunned, was more often modified and subsequently integrated as if by disguising it, I became the author. And yet, deep down, I realized that the parthenogenesis of ideas was largely fictive. I was swimming in the same waters as everyone else…

But it was not as traumatic as I might have predicted in my tutored youth. In fact, on reflection, it has been more affirming than repudiating, more reassuring than discouraging -almost as if I had finally been accepted as a member of something I had unconsciously coveted all along. I had not capitulated to something I had struggled against, but, instead of staring through its windows like a bewildered shopper, I was welcomed through the door.

But why? Why the initial reluctance to accept my membership in something to which I had always belonged? Some of the answers emerged in an online publication, Aeon, from an essay by Abeba Birhane, a cognitive science student at University College Dublin. https://aeon.co/ideas/descartes-was-wrong-a-person-is-a-person-through-other-persons

‘We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues… Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.’

‘The 17th-century French philosopher [René Descartes] believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism.’ The only thing I can say for certain is that I am, because I am the entity able to conceptualize it. The rest of the world could be a dream -but not the dreamer… So this leaves the effects of anything else on us in a sort of limbo.

Of course others have tried to get around the problem: the 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin ‘believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity… Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.’

I love that. It suggests that we derive our identity -our very existence as that identity- through our interactions, recognition and validation by others. Think of people in solitary confinement in prisons. ‘studies of such prisoners suggest that their sense of self dissolves if they are punished this way for long enough. Prisoners tend to suffer profound physical and psychological difficulties, such as confusion, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, and a distorted sense of time. Deprived of contact and interaction – the external perspective needed to consummate and sustain a coherent self-image – a person risks disappearing into non-existence.’

And it’s not just in prisons we can disappear. I met her at a bus stop -or, rather, she met me. I  happened to be the first person in a lengthy, but orderly queue waiting in the rain for a long overdue bus.

“I was actually first,” she said, staring at me defiantly. She was well dressed in a grey skirt and I could just see a frilly white blouse under her upmarket raincoat. Her short, dark hair was barely mussed in the wind and rain it was now enduring. “I was waiting over there… Out of the rain,” she added, as if to prove her point.

I smiled pleasantly at her as the bus pulled up. “I should have done the same,” I said, furling my embarrassingly inadequate umbrella.

“I didn’t want you to think I just came along, you know,” she persisted. “Sometimes people get really upset when they’ve been waiting in line…”

The way she said it made me think this probably wasn’t the first time she’d crashed a queue. “No, please go in front of me,” I said, trying to show I was not upset. “It’s raining and you don’t have an umbrella.”

She promptly boarded the already crowded bus, then signalled me to sit beside her on one of the only remaining seats. “Do you live in the city?” she asked as soon as I was settled. She looked anxious.

I nodded politely, thinking she was just looking for a way to start a conversation.

“A house…?”

I nodded again, but her eyes immediately landed painfully on my face.

“Landlord, or renter?”

“Excuse me?” It seemed like a trick question, and I was immediately wary.

“You live in a house,” she said slowly and carefully, as if I was hard of hearing.

I nodded, carefully.

“Are you renting it?”

This was getting uncomfortable. “Why do you ask?”

Her eyes scratched at my face for a moment, before flying off again. “Because the city is trying to institute rent controls.” She frowned as she said it.

I brushed her cheek with a quick glance before I stared at my lap. I still wasn’t sure why she was asking. “Do you think that’s a good thing…?” I asked, trying to seem tentative.

“Oh yes!” she hurried to answer. I could almost feel the exclamation mark hovering between us. “Landlords shouldn’t be able to take advantage of their tenants.”

“So, I take it you are a renter?” I said kindly.

“Of course! I’m a single woman now. I’ll never be able to buy a house…”

“Do you like the place you rent?” I asked, trying to change the subject a bit.

She blinked at me, probably wondering if I was trying to trap her, but she relaxed a little. “It’s a bit of a hovel, really. The fridge makes a noise and only one of the burners on the stove works. The walls need some paint, and the rug is frayed…” She sighed and fiddled with a button on her coat. “But it’s the only place I could find.” She looked at the person sitting in front of her for a moment. “I thought it had promise when I first saw it, though…”

I had obviously unleashed something.

“The landlord says he wants to fix it up.”

“Certainly sounds like it could use some work,” I said, smiling.

