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Reflections on Walter Benjamin 3.

Bad Reading Habits
[No. 3 in a Series.]

By ALAN WALL.

amir-aslaniIN SEPTEMBER 2014 Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged in Iran. His crime? He suggested that the story of Jonah-and-the-whale in the Koran should be read symbolically – that a prophet did not in fact spend a literal three days in the gut of a whale before being spewed up on the shore so he could go and tell the sinners of Nineveh what fate awaited them. That the narrative, in other words, borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures, might have been a way of figuring a transcendent truth, rather than detailing a factual chronicle. That a truth is figured rather than chronicled does not make it any less of a truth, of course. Unless you have bad reading habits. Bad reading habits here cost a man his life.

portrait_logoOne of the accusations put to Galileo, in order to show him the error of his ways, was that the sun in the Book of Joshua is described as being ordered to stand still. Now you only order something to stand still if it has been moving, surely? So there you are then: the sun must move round the earth, and not the other way about. It’s in the holy book we have just placed in front of you, and so it must be true. That book is true because the faith tells us it is, and the faith is based ultimately on that book. Such a sacred circle must remain unbroken. Galileo argued (though quietly enough, and only when out of inquisitorial earshot) that God wrote two books, one in the form of scripture, and the other in the form of mathematics. You had to study the second subject if you wanted to work out how the heavens actually worked, rather than fathoming how you might get into them after death. But once again the official accusers had bad reading habits, and Galileo was shown the instruments of torture. For a man with his medical knowledge, that simple demonstration was enough: he publicly recanted.

To avoid bad reading habits is not to insist that there is no truth in ancient texts. Pace James Russell Lowell, time does not make ancient good uncouth, but it can make it profoundly unfashionable.

To avoid bad reading habits is not to insist that there is no truth in ancient texts. Pace James Russell Lowell, time does not make ancient good uncouth, but it can make it profoundly unfashionable. Of course it might well have been equally unfashionable at the time it was originally propounded. Some modern people, attending to the truths embodied in ancient texts, have discovered remarkable things. Heinrich Schliemann took his Iliad seriously, you might even say literally. When he got to Bunarbashi, where the scholars of his time presumed Troy would have been, assuming it had ever existed in the first place, he immediately checked the location against the text, and found the former wanting. This place was three hours away from the coast, and since the Achaians travel back and forth daily (several times on occasion, according to Homer) how could this possibly be the site? Anyway, he reckoned the little hill before him was an unlikely place for such a mighty palace to have been built. So Schliemann kept on looking, and found his site instead at Little Ilium, also known as Hissarlik. This fitted the bill; if, that is, you reckoned The Iliad was a reliable guide, which Schliemann undoubtedly did. He actually found seven buried cities beneath his boots, the sixth of which might really have been the original Troy. Only his faith in an ancient text led him to his modern discovery and his treasure.

gordon1Just over a decade later, Gordon (later of Khartoum) tramped about Jerusalem with a King James Bible in his hand, searching for the precise site of the crucifixion. He too firmly believed in the truth contained in his ancient text, though nothing was to come of these particular endeavours. His fame was still in waiting, to be acquired lethally on another continent. At more or less the same time Matthew Arnold was writing that, although the theology of St John’s Gospel might be magnificent, his topography amounted to little more than a fairy tale. Arnold, it turns out, was wrong. Subsequent biblical archaeology has shown that John’s account of the whereabouts of the pavement from which Pontius Pilate delivered his verdict, or the location of the Pool of Bethesda, were accurate. Had Gordon simply followed John in all his measurements, he might have got a little further than he did.

There is a deep prejudice in us that early texts are more likely to reveal the truth of our situation than any later redactions.

There is a deep prejudice in us that early texts are more likely to reveal the truth of our situation than any later redactions. In one sense this is understandable: we know how readily we redact for the sake of convenience. We notice this even in the ontogeny of our individual lives, let alone the phylogeny of the species. Matthew Arnold reckoned all the miraculous events in the Gospels were added after the time of Jesus, in order to cajole the credulous and ignorant into the faith. And there is a distinction between the types of text we adjudicate to be aboriginal and therefore worth following, and those which merely represent curiosities of our history. A newly-discovered life of Jesus from a contemporary who had not been a follower would evoke immediate and ferocious interest. This is the device at the heart of Michel Faber’s recent novel The Fire Gospel. And yet, if we were to discover an Ethiopian tract on dentistry from two thousand years back, no one would assume that this contained the ‘hidden truth’ about dentistry, and so insist that all orthodontists now follow its instructions.

