The Book of Job, Traveler in a Strange Land

The Book of Job: a New Translation with In-Depth Commentary by Robert D. Sacks. Kafir Yaroq Books. Green Lion Press. 2016.

Robert D. Sacks’s new translation of and commentary on the Book of Job is a wonderful contribution to our understanding of this deeply strange and interesting book. In my notes, I want to highlight just a few particularly fascinating points:

The translation includes many extended glosses on words that are used in unfamiliar ways, trying to get at the difficult ideas that the poet is trying to convey through the story. For example, Sachs makes an extended comment on the familiar biblical passage(s) about future generations being responsible for the sins of their fathers. He says the word translated as“sins” or ”iniquity” is actually better rendered in English as something like perversion,and he cites several other places where this word appears that make this clearer. Then he refers to a couple modern examples of the sorts of wrongs he thinks are meant to be understood, one of which is slavery in the United States. I find that makes a lot of sense; the whole problem of slavery and its aftermath is a perversion of which Americans are often unconscious or in denial. Furthermore, one can assume this burden simply by becoming a citizen of this country; even recent immigrants, by joining American society, acquire the responsibility. The same, Sacks says, applies to the debt we owe Native Americans. [See my post on Exiles of Florida ]

 A second point, central to the story, is the contrast between Job’s friends’ understanding of his sufferings and his own sense of injustice. The friends relate what has happened to the received wisdom of the tradition, which assures them that a good man cannot be made to suffer unjustly, but Job is convinced that he has done no wrong. He has begun to see a world that is, in its workings, quite likely to inflict misery and loss on even those who have done nothing wrong by the traditional standards, and even on those whose conduct has been exemplary. He begins to think that for his suffering to make any kind of sense, he has to exile himself beyond the boundaries set by the tradition of orderly, civilized human life. Beyond lies a wild place, the “place of the jackal” or the “shadow of death.” The fourth speaker, Elihu, urges him not to venture there, because no human can face the raw power of God; Job must simply submit and hide himself from such terrors. Still, Job insists he wants to know what it is he has failed to grasp.

Job gets his answer from the voice out of whirlwind: the marvelous chapters 38-41 lay before him the sublime beauty and terror of the world before and beyond the human. Central to this wonder is the revelation of how God caused all this came to be, through allowing things to develop according to their own generating, birthing and nurturing principles. Sacks points out that while there is some reference to God making and measuring out boundaries, there is much more emphasis on things developing by their own internal causes. He says that here we get the idea of nature, working autonomously as it were, giving birth to a vast range of beings that do not conform to man’s needs or sense of what is right, but exist free and for their own ends. Some are untamed versions of domestic animals like asses and oxen; some are wild and fierce even when used by man, like the war horse; some appear to be laughably foolish, like the ostrich and some, behemoth and leviathan, are simply terrifying and beyond human power. What is revealed by the voice is a world beyond the human, one that man can never tame and whose sublimity means it would be unjust to do so even if it were possible. In this, Sacks argues for the sacred character of wild nature. We can and must learn from it, but we can’t control it. The poet of Job is the quintessential ecologist.

[As an aside, I have always liked the Revised Standard Version’s identification of Behemoth and Levithan with the hippopotamus and crocodile. Both existed in Israel, the hippo until the Iron Age ( and the crocodile until the 20th century, so it seems reasonable to think that they were known to the Job poet. I think that ties in well to the idea that although some these beasts (including the ostrich, according to Sachs) are tamed by humans, there is much that is beyond what humans can manage. Somehow, it seems better to end with something palpably real, if exotic, rather than something purely mythical, as behemoth and leviathan are often depicted. It is surely wrong to imagine leviathan as a whale: whales aren’t covered in plates or scales and don’t sprawl in the mud except if dead or helpless.]

Sachs makes another point here: leviathan, “king over all the sons of pride,” although utterly awe-inspiring, is closed up in his impenetrable armor – nothing gets through to him. He rules this realm by the shear weight of his power. Job is the opposite: he is open and can see and absorb the wonder of the natural. By being open to the beauty and terror, Job comes to understand both the other and himself. He can operate in his human realm through love and understanding. In the end then, Job returns to the human world, where he helps his friends atone for their ignorant advice. He is able to receive condolences for the loss of his children and his suffering, and he can rebuild his fortunes.

