Monday, September 27, 2010

I would recommend him to read Auerbach

This is a famous passage from C. S. Lewis's "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism."

In what is already a very old commentary I read that the fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a 'spiritual romance', 'a poem not a history', to be judged by the same canons as Nathan's parable, the book of Jonah, Paradise Lost 'or, more exactly, Pilgrim's Progress'. After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world? Note that he regards Pilgrim's Progress, a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name it uses, as the closest parallel. Note that the whole epic panoply of Milton goes for nothing. But even if we leave our the grosser absurdities and keep to Jonah, the insensitiveness is crass - Jonah, a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident and surely not without a distinct, though of course edifying, vein of typically Jewish humour. Then turn to John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable nv vuz (13:30). I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage - though it may no doubt contain errors - pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read. I would recommend him to read Auerbach. 

John Beversluis is critical of this claim. He says:

But that is not an argument. It is a question based on the false assumption that wide reading in a particular genre necessarily makes one's judgment more reliable than narrow intensive reading in the same genre. 

Well, if you put a necessity operator in, I suppose it is a false assumption. It could be that someone who engaged in a wide reading of a genre could have worse judgment than someone who read more narrowly and intensively. Still, one could certainly make mistakes reading narrowly within a particular genre and ignoring the types of literature extant at the time. For example, calling the Gospels novels is a mistake someone might make who is familiar with Biblical literature but is not aware that no one wrote novels in ancient times. It certainly seems reasonable that Lewis could have knowledge, as a literary scholar, that would allow him to avoid mistakes that a narrowly focused biblical scholar could make.

This is a particularly forceful consideration when one realizes that the idea that John is a spiritual romance is not a consensus claim amongst biblical scholars. There are plenty of scholars who think that John is a good-faith attempt to record what Jesus really said and did.

But also notice that Lewis doesn't just appeal to his own authority as a biblical scholar, he cites an authority, the Jewish scholar Auerbach, whose Mimesis made him a heavyweight in literary criticism.

Gene Veith, in his treatment of Auerbach's argument says:

Homer, Auerbach shows, puts everything in the foreground — giving us what the characters look like, describing their surroundings in detail, and even telling us what they are thinking. This approach, which has become the model for Western fiction, is “to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations,” says Auerbach.
He contrasts this highly-imaginative approach to the way the Bible in Genesis describes the sacrifice of Isaac. We do not know what Abraham or Isaac look like; there is no description of the landscape; we are not told what Abraham thinks as he prepares to sacrifice his son; nor are we informed why God acts as He does. Such meaning is in the “background,” requiring interpretation and reflection and opening up untold depths.
This kind of narrative testifies to the real because it is messy, unpredictable, and compels, just like real life. Auerbach says that the story of David has to be historical. “In Absalom’s rebellion, for example, or in the scenes from David’s last days, the contradictions and crossing of motives both in individuals and in the general action have become so concrete that it is impossible to doubt the historicity of the information conveyed.”


Gregory said...

I'm not sure how, or why, an ascription of "poetry" mitigates the factual nature of a given set of propositions of which purport, via the genre of poetry, to tell us something about "reality".

For instance, let's take this silly ditty as an example:

"At the dawn of a weighty pugilist election,
The President elect will catch a putrid infection."

Granting that, at the moment, this is purely hypothetical, yet it references something that could come true or, on the contrary, could turn out to be false. And I hope that it does turn out false, whoever our next President happens to be.

If this "poem" turns out to be false, then it is false because it's factually in error....and not merely because of it's status as "poetry".

Poetry can be fact or fiction. But we assess it's truth-status based on the available data/evidence available to us....of which either supports or undermines the alleged "factual" content of any given poem or work of literature.

Taking the case of the "Book of Revelation", there is little doubt that much of it is written as poetry. In fact, some have suggested that this was a shrewd ploy by St. John to hide the message of his book from those who were hostile to Christianity and/or Christians. Hence, it afforded a somewhat safe dissemination along the trade routes of the Roman Empire to the Churches of which he was addressing.

Simply comparing the formal structure of certain types of literature, in and of itself, is insufficient in determining the veracity of that literature. Unless, of course, a given piece of literature is written and intended as a work of "fiction".

For this reason, I find much of the old German Schools of "Higher Criticism" to be "much ado about nothing".

Steven Carr said...

Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable nv vuz (13:30).

Lewis was such an awful Bible scholar that he had no idea that this story does not appear in any manuscript until the 4th century, and nobody mentions it before then.

Any amateur Infidel knows the story of the woman taken in adultery was added to the text later, which is why Lewis claims that stories which only surface centuries after Jesus lived are 'reportage' are as accurate as somebody claiming he can tell the famous 5-queens game by Alekhine is genuine because he is an expert on Alekhine's style.

Steven Carr said...

'Note that he regards Pilgrim's Progress, a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name it uses, as the closest parallel.'


Was Lewis such a really amateur Biblical scholar that he had no idea that the Gospel writers report dreams as facts, and so Lewis naively dismissed dreams as obvious fiction?

Lewis shoots himself in his own foot. How sweet of him...

And by the way,Mark made up the allegorical name 'Barabbas', to show the 'Son of the Father' being set free,although guilty , while the real Son of the Father is about to be crucified, although innocent.

This is as obviously allegorical as anything Lewis dismissed as obvious allegory in Pilgrim's Progress.