She glared at me for a moment, and then softened her expression. “That’s exactly what he said.” She glanced out of the window at the rain. “But then he said he would have to raise the rent to pay for it.”

“Do you think that’s fair,” I asked.

I could see she was about to say ‘no’, but she changed her mind and turned her head to look out of the window again. Finally, she shrugged. “We’re both caught, aren’t we? On the one hand, I don’t want to pay more, but on the other, I’d love to see the place fixed up.”

“But if rent controls come into effect, he’s also in a bind, isn’t he?”

She nodded sombrely. “I mean, they’re probably a good idea, but…”

“But they don’t work for you or your landlord…”

She sighed again, and then shrugged.

“Of course there is a way out, isn’t there?” I said, thinking I was just stating the obvious.

She nodded. “Let him fix the place, and pay more rent.”

“Could you not come to a fair compromise with him about the price? Or maybe agree to a gradual increase over, say, a year, or something?” I smiled conspiratorially at her. “After all, rent controls only kick in if you complain.”

I could see her eyes widen as she thought about it. She nodded her head, slowly, and a smile quietly spread over her face. “He’s actually a decent guy…” Suddenly she reached for the pull cord. “My goodness, we’ve been talking so much I almost missed my stop,” she said as she stood and squeezed past me. And then she turned to face me as she struggled through the people standing in the aisle. “I’m so glad I talked to you,” she said. “Thank you,” was the last I heard from her as she disappeared through the sea of dripping coats.

Sometimes it’s good to talk about your problems, I thought and smiled to myself, glad that I might have helped her. ‘A person is a person through other persons’ -wasn’t that the Zulu phrase Abeba Birhane had quoted in that article…?

Here’s ado to lock up honesty

Sometimes I think we want to simplify things too much; we crave bichromality: on or off, yes or no. We want certainty, not a spectrum. An answer, not another question -a decision, in other words. And yet if we stop to look around, it seems obvious that things are seldom black or white -there are colours everywhere.

Relationships are no different -how could they be when two unique individuals are involved? When evaluated over any period of time, they are in constant flux. Contingent. Their often turbulent waters involve negotiation -one might even say navigation. There are no reliable maps -and unless there is local knowledge, ‘Here be dragons’ like those drawn on medieval charts in areas where there was insufficient information to avoid dangers.

Even initial reassurance may require sudden modification depending upon the conditions -we cannot always know in advance how things will work out. Indeed, the very fragility of the substrate is one of the important reasons why we are so enamoured with fine porcelain, with delicate lacework, with Trust.

But relationships, except in a legal and sometimes transactional sense, are seldom maintained by official written contracts -it’s more of an understanding, verbal or otherwise. This is fine, of course, but susceptible to misunderstanding or deliberate deception. Vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in either partner. Difficulties in effective communication…

Words, words, words,’ says Hamlet to Polonius. It almost doesn’t need an explanation, does it? Similar to his ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’ -although admittedly in a different context. But the meaning is clear: one can hide behind a curtain of sound, or a reassuring appearance, so that what is being conveyed may be confusing -purposely, or accidentally.

The problem, I suppose, is in knowing the intent of either one of the participants and its effects on the other. This is especially important in sexual matters where effective communication often lags behind the actions, and frequently is restricted to vague, initial permission followed by hormonal dictates.

It is a subject that people often feel reluctant to talk much about beforehand. Meanings of words and actions can change in the heat of battle, making prior negotiation -setting ground rules, and such- important. Sexual dialogue is not something taught particularly well in School Health Classes, so I was pleased to find an article in Aeon that was willing to tackle it head on. https://aeon.co/essays/consent-and-refusal-are-not-the-only-talking-points-in-sex

The author, Rebecca Kukla, is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She explores the language of sexual negotiation. ‘Philosophers who specialise in what is known as ‘speech act theory’ focus on what an act of speaking accomplishes, as opposed to what its words mean.’ She writes that, ‘all speech acts are governed by what philosophers call ‘felicity norms’ and ‘propriety norms’. Felicity norms are the norms that make a certain speech act a coherent possibility… I can’t name someone else’s baby just because I feel like it, by shouting a name at it. These would be infelicitous speech acts. ‘Propriety norms are norms that make a speech act situationally appropriate. So, although I have the authority to order my son to clean his room, it would be a massive norm violation for me to walk into his classroom at school and shout at him to clean his room in the middle of class.’