Sacks ends by pointing out that Job’s acceptance of the importance of the birthing and nurturing power of the womb, expressed in many of the images from chapters 38 to 40, produces a change in how he treats his daughters.  He gives the three an inheritance alongside his sons, in contrast to the prevailing custom that daughters get only dowries. This, I think, is an example of what Sacks means by saying that the voice from the whirlwind has revealed to Job a realm that operates by laws unlike the received human tradition, and Job must remember those lessons as he rebuilds his life in the human world. I like his observation that Job has become aware of a realm in which he is utterly insignificant, which, however, contains possibilities for “love and laughter” that can inform the world in which Job matters very much.

Poetry: the music of the taut strings

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 1998.

Since I retired, poetry had become my bedtime reading: nearly all the poems of W.S. Merwin, the complete poems of Wallace Stevens and most recently, the complete poems of Emily Dickinson. This does not mean that I’m a particularly adept reader, however. I am often deeply puzzled about what I’ve read. Pinsky’s little book is a big step towards a better experience of poetry.

The five chapters cover the basics, beginning with accent (stress) and duration in poetic meter. Line breaks versus syntactical breaks comes next, followed by a chapter on meter and how it relates to rhythm. Then come rhyme, consonance and alliteration – all the ways words sound alike, and also contrast. Finally, he has a chapter comparing modern examples of blank verse (iambic pentameter, like Shakespeare uses) and free verse.

Throughout, Pinsky illustrates, with wonderful examples, the way all these elements work as pairs, in tension or opposition, creating the overall sound of poems. It reminds me of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s idea that the world is shaped by opposition, like the two ends of a drawn bow or a pair of wrestlers, locked in a stance (on Heraclitus, see Eva Brann’s excellent The Logos of Heraclitus, Paul Dry Books, 2011).

I strongly recommend this book to all readers of poetry.

Cultural DNA

The Wayfinders. Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis. House of Anansi Press. Toronto. 2009.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Harper Collins. 2001.

The Wayfinders, based on lectures by Davis, forms a counterpoint to Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. They reveal the “cultural DNA” that binds populations of humans together: language, myths, memories and mental maps of the world. This kind of inheritance is what enabled the ancient Polynesians to spread their DNA across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and allows their descendants to replicate their feats of navigation today. It also tells us that all across the world, those chains of inheritance have been and are being broken, as aggressive societies impose their own language and culture on the populations they conquer, enslave, displace or assimilate. This is much like the way conquerors have spread their genes into new territory. In the end only traces of both the biological and the cultural may remain, to be ferreted out by geneticists or anthropologists. Sometimes, though, survivors stubbornly retain their heritage, like the Basques in Spain and many native peoples around the world.

Great empires often produce great and stable cultures – the art, literature, philosophy and mathematics of China, India, Greece, Rome and the still growing body of European science, etc. These become even richer by mutual appropriation. Among the most enduring exchanges are the earliest: agriculture, animal domestication, wheeled transport, boatbuilding and metallurgy. Like the history of ancient DNA, the history of cultures shows patterns of repeated migration and assimilation or displacement over millennia. It seems though, that the asymmetry of power has at least in recent times, produced even more lopsided results for cultures than what Reich finds for genomes. Male conquerors, as I noted in the previous post, have spread a disproportionate share of their genes in the mixing of populations, but often the dominated population persisted through the maternal line. Only rarely did the invaders utterly eliminate the previous occupants of a territory.

More and more cultures are being completely wiped out by modern empires. Military might, coupled with schools to teach the language of the imperial power and religious conversion, forced or voluntary, can drive out languages and traditions. Within the borders of the parent nation states, local dialects and traditions have given way to a homogenized culture. That makes governance and commerce easier, but it destroys the particularity and richness of the land. The advent of compulsory schooling and of mass advertising pushes homogenization even further. Mass media and entertainment smooth out irregularities and quirks. While some people promote the preservation of local tradition, others decry the lack of common values and beliefs in the nation.

