Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cool Book: Canon and Creativity by Robert Alter

While browsing a local used bookstore the other night, I found a little volume in the "new arrivals" section that had a nice cover and felt good in my hands (this is important, as any book lover knows). Better yet, Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture, by Robert Alter, looks at the influence of the Hebrew Bible on three (actually four) modernist authors: William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!, in the introduction) and James Joyce (Ulysses), Haim Bialik (the epic poem, The Dead in the Desert), and Franz Kafka (Amerika).

I've just started reading this great little book (it's under 200 pages), but I wanted to post a couple of quotes from the introduction that explain the book, and also justify its approach. This first quote offers some insight into the works and authors that were chosen and why.
The engagement of modern writers with the Bible is especially instructive because it cuts sharply two ways. They frequently translate biblical motifs and themes into radically redefining new contexts, and, as we shall see in the case of Bialik, their stance toward the Bible can sometimes be positively combative. At the same time, the Bible remains for them a value-laden, imaginatively energizing body of texts, helping make possible the novels and poems they write through the powers of expression and vision that inhere in it. Kafka was a thoroughly Europeanized modern Jew struggling, perhaps futilely, with the idea of belief and the tradtion that embodied it. Bialik had escaped from the world of East European Jewish piety in late adolescencem carrying with him a mixed burden of guilt, intermittant nostalgia, and bitterness toward it. Joyce, educated by Jesuits, fashioned an essentially aesthetic artistic ideal that blended an earthy paganism with certain motifs and ideas drawn from both Judaism and Christianity. These three exemplary instances, then, are chosen from very disparate points on the cultural and credal map. None of the three embraced the biblical canon with a believer's theological certitude, but, as their works attest, the canonicity of the Bible was accutely palpable to them, imaginatively available to them, perhaps in some ways that it might not be to the conventional believer. The inventive and at times disorienting use of the Bible in their writing is a vivid manifestation of the dialectic of iconoclasm and traditionalism that informs a good deal of modernist writing. (pg. 8-9)
This next passage offers some insight into why the Bible was so crucial to the work of these authors (and by extension, so many others throughout history).
The Bible in part seizes the imagination of the modern writer because of his acute consciousness of it as a body of founding texts, marking out one of the primary possibilities of representing the human condition and the nature of historical experience for all the eras of Western culture that have followed antiquity. This recourse to founding texts makes special sense if one recalls the impulse to fundamental cultural stock taking or self-recapitulation that characterizes a good deal of modernist writing. What a modernist may take from the Bible is not necessarily revealed truth or theological principle; but, as I shall argue in my first chapter, the canonicity of the Bible all along inhered not only in the divine origins attributed to the texts. Faulkner, like the other modrn writers whose work we shall be pondering, saw something true and deep in the Bible that spoke to his own sense of the world, though it is not anything that Aquinas or Maimonides would have been likely to see in the Bible. Faulkner's relation to Scripture, like that of his literary contemporaries, illustrastes how a canon is a dynamic transhistorical textual community and not a timeless inscription of fixed meanings. (pg. 17-8)
I added the emphasis on the last sentence -- this is an area where so many people misunderstand the notion of the canon. The canon is a conversation between authors, between authors and readers, and between readers. As it should be.

I have only read the introduction to the book so far, but I feel I can highly recommend it becuase it does the one thing all good criticism should do -- it helps us appreciate the work of art in a new and deeper way.

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