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…

The Serpent’s Egg

We all see the world through our own experiences, paint it with our own colours, fly our own flags. They seem real to us –unique and even necessary to our identities. As if it’s enough to be simply what we wear; as if we are only what we’ve been taught to show. But sometimes we need distance to understand that there are other equally compelling ways of defining ourselves. Other less travelled roads.

I say this, of course, as an unwitting member of a large club in which I was enrolled without being required to read the rules. But I guess most of us say that, don’t we? Male privilege –it’s something that’s hard to see if it’s all you’ve known. Easy to deny –and certainly easier to excuse- if you’re the privileged one. Especially if you can’t even understand the claim; to a sock, everything is a foot. It’s why we have them…

I worry that it is a learned attitude, however –like assuming all girls want to play with dolls, and all boys want to play with cars. A self-fulfilling prophecy if it’s taught early enough –valid only because we know it’s how it should be. Harmless, perhaps, if it does not disadvantage either side, but untenable unless dispassionately assessed. Unfortunately, we all tend to bring our own agendas to the analysis. Our own talking-points. Our own pasts…

A state in Australia is making a brave attempt to bring some historical context to the issue, and create some early awareness of the challenges of gender perspective and gender stereotypes: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-37640353 ‘Students will explore issues around social inequality, gender-based violence and male privilege.’ This is not to suggest that Australia is any different in its treatment of women, but it is a welcome departure from many countries that don’t even acknowledge the problem. ‘Primary school students will be exposed to images of both boys and girls doing household chores, playing sport and working as firefighters and receptionists. The material includes statements including “girls can play football, can be doctors and can be strong” and “boys can cry when they are hurt, can be gentle, can be nurses and can mind babies”.’ And it doesn’t stop with primary school education. ‘A guide for the Year 7 and 8 curriculum states: “Being born a male, you have advantages – such as being overly represented in the public sphere – and this will be true whether you personally approve or think you are entitled to this privilege.” It describes privilege as “automatic, unearned benefits bestowed upon dominant groups” based on “gender, sexuality, race or socio-economic class”.’ Good on them!

But I think we have to be careful to walk the middle path. Accusations are seldom neutral; they often engender anger and even retaliation from those accused. So, perhaps predictably, in Australia ‘a report on a 2015 pilot trial accused it of presenting all men as “bad” and all women as “victims”.’ It’s one thing to illuminate the entire stage for a play, but still another to spotlight only one particular area. Decontextualize it…

*

Jeannette seemed like a fairly typical young woman as she sat relaxed in her seat and talking to several other women in the waiting room. Her long auburn hair danced lightly on her shoulders when she laughed, and her eyes sparkled as she leaned over to accept a toy from a little boy who had toddled over to her on a whim. Dressed in a loose grey sweatshirt and faded jeans, she wore a fresh, newly-pregnant smile that every woman in the room could see. And even the older ones followed her with their eyes –memories of bygone years. Her joy, theirs to enjoy -if only vicariously, and for too brief a time.

But her smile faded as soon as she sat across the desk from me in my office. Her eyes were predators shackled for the moment, the cage doors open nonetheless.

“I understand congratulations are in order, Jeanette,” I said, looking at my computer screen, and missing the change in her face. “Your family doctor says this is your first pregnancy…”

“The father doesn’t want me to keep the pregnancy,” she said tersely, her lips thin and tight, and as I looked up, she sent her eyes to savage my smile, and her forehead seemed to pucker as they left.

I had never met Jeannette before, although I had apparently seen her mother as a patient several years ago. That was all the GP said  -maybe it was why he had sent her to me for her pregnancy. I took a deep breath and leaned forward in my chair. These are always difficult conversations. “And how do you feel about that, Jeannette…?”

I could see her face relax a bit, as if my response had caught her by surprise. “I… I don’t think it’s fair!” She searched in her pockets for something, and then grabbed a tissue from my desk and dabbed her cheek. “I mean he’s blaming me for getting pregnant…” She took a deep, stertorous breath and sat back on her chair. “He refused to wear a condom –he said it would show I didn’t trust him…” I could see her squeezing her hands. “I didn’t, actually… I mean we’d never slept together before, but we were good friends… and…” Her eyes had softened with tears so she dropped them onto her lap and grabbed a handful of tissues. “Well, we were both drinking –he kept filling up my wine glass and…”

I remained silent and waited for her to continue.

“And he doesn’t even believe it’s his anyway… I was too easy he said!” Her face hardened again and her eyes dared me to agree. “I got really angry. ‘You were pretty easy, yourself’, I told him. And that’s when he punched me in the stomach and left…”

I have to admit that my mouth fell open. “Did you report him, Jeannette?”

She looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face. “He’d just deny hitting me, doctor!” she said through gritted teeth as if it were obvious. “And he’s already telling my friends it was consensual sex…”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep my expression neutral. “Did you tell your GP all this?”

She shook her head. “He wouldn’t understand. I just said I was pregnant…”

I sat quietly for a moment, wondering how to proceed, when she suddenly smiled warmly at me. “Can I ask you something, doctor?”

I nodded with a smile –sometimes it’s all you can do.

“If I were your daughter, what would you say to me?”

I thought about it for a bit, then looked at her and sighed. “When you do dance, I wish you
a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that.”

Her face brightened even more and her eyes sparkled in the sunlight from the window behind me. “That’s from Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale’ isn’t it?”

I nodded, surprised both that I quoted that line of all things, but also that she knew what I meant.

“Better start filling in that antenatal form on your screen, don’t you think?” she said, barely able to contain her face.

And we both laughed. Sometimes poetry has the privilege, I realized –not gender…