Davis tries to show how much is lost when the past is blotted out. Far from being primitive, he argues, these cultures drew on human capacities for learning and memory far beyond the accomplishments of those with modern education. We rely on the collective power of our culture and its embodiment in writing and technology that we don’t become as skilled and knowledgeable as those who lack such aids. We rarely know much about the natural world around us. Almost no “advanced” culture enables a person to survive on just what the land can provide. However productive our economies are, we leave untapped or simply obliterate most of nature’s variety. Witness the fact that a mere three or four species of domestic animals outweigh by an order of magnitude all the rest of the larger land animals on the planet.

Often the natural products do more for these cultures than nourish the body. They provide pathways into spiritual experiences that deepen connections to both the natural and human worlds. The power of the shaman has been a recurrent preoccupation of Davis, whose early popular works on ethnobotany and especially mind-altering plants, The Serpent and the Rainbowand One River, show how they shaped lives for thousands of years. The most important thing that people who still know the power of sacred plants, animals, rocks and places can remind those of us immersed in a globalizing, dominant culture is that we remain dependent on the earth and the functioning of the natural cycles of land, air, water and life. We disrespect and ignore this wisdom at our peril.

Unfortunately, to sustain itself materially, any meaningful culture needs land. We discovered this problem in the nineteenth century, when the reservations set aside for native Americans came under constant pressure from hunters, miners, loggers and farmers. The same is true today in South America, India, Africa.  The result is bloodshed and displacement. Only places that have no resources that the dominant culture wants are left unclaimed. Even here, proselytizing and poaching remain constant issues. Furthermore, given the often stringent demands of traditional ways, there is a continual drain on the population as its members drift away into the dominant milieu.

Mostly the old can exist only with the protection and support of the newer and more powerful, which is almost always accompanied by condescension or ambivalence. Davis tries hard to show why condescension is unjustified, but without the ability to maintain itself in its own territory, it seems to me that almost any culture will begin to seem simply quaint and curious. We may assimilate some music into our popular culture or convert some sacred plants into recreational drugs, even claim to try to follow the spiritual paths laid out by this or that shamanistic tradition. Only anthropologists are going to really study cultures on their own terms, as best they can.

Of course some cultures like Judaism have become integrated into the economic systems of dominant cultures, but with much the same dangers faced by tribal societies elsewhere. Isn’t that why the state of Israel has such fierce supporters? We see ethnic traditions preserved or revived by people long separated from their homelands. Costumes, folk songs, holidays, parades, fairs and so on remind us that there have been many distinct national and local ways of living. But much of this seems like once a year dress up, not a way of life now. Even religious distinctions are blurring as evangelical churches spread a homogenized, flavorless gospel. Their success is driven in part by politics and economics, aided by mass media. Ancient tradition loses out to a uniform set of wants and means of satisfying them.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods revolves around the slow dying out of the hundreds of local gods brought to the United States by immigrants from all over the world, from 14,000 years ago to the present. In his fantasy, these gods still linger on the fringes of society, fending for themselves as the flow of gifts and sacrifices from humans dries up. They know that if their names are forgotten, they will die. The novel concerns their efforts to recapture some of their old power and of a few humans who become entangled in the mythical struggle. Gaiman is a reader of Davis, I suspect, as well as a serious student of mythic traditions himself. The story, like most of Gaiman’s work, is fast moving, funny, violent and a pleasure to read. I also like the second book in this series, Anansi Boys.

What did Shakespeare know?

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton and Co. New York. 2004.

Image: Orson Welles as Macbeth, Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth (1948)

This is a very good read, full of interesting insights into Shakespeare’s life and works, even though it is often limited to speculation because of the scarcity of documentation. A more candid subtitle would be: How Shakespeare might have become Shakespeare.

Since this book has been in print for over a decade, and since it has been reviewed many times, I will only mention one bit that I especially liked. In the chapter on Shakespeare’s marriage, Greenblatt can tell us next to nothing about the sort of relationship that he had with Anne Hathaway, but he makes the claim that nowhere in his plays do we find a happily married couple. There are many pairs of lovers, who at play’s end get married, but we don’t see whether they lived happily ever after. In some cases, Greenblatt says, it seems unlikely or at least questionable that they will.

