The dialogue between the intellectual present and the textual past.
By ALAN WALL.
THE JEWISH TRADITION of midrash assumes that canonic texts are always open, never closed. The text cannot say the last word about itself. It contains gaps and riddles to which only the future might produce answers. How can the six days of creation be reconciled with modern cosmology? Midrash replies: well, what precisely is a day (yom, in the Hebrew text) before the earth is even created? Anything the Almighty deems it to be, presumably. So then, that day might amount to 13.7 billion years if necessary. The future has answered questions the past had no means of asking itself. But the text remains the same. It is verbatim. The text has discovered new possibilities inside its literal self. As human experience grows more complex and confusing, words and locutions grow in parallel to accommodate the changes. Intellectual achievement now consists of seeing how rich the texts of the past are. The dialogue is between the intellectual present and the textual past. If the text is rich enough, then it is patient of endless interrogation. It can keep opening up.
One of the greatest midrashic moments of modern times comes when Bob Dylan returns to the Book of Genesis. It is an important story he is re-exploring, one of our founding myths, the one about Abraham and Isaac out on 61.
The first thing we note is how modern language and usage have injected the ancient story with a vivid contemporaneity. Yahweh is here the neighbourhood bully, and He speaks the argot of the street. The next time you see me, you’d better run. How many times had Bob Dylan, aka Robert Zimmerman, heard that one in the school playground? A slight figure physically, and a Jew, he would have had a shrewd notion of what it meant to be bullied. When the Almighty orders Abraham to go off to the hills and slaughter his beloved son, He is being divinely thuggish. He later rescinds the order, but we are left to ponder (as Kierkegaard did at length) the breathtaking lethality of the command. Yes Sir, says Abraham silently. And he would have done it too. Anything to keep the old man happy. He was the faithful sort. But Dylan’s song came in the middle of the 1960s, when keeping the old man happy meant going off to the war in Vietnam and killing someone else’s sons. Dylan’s own father was called Abraham. The family called him Abe. As it so frequently does, this midrash is getting personal.
Midrash is a religious form of interpretation of sacred texts. It permits a vigorous form of questioning. In fact, the questioner can become positively inquisitorial. The central notion is that reverence for a sacred text does not anchor you to the same spot, but frees you to travel instead. If the text is sacred, then it must be packed with truth. There are all sorts of truths there that might not have seen the light of day yet, and if the day is yom, well then billions of years might intervene between utterance and interpretation. Even grammar might yield ambiguities not yet considered for thousands of years. Think how grammar is revolutionized when Rimbaud says: ‘Je est un autre’ – I is another. This is grammar being re-introduced to itself through a different set of lenses. The text ceases to be a monocular inscription. It becomes instead multi-focal, multi-vocal, multiple in its possibilities. This makes it less useful for purposes of condemnation and punishment, but far more exciting for elucidation and enlightenment. The text is never a terminus; always a highway.
It seems to me impossible for anyone with a functioning brain to be aware of modern cosmology and believe literally in the story of creation told in the Book of Genesis. If God created the cosmos so that we can sit in the centre of it, then He is a spectacular bungler. So by believing the literal text of Genesis, you are not exactly paying Him any compliments. You are also being illiterate. The Book of Genesis is not a work of science. The account of creation there is a poem. You can’t actually disprove a poem. What you can do is to learn how poems are made and how they are meant to be read. Poems shape worlds. Out of language and culture come these shapings. To enter into the world of a poem we have to try (never entirely successfully) to enter that linguistic complex we call a culture. We have to submit ourselves to its structures before we can understand. Even if we reckon God is speaking to us in the Book of Genesis, He is uttering Himself through an early Iron Age culture, with an early Iron Age poetics. We cannot read it as if it were a paper by Einstein. That would not just insult modern science – it would insult Yahweh too. This figure of Yahweh is not to be treated lightly, nor is He to be in any way sentimentalized into contemporaneity. In Book Six of Genesis, He wipes out the whole of his creation, except for one family. Men, women and children. They had not been paying enough attention, so down into the sump with the lot of them. This is plenipotentiary power, and then some. Our modern realities can’t exactly negotiate this. We should not pretend that we can, in our desperation for hermeneutic assimilation. This is alterity. This text is confronting us with something awesomely different. This Yahweh is not only the creator of humankind; He is also its slaughterer. The next time you see Him coming, you’d better run.
Midrash is a declaration of emancipation when confronted with the authoritative text. It permits us to internalize the authority, and realize that all forms of textuality represent a form of freedom – not of boundless relativism, but of responsible questioning, of creative enquiry. I am what I am, most certainly, but I is also another. Grammar translates us into alterity. Like Bottom, we are all of us translated. Our speech-acts are not replications, but re-makings.
A Visual Midrash
I WOULD ARGUE that Picasso’s recreations of legendary beings were a kind of visual midrash. The creatures remain in place (as the text remains in place in classic midrash) but it is newly questioned, freshly examined, reinvigorated, until we encounter a new beast. Picasso’s minotaur was unlike any other. And yet it was still the original minotaur – the text remained unmangled, but it found a new form of life.
