Monday, December 17, 2012

Noted: Gabriel Josipovici on contingency

I had hoped to have a follow-up to my last post written by now, but it was not to be--I'm working on it and it'll appear sooner or later, just not quite yet. In the meantime, here is a passage from Gabriel Josipovici's "The Bible Open and Closed" which I find relevant to both of my pursuits here (i.e., sf and poetry).

In his essay Josipovici has been discussing several of the Hebrew Bible's odder moments--those that seem to defy our sense of what narrative should be--and finding very fruitful ways of reading them which seek to take this defiance on its own terms rather than paper it over or consider it a fault. Two in particular are relevant to this passage. The first is the character Phalti, who appears once, very briefly, in both First and Second Samuel--very slightly longer than is required for his part in the story--just long enough for us to feel his humanity but no longer. The second is the appearance, in the midst of the portion of Genesis which concerns the life of Joseph, of a seemingly irrelevant episode concerning his brother Judah and Judah's daughter-in-law, Tamar--an episode whose significance only reveals itself to the attentive reader much later on, long after Genesis is over, as Judah's line comes to more prominence.

I quote this passage as it appears on pages 14 and 15 of Josipovici's collection of essays, The Singer on the Shore.

In both cases the modern reader is disorientated by the reticence of the narration. This often has to do with brevity, but not necessarily. The text can be prolix and yet deny us information we feel we cannot do without. We want the text to say more, to explain, to take sides; but what if this non-explanation, this not taking sides, were, like the inexplicability of the call, the mystery of the father's love, part of what this book is about and not a weakness or a lack? Phalti's sudden and disconcerting eruption into the story, saying nothing but going weeping behind his wife to Bahurim before turning back, still without speaking, when told to do so--this helps make us aware of the fact that the story teems with silent figures, some mere names in genealogical lists, yet each no doubt with his or her own life and joys and sorrows. Even more, though, it makes us aware of the fact that even though the story told here is that of the Israelites, there are other stories which we might have entered had we not entered this one. In other words, just as the various stories of election alert us to the contingency of life--it needn't have been me, but it is,--so the story of Phalti alerts us to the contingency of stories, even stories which, like this one, start with the creation of the world.

But even that is not quite right. It makes contingency sound too much like relativity. Relativity is rather a safe concept, at least in the abstract. It says that there are other ways of seeing things than ours, other worlds than ours. But we can easily accept this and yet remain locked up in our world, merely imagining other worlds like ours, only, somehow, different. Contingency, however, is radical. To experience it is to experience the frailty of life and also its wonder: this, now, and not something else. Contingency decentres one, and the Phalti episode shows how the Bible is a radically decentred book: it seems to go in a straight line from Adam to David to exile to return, but every now and again it opens a window onto another landscape, even if, as here, only for a moment. We are thus made to feel that we are not, as Joseph imagines himself to be, the centre of the universe, but only a tiny part of it.

(Incidentally, I'm not sure yet how directly I'll approach the issues raised here in the post I'm working on, which is an attempt to apply the methods discussed in my last post to Cordwainer Smith, but it does occur to me that Josipovici's points are very useful when approaching Smith's infinitely peculiar stories.)

1 comment:

NK said...

I used to read 6th or 7th & have just caught up with this new blog. Great posts so far. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on Smith!