‘In public discussions about the ethics of sexual communication, we have tended to proceed as though requesting sex and consenting to it or refusing it are the only important things we can do with speech when it comes to ethical sex… Consenting typically involves letting someone else do something to you. Paradigmatically, consent (or refusal of consent) is a response to a request; it puts the requester in the active position and the one who consents in the passive position. And in practice, given cultural realities, our discussions of consent almost always position a man as the active requester and a woman as the one who agrees to or refuses him doing things to her.’

And yet, ‘Autonomous, willing participation is necessary for ethical sex, but it is not sufficient. We can autonomously consent to all sorts of bad sex, for terrible reasons. I might agree to do something that I find degrading or unpleasantly painful, for instance, perhaps because I would rather have bad sex than no sex at all, or because my partner isn’t interested in finding out what would give me pleasure.’

‘Usually, when all goes well, initiations of sex take the form of invitations, not requests… But when I’m trying to establish intimacy with someone as I am getting to know them, an invitation is more typical and likely more conducive to good, flourishing sex than a request… Invitations create a hospitable space for the invitee to enter.’ An invitation to dinner, for example. And ‘An interesting quirk of invitations is that, if they are accepted, gratitude is called for both from the inviter and the invitee. I thank you for coming to my dinner, and you thank me for having you.’

‘A sexual invitation opens up the possibility of sex, and makes clear that sex would be welcome. Invitations are welcoming without being demanding… Notice that if I invite you, appropriately, to have sex with me, then consent and refusal are not even the right categories of speech acts when it comes to your uptake. It is not felicitous to consent to an invitation; rather, one accepts it or turns it down. So the consent model distorts our understanding of how a great deal of sex is initiated, including in particular pleasurable, ethical sex.’

Kukla goes on to talk about when and if invitations are appropriate, and then about such issues as ‘gifts’ of sex in long-term relationships, as well as the sociology of gifting. But her discussion of ‘safe words’ I think is one of the most important topics she covers. So, ‘Even if we freely consent to a sexual encounter, or otherwise enter it autonomously (for instance, by accepting an invitation), we also need to be able to exit that activity easily and freely. Entering autonomously is not enough; sexual activity is autonomous only when everyone understands the exit conditions and can stop at will, and knows and trusts that they can do this. This requires shared linguistic norms for exiting any activity. Safe words, properly employed, provide a framework that allows everyone to understand when someone wants to exit a sexual activity.’

‘Part of what is interesting about safe words is that they let someone exit an activity at any time without having to explain themselves, or accuse anyone of transgression or any other kind of wrongdoing (although they can also be used when there has been a transgression)… One reason they are important is that inside a sexual encounter, speech is frequently nonliteral… We need very clear ways to be able to tell when someone wants to leave this nonliteral discursive context.’

And, as she suggests, ‘Safe words are powerful discursive tools for enabling sexual autonomy, pleasure and safety, in at least two senses. Most straightforwardly, they offer a tool for exiting an activity cleanly and clearly, with almost no room for miscommunication. But even more interesting to me is the fact that safe words allow people to engage in activities, explore desires and experience pleasures that would be too risky otherwise. When we want to experiment with something that might give us pleasure, but also might make us uncomfortable or put us at risk, we need to be especially sure that we can exit the activity easily.’ But, of course, ‘safe words should never become the only way that someone can exit a scene or activity – all participants need to remain flexibly responsive to other discursive cues as well.’

Unfortunately, the ‘strong social tendency to focus our discussions of sexual negotiation on consent and refusal has resulted in a narrowed and distorted view of the pragmatics of sexual communication. Correspondingly, we have tended to focus on rape and assault, understood as nonconsensual sexual activity, as the only sexual harm we need to worry about. In fact there are many ways in which sex can go ethically wrong, other than by violating consent.’ Kukla feels that ‘sexual autonomy also requires the ability to engage in clear, pragmatically complex, fine-grained sexual communication – including uses of language that go well beyond consenting to and refusing requests for sex.’

There is so much more to communication than words, isn’t there -and so much more to words than meets the ear?  Hamlet again: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…’

Lying down in green pastures

I suppose I should admit something from the start: I’m not particularly religious, and I certainly do not have anything but the most superficial knowledge of Biblical writing. Still, I have come to appreciate the glory of metaphor and how it is able to transmute otherwise ineffable concepts into words. Feelings. Poetry, of course, aspires to that, but so do many of the texts in the Bible -especially the in ‘Old Testament’, apparently.