Picasso took the archetypal figure of the minotaur and filled him with modern question marks. His minotaur is riddled with contemporary anxieties; his eyes are blinded with twentieth-century angst. He is ancient and modern at the same time – precisely as Picasso thought modern art had to be, trapped by no cultural topography, but with all cultures – past and present – simultaneously available to it.
The minotaur, we should remind ourselves, exists because of his mother’s uncontrollable lust for a white bull. He is the hybrid that results from species-miscegenation. He has the strengths and appetites of a bull, but the intellect, regrets and rage of a man. Picasso reckoned the minotaur was himself. So all his images of minotaurs in the 1930s are self-portraits. When he portrayed the minotaur blinded, as he did on several occasions, he was exorcising the dread curse that could be laid upon his own mirada fuerte, the strong gaze that indicated a preternatural visual power, and an accompanying sexual virility. The blinded minotaur is like a wax doll filled with needles. It is a hero in direst affliction. A votive offering of all that must be avoided.
In the magical drypoint Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Girl, the hybrid creature gazes with love and wonder at a beautiful sleeper. Picasso created these images at a time when his life was severely troubled. He was in love with Marie-Therēse Walters, very much out of love with Olga, his wife. He said once that the minotaur was trying to decide whether to love the sleeper, or kill her. Pretty serious ambivalence, then. Picasso has inhabited the ancient mythical creature; his own life has enlivened it. And yet we know that we are still gazing at the minotaur. He has never left his legendary world.
The Authority of the Text
NO TEXT, HOWEVER authoritative, should ever stop us in our tracks. The text should always enable us to move on – to move on through it. Midrash facilitates this manœuvre, even with the most seemingly immoveable text.
In one midrash, Moses is baffled by something Yahweh has done and so the Lord, to help him out, transports him through time so that he can listen to Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph in the second century of the Common Era (1400 years after Moses died). The Rabbi talks eloquently of the Torah, which Moses was thought to have written. Moses couldn’t understand much of what was expounded about his own text, but he was flattered that the exposition referred so often to himself. The midrash is not locked in time, as the progenitor of a text might have been. The midrash transcends its origin.
Let us experiment for a moment. Here is an attempt at a Christian midrash. Remember the story of the Gadarane swine, as told in the Gospel? There is a demoniac in Gadara, and he is filled not with the ravings of one demon, but a legion of them. Jesus casts them out and they rush into a nearby herd of pigs, who promptly throw themselves into the lake to escape the torment. I was told this story over and over as a child, frequently from pulpits. Never once did any of the preachers seek to elucidate certain peculiarities of the story, or elaborate any of its midrashic possibilities. What, we might ask, is Jesus doing so near to pigs? Pigs were an unclean animal for Jews (they still are for the orthodox) and if you were to come into contact with one, you required ritual cleansing. And of course none of the Jews would be eating the stuff pigs turn into with the help of flames. No bacon sandwiches for sale outside the Temple or the synagogue.
But Gadara was a town in the Decapolis, the ten towns of the Roman garrison that held Palestine in place. And Roman legions were very fond of their pork. So the story, seen from a midrashic angle, could be the one unambiguous anti-Roman gesture Jesus makes during his ministry. Normally he watches his step; he is ambiguous. ‘Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,’ he says, brilliantly getting himself off the Pharisaic hook. The Zealots were meanwhile clamouring for an uprising against the Romans. But look what Jesus does. The demons go into the Romans’ food supply, and destroy it. If you wish to defeat your enemy, poisoning his food might not be a bad way to start. I have found by a midrashic reading, an anti-Roman gesture I think no one has ever noticed before. The only question to be asked is: am I being midrashic or allegorical? The two categories are not always easy to separate. I think midrash must always stay tied to the text it transcends; allegory can afford to wander off. I would argue that here we stay close to the text.
When Christians decided to impose their figural readings on the Hebrew Bible, and to employ typology, they deemed the text before them to be allegorical, or at least to have allegorical potential. It was a labyrinth of possibilities, in which the literal was only one level in a multi-planar world of textuality. In fact, the literal might only be the pretext for allegorical or anagogical possibilities that transcend our humdrum quiddities. The text, like the spirit, goeth where it listeth. And its ultimate interpretation is not bounded by age-old convention.
In midrash, the text stays in the centre, but its possibilities proliferate. We don’t stop with the text; on the contrary, that’s where we get started. In all Picasso’s work the content is traditional; it is form that is radical and revolutionary. The lexicon of images is given, but what you do with it formally is limitless. This is the same with midrash and the sacred text.
We could finally take a midrashic look at the emergence of the vampire. Is it possible that we have left something out of our reading of the texts? Missed a midrashic trick? The first serious reports (many of them medical) come from the 1730s, in eastern Europe. Mass inoculations were being introduced then, amidst great suspicion. The great movements against inoculations got started in the early 1800s, when the literature of vampirism also gets going, with Polidori and the rest. So what ties the two phenomena together? The notion of a vein being intruded upon by something sharp, whether a tooth or a needle, introducing something contagious (and potentially lethal) into the body. Many clergy declared inoculation to be unchristian. Then as now the idea of sticking something foreign into your bloodstream offended sensibilities. As yet, the anti-Covid movement has not resurrected vampirism amongst its potential terrors, but there is still time.
ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. 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 and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.
Note: Alan Wall’s verse treatment of this topic is here.