Among the couples who have been married for a longer time, he finds none who can be said to be faithful, loving and respectful of one another. Usually it is the husband who has other things at the forefront of his mind, like Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I. He loves his wife, but he puts little faith in her loyalty and discretion. I can’t think of a clear exception, but I intend to reread the plays with this question in mind. Meanwhile, he points out that there are two couples who seem strongly attached to each other: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and Gertrude and Claudius. Strongly attached, apparently fond of each other, but can people so enmeshed in evil of their own making be truly happy?

Greenblatt’s implied explanation is that Will and Anne were unhappy as husband and wife, and there are a few reasons to suspect they at least were not passionately fond of each other. There is, however, another possibility, summed up in Tolstoy’s opening lines of Anna Kerenina: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (translated by Constance Garnett). So did Shakespeare not know what happy marriage was like, or did he just find it uninteresting?

If you are looking for a masterful but not overly scholarly literary biography of the Bard, I recommend this one. It might be read along with Park Hogan’s intriguing biography of Shakespeare’s great rival: Christopher Marlowe, Poet and Spy (Oxford University Press 2005).

Nearctic Travels: Shipwreck and Shakespeare

A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Hobson Woodward. New York. Viking Press. 2009.

[Image from A young people’s history of Virginia and Virginians. 1896 by D.H. Maury]

 Woodward tells the story of the Sea Venture, the flagship of the 1609 supply fleet sent by the Virginia Company to support its colony at Jamestown. Caught in a hurricane and run aground on Bermuda, Sea Venture’s crew and passengers survived and spent nearly a year on the islands, until they could construct two new ships to complete the trip to Virginia. Among the passengers was William Strachey, a down on his luck gentleman, who aspired to literary fame. He was made secretary to successive governors of the Jamestown Colony and sent an official report and a private letter describing the events of the voyage. Woodward believes, largely on the basis of textual similarities, that the private letter was a major source for The Tempest.

The first part of the book covers the experiences of the Sea Venture castaways from England to Bermuda and Virginia and back to England, using Strachey and other historical sources. The second part deals more speculatively with how Shakespeare composed The Tempest, drawing out in detail similarities and coincidences between Strachey’s letter and the plot, characters and language of the play. Woodward has little to go on here, but he at least makes a plausible case for Shakespeare having read a copy of Strachey’s account.

 My interest in this very readable book was sparked by its references to another passenger on the Sea Venture, Steven Hopkins. Described as a “shopkeeper from Hampshire” who knew the Scriptures well enough to become clerk to the minister aboard ship, he is notable for having attempted to organize a mutiny on Bermuda. His goal was apparently to remain on the island and not be taken to Virginia, on the grounds that the passengers’ contract with the company was voided by the shipwreck. He was informed on to the military commander of the expedition, Thomas Gates, who put him on trial for his life. According to Strachey, Hopkins was so eloquent in pleading that his wife and children back in Hampshire would be ruined if he were hanged that most of the gentlemen in the group argued for leniency. Gates relented, and Hopkins survived his time in Bermuda and Virginia and returned to England. He later joined the Mayflower, with his second wife and children. Though not a member of the Pilgrims’ sect, he was taken on as someone who knew the land and native people of Virginia, which is where the Mayflower was supposed to be going. Hopkins’s wife gave birth while at sea, and his family was one of only two not to lose anyone on the voyage. In Plymouth, he helped negotiate a treaty with the natives that remained unbroken for the life of the signers and also ran the settlement’s first tavern. His female descendants married into some of the leading families of Massachusetts. I find it amazing that this man was part of three of the most remarkable English ventures in North America, especially since I may be distantly related through a female ancestor from one of those New England families. I’m currently learning more about him, because whether or not we are related, his story deserves to be more widely known.