And yet, except for a very few of the more memorable lines I was taught in Sunday school as a child -parts of Psalm 23 spring to mind- I can’t say I was ever able to differentiate the poetry from the -what?- commands: the instructive reverence with which I was intended to regard the message. But, it seems to me that by its very nature, poetry, through metaphor, simile, and even word play would be particularly helpful for some of the ideas the Bible is trying to describe -things like lamentations, or hymns of praise where it would make sense to draw on the emotive powers of poetry to make a point.

In my adult years, on those rare occasions when the subject of biblical poetry has arisen, I have usually attributed my wonted tone-deafness to translational problems. Cross cultural, not to mention cross-temporal issues mean that some figures of speech, or clever puns in the original language do not have much chance of making the same impact on us as they would have on the recipients when and where they were originally composed.

Even nowadays, the European poems of Schiller (German), or Baudelaire (French), for example, are difficult to translate into English and preserve their same emotional intensity -and they were written as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively. Imagine the difficulty of attempting to render the writings of people living more than 2000 years ago into meaningful word-pictures that would resonate in today’s modern world. And, given the sacred nature of the Bible, any attempt to change the wording, or render the sentences into something like their original poetry, risks immediate condemnation.

The very idea that someone was willing to take the risk intrigued me. It would require impeccable credentials in ancient Hebrew with an equivalent temporal knowledge of the customs and literary devices used so long ago -and an ability to maintain the intended meaning without trivializing the message.

Of course, I have no way of knowing how well any translational skills succeeded in walking that  obviously difficult path, but some of the word-play involved in the effort was explained in an article in Aeon by Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-translation-obscured-the-music-and-wordplay-of-the-bible

‘An essential fact about the Hebrew Bible is that most of its narrative prose as well as its poetry manifests a high order of sophisticated literary fashioning. This means that any translation that does not attempt to convey at least something of the stylistic brilliance of the original is a betrayal of it, and such has been the case of all the English versions done by committee in the modern period.’ True, the Hebrew Bible is basically a religious text, and yet, ‘If a translation fails to get much of its music across, it also blurs or even misrepresents the depth and complexity of the monotheistic vision of God, history, the realm of morality, and humankind.’

So how, after millennia, can one ever hope to express this language from the depths of time into relevant, let alone evocative English phrases? The accuracy of the message is one thing, of course, but conveying it in anything like the clever style of the original so the reader can still appreciate the poetry is another. ‘One small but telltale manifestation of the artistry practised by the biblical writers is their fondness for meaningful word play and sound play.’ However, ‘translation… entails a long series of compromises because full equivalence is rarely an option.’

For example, ‘The prophet Isaiah, like any great poet, commands a variety of formal tools – powerful rhythms, striking imagery, pointed literary allusions (in his case, to earlier biblical texts). Isaiah is particularly fond of sound play that verges on punning. In order to convey with force the perversion of values in the kingdom of Judah, he often juxtaposes two words that sound rather alike but are opposite in meaning… The Hebrew writers repeatedly revelled in the expressive possibilities of their medium, working inventively and sometimes surprisingly in their stories and poems with rhythm, significant repetition, narrative point of view, imagery, shifts in diction, the bending of language in dialogue to represent actual speech or the nature and location of the speaker.’

The article offers a few examples of Alter’s clever compromises to restore the music of the text, but I suspect it is intended more as a kind of a proof-of-concept than as a detailed slog through each Biblical book and chapter; it was both tantalizing and yet mercifully short. Still, it was enough to alert me to the things I never appreciated in my Protestant Sunday school. In fact, I don’t recall them ever mentioning anything about Biblical writing styles -it was the message they were trying desperately to inculcate in our young minds, I suppose.

But lest readers of my humble feuilleton suspect that in these penultimate years I am finally succumbing to Pascal’s wager and conceding that even though the existence of God may be unlikely -and at any rate unprovable-  and that the potential benefits of belief far outweigh shuffling off unshriven, let me assure them that any quest for hidden beauty need not involve ulterior motives. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.

Sometimes it’s enough to know what one’s education may have missed without having to read the whole of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, Alter stirred my interest enough to allow me to finish his essay, but, sadly, not enough to make me want to retrain as a biblical scholar. I’m happy the Bible is poetic, but not, well, overjoyed, or anything…