Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Shadow of a Great Rock

Finished The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom. It was, Cormac McCarthy worship and the use of the word "agon" once per page aside, almost entirely amazing.

Bloom is not as apologetic as many authors would be about his simultaneous agnosticism and belief that the KJB contains some of the greatest poetry ever written. I appreciate this, since over-apologizing could have become annoying, and because I am in the same situation. Bloom says a few times, of a passage, "I love this without believing it," and that is all you need to say as far as I'm concerned.

He does assume that his reader has read the Bible, in some depth and recently, and provides pointed commentary that those who most reference the Bible in public and political spheres have probably never read it (so true). I have not read the Bible all that recently, but I do have a copy, and using it as a reference while reading this book was not a problem. However, he also assumes his reader knows a ton about the history of Bible scholarship, which I don't. I found it fascinating that the language of the New Testament is so much more basic because it was written by speakers of Hebrew writing in Greek, but: how do we know that? And why were they writing in Greek? Bloom's target audience clearly knows this already; I felt a little astray at times because of that assumption.

Many of the chapters juxtapose passages from the Geneva Bible, the precursor to the King James translation, with the KJB. I did have a quibble with the printing choice to have the entirety of one translation (often taking several pages) and then the other. A two-column format would, I thought, have worked much better. (Also, in my copy the question marks were upside down. I don't know how that happened, but it was a trace distracting.)

My favorite parts were when Bloom just lays out a passage and is like, "Boom. English language at its best. I defy you to find better," and he's right, as in the following from Kings:

11And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:
12And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

Read it several times. Read it out loud. Seriously, read it out loud.

That is beauty. You don't have to believe in anything but the English language to know that that is beauty. And if someone finds revelation in it, I don't blame them for one moment.

Unfortunately, the book gets weaker when Bloom reaches the New Testament; he acknowledges as much, by pointing out that scholars have always found the New Testament's language weaker. But he got me actually angry when he delights in Paul, and says that "I wickedly enjoy Galatians, where Paul is very much his dreadful self". Really, Bloom? Because that "dreadful self" said things about women which have been used to oppress and abuse them for centuries; where's the enjoyment in that? Bloom's ability to read and discuss all eleven books of Paul without once mentioning his constant frothing misogyny, and the use to which said misogyny is put to this day, is a pretty good working definition of male privilege (and unsurprising from Cormac McCarthy's biggest fan). And the ending - a quick mention of Revelation - was very abrupt.

Still, I liked this book quite a lot; it made me aware of beauty and also made me think, and I can't ask for much more.

Next up: Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë, by Maureen Adams. This is going to make me cry and cry, but hopefully in a cathartic way.

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