A Brave Vessel is well worth reading for a sea story, as gripping as Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and as a look at the struggles of the English to establish a foothold in America. Woodward describes all the suffering that followed from the conflicts between colonizers and natives as well as within the English society attempting to transplant itself across the ocean. He also touches on the ecological and climatological factors that helped and hindered their efforts. The severe drought that bracketed the early years of the Virginia colony greatly increased the stress on both natives and colonists and led to the “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610, which the arrival of the ships from Bermuda helped relieve. During those same months on Bermuda, the castaways lived well on fish, nesting seabirds and their eggs, green sea turtles, and the introduced pigs, left by earlier Spanish seafarers. The native plants, including palmetto and Bermuda cedar furnished food and drink as well as timber for building the two ships, Deliverance and Patience. The plenitude and mild climate of the islands undoubtedly were factors in Steven Hopkins near fatal desire to remain there.

 Bermuda became an English colony and suffered great ecological changes, including the near extinction of its endemic cedars and the cahow or Bermuda petrel, whose strange nocturnal calls helped give the islands their early reputation as haunted by devils. Bermuda’s roles in supporting the earliest ventures of England into North America and in inspiring one of the greatest English plays remain points of local pride. I wonder if Steven Hopkins dreamed of Bermuda during the dreary New England winters.

Global Voyager

Maya Jasanoff. Dawn Watch. Joseph Conrad in a Global World. Penguin Press. 2017.

Jasanoff’s biography is both an appraisal of Conrad’s career as an author and the influences on his life and work of the rapid global expansion of commerce and imperial ambition in the second half of the nineteenth century. She describes his childhood in partitioned and occupied Poland, where his father was a idealistic revolutionary, exiled for much of his life. Conrad was inspired to go to sea at age sixteen after reading, among other works, the seafaring novels of James Fenimore Cooper, which I did not realize the author of Leatherstocking Tales had written. He eventually made his way to England, at that time the country most open to expatriates and the greatest maritime power.

 Rising through the ranks of the merchant navy to become a licensed master, he voyaged across the globe, but mostly to Australia and Southeast Asia, mostly on sailing ships or the lesser steamers, rarely having the opportunity to serve on the better classes of fast passenger ships. When he began to write and publish his own stories, they were set in the locales familiar to him, aboard ships at sea or in the ports and backwater towns and villages of the great Asian archipelago. He focused on sailors and on the various exiles, dreamers of wealth or those escaping the past, who found their way into the remote places where they encountered indigenous rulers and other adventurers in constant conflict, much of it driven by the outside forces of expanding trade and European imperialism. His one trip on the Congo provided the framework for his most famous and controversial work, The Heart of Darkness. There he saw firsthand how the unbridled force of European greed brought out the savage potential of nearly everyone who became involved in the enterprise.

 Conrad did not like to be thought of as a writer of sea stories, although he certainly wrote vivid and hair raising tales of the struggles of ships and crews, Typhoon being one of my personal favorites. He thought of himself as writing about the struggles of human beings, mostly, but not exclusively, men, caught up in the web of impersonal forces, both natural and societal that he saw driving the history of his times: oppression and the revolutionary impulse, personal ambition and political intrigue and the “material interests,” which he associated most powerfully with the United States.

 Jasanoff does an excellent job of drawing out the threads that connect Conrad to our own day, arguing that more than any other author of his time, he saw and made his readers see the historical forces at work that we would now call “globalization.” Much has changed, as she is careful to describe from personal experience, both in material circumstances and our perspectives, but the seeds were present and can be perceived clearly in Conrad’s work. She herself, to gain first hand experience, made a river journey down the Congo, following the route of Conrad and his fictional Captain Marlowe, but she saw none of the darkness that they did, only poor but very enterprising people, making their way in a complex world, where bushmeat sellers from villages of bamboo houses buy toothpaste and batteries and watch satellite television showing European football matches. Some things she says, do not change much: the camaraderie of a long sea voyage (for her, on a giant container ship, following the long established route from Hong Kong to England) and the ravishing beauty of the dawn over a smooth sea.

 Jasanoff sees Conrad as deeply pessimistic about human beings, carried along by winds and currents of history. Although we can master the literal forces of nature by our machines, we unleash consequences we cannot control, and the forces within ourselves are even less manageable. But, she says, Conrad does show us those times when however precariously, we can make choices that alter the course of ours and others’ lives. I find Conrad himself a clear case in point: in choosing to go to sea, the Polish boy, Konrad Korzeniowski became Joseph Conrad, master mariner and one of the greatest English novelists.