Hence the ongoing obsession with Nostradamus. Hence the ceaseless obsession with the figures and numbers in The Book of Revelation which a publication like Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth reveals. Newton devoted a great deal of his life to attempting to reconstruct the floor plan of the Temple of Solomon, primarily using Hebrew scripture as his source material. These arrangements, he believed, indicated the structure of time, the essential gist of history, the likely pattern of the future, and the precise date of the end of the world. Many have believed that certain ancient buildings embody transcendent truths: the pyramids, for instance. Now Newton held that the scriptures were of divine inspiration, though twisted and misrepresented, particularly by trinitarians. It is possible that Newton’s mystical subscriptions helped him formulate some of the central perceptions of Principia Mathematica. His work was disparaged by some at the time for its apparent advocacy of action at a distance – a notion redolent of the occult. About such matters Newton famously responded that he made no hypotheses. Like the Descriptionists of the 1890s, he insisted that the only genuine scientific work was the exact portrayal of that which could be perceived. Nature was thus and thus; we could say how but never why.

In ‘The Battle of the Books’, written at the end of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift stages a little war in a library. The ancient authors beat the moderns hands down.

In ‘The Battle of the Books’, written at the end of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift stages a little war in a library. The ancient authors beat the moderns hands down. Thus did Swift follow his mentor and patron William Temple in insisting on the superiority of ancient wisdom over modernists like Francis Bacon, who had argued that we needed to adopt experimental techniques, in order to acquire new knowledge; it was no good simply reverting to Aristotle, as though all truth lay in his writings. Aristotle, in any case, could be shown to be wrong. Bacon used the image of the spider to make his point. Those devoted entirely to the ancient literature, he said, were like spiders, assuming everything they needed was already there, inside the tradition; gossamer to be extruded at will. Swift reverses the image in his text; now it is the moderns who are like spiders, assuming all the truth lies with them, when most of it is still deposited beyond, in the ancient sources.

IT IS CURIOUS to think how many people in the world today would admit, if pressed, that the most important truths in their lives come from ancient texts rather than modern ones. Christians with their gospels, Jews with their Hebrew scriptures, Muslims with the Koran, Hindus with the Vedas, and so on. Meanwhile the unbelievers insist that God is the unchanged origin, projected from our serial desolations. One of our abiding myths is the notion of an originary state of plenitude from which we were expelled. Occasionally we catch glimpses of something a little more bitter. The heads of Easter Island might make us pause, and wonder if the originary scene could have been a wind-battered moor with a single boulder raised upon it, staring blindly at the sky.

Sacred scripture has a mythic resonance for Benjamin. It bespeaks a world prior to the fracture of word and meaning which is the condition of modernity.

Walter Benjamin maintained a lifelong relation with the sacred text, which for him was a text which could never be exhausted by interpretation, and one whose language articulated an unfractured world in unfractured locutions. Here in this language each sign is laden with the meaning it embodies; there is no dissociation of material sign from spiritual signified. There is none of that arbitrary and conventional system of signification we see in De Saussure, the modern language of degradation. The word is always and everywhere the incarnation of its own significance. Sacred scripture has a mythic resonance for Benjamin. It bespeaks a world prior to the fracture of word and meaning which is the condition of modernity. He is of course reverting here to a long-standing myth: the idea that the original language, the language spoken by our first philosopher Adam, was Hebrew. It is only relatively recently that Indo-European has displaced that originating language in our schemas. The sacred is constantly under threat from scientific analysis.

Most would acknowledge that there are truths to be discovered in ancient texts, but we are painfully aware how selectively they tend to be chosen, how relentlessly redacted in order to protect one tradition, one community, or another. Hence our fascination with the newly-discovered text, hidden away for centuries, that threatens finally to reveal the truth beneath our multiple redactions. It was this that caused the great thrill generated by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The problems begin, as with the execution of Mohsen Amir-Aslani, when any freedom of reading and interpretation – however responsible – is deemed to represent a deviation from the true faith. Then the text ceases to be a source of enrichment, and becomes merely a form of entrapment; the template for bad reading habits. Then one wishes to emphasize certain moments in those ancient texts above all others. Imagine, for example, if everyone always insisted on remembering this one:

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

If only.


LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in January. A collection of his essays has now been published by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint.

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