Friday, July 01, 2011

Charles' Cliff Notes: The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Altar

Notes on Robert Altar, The Art of Biblical Narrative

  1. The literary approach assume the text is an interconnected unity (11)
-even if there is a “redactor” we should assume some confidence on his part; he would have edited the text competently in order to unify it
-often times the lit. approach actually helps us see texts as whole because it pays attention to the literary indicators in the text

  1. An essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked by the ancient Heb. Writers was to produce an indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, etc. (12)
-          this is substantially different than many modern novels, and not something we are used to as readers…we don’t stop often enough to consider the possibilities supplied by “intentional vagueness”
-          perhaps I could use this kind of vagueness more in my own writing: it gets the reader more involved!
  1. Def of literary analysis: “the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attention to the artful use of language, to the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units…the kind of disciplined attention…which has illuminated the poetry of Dante…(12-13).”

4. “I would prefer to insist on a complete interfusion of literary art with theological , moral, or historiographical vision, the fullest perception of the latter dependent on the fullest grasp of the former.  (19).”
      -he is saying that the Bible’s value as a religious document is inseparably related to its character as a work of literature: exegesis, analysis, and theological reflection cannot be separated

  1. The OT is “tersely expressive”, a narrative art bare of embellishment and explicit commentary (21)

  1. The OT often communicates meaning in two ways:
    1. narrative analogy- one part of the text provides oblique commentary on another
    2. the richly expressive fxns of syntax (the way in which words are put together)

  1. Modern scholars confidently declare that certain parts on a text could not belong with others: they do this based on supposedly universal rules (stylistic unity, noncontradiction, nondigression, nonrepition) (21)
-          what if these same laws were applied to Ulysses or Tristam Shandy- “they would be relegated to the dustbin of shoddily “redacted” literary scraps (21)
-          there is a certain arrogance in our approach to ancient texts- anything old must be foolish. Perhaps this is based on the fact that people before the enlightenment are somehow “ignorant”

  1. “History is far more related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume”
-they share a range of narrative strategies (24)
-diff. Between historical and fictional writing = history is bound to facts in a way that fiction is not

  1. The OT takes a new direction because it rebels against the pagan worldview, wherein humans are trapped in eternal cyclical movement (25)
-          a new way of writing was required by the “revolution in monotheism”
-          The form itself is indicative of a certain view of the world, language, God, and man. Form and content are inseparable.
-          Q- the best writing is where form and content coincide. How can we make our form and content coincide, and how does the Bible do this?
-          Possible answer- in the Bible words are powerful and are to be used sparingly (the fool gushes folly)- maybe Biblical narrative is terse because of its understanding of the power of words?
  1. Among ancient peoples only Israel cast its sacred national traditions in prose: the Bible deliberately avoids epic, which is the chosen medium of pagan polytheists (25); as Israel rejected polytheism, so they rejected the epic (25)
-“recitation of epics was tantamount to an enactment of cosmic events in the manner of sympathetic magic”
-in Biblical prose narrative humans are rescued from the “fixed choreography of timeless events; storytelling is no longer ritual rehearsal- “it dileneates the wayward paths of human freedom; men and women are seen as complex agents with quirks and contradictions
-“where myth involves a set of equivalencies arranged in some system of subordination, the Bible offers a series of contiguous terms arranged in sequences without a clear definition of the link between one term and the next (26)”
-the Bible shifts away from the “stable closure of the mythological world and toward the indeterminacy, the shifting causal concatenations (linked together in a series or chain), the ambiguities of a fiction made to resemble the uncertainty of life
-Q is the Bible purposefully ambiguous because human nature is ambiguous, a mixture of motives

  1. Hebrew Narrative= reveal the enactment of God’s purposes in History (33)
-tension between divine promise and its ostensible failure to be revealed ie. design (ex. Kings) and disorder (Esther)
-tension between God’s providence and human responsibility ie. providence and freedom
  1. “historicized” = “having a minute causal relation to known historical circumstances and some of the irregular “metynomic”quality of real historical concatenation (42)
-Altar undervalues the historical reliability of the Bible because the writers had scant historical material to draw from… this assumes two unproven theses
1)      the writers were not contemporaries of the actions they record
2)      reliable historical records were not kept  and passed down. An argument needs to be based on a book by book basis.
-Altar also demonstrated an anti-supernatural presupposition at times

  1. “In the literary perspective there is latitude for the exercise of pleasurable invention for its own sake, ranging from “microscopic” details like soundplay to “macroscopic” features like the psychology of individual characters” 46
-this is one of the most confusing statements Altar makes! What does he mean by invention for its own sake? He expands, “I do not think that every nuance of characterization and every turning of the plot in these stories can be justified in either moral-theological or national-historical terms (46).”  And “literary imagination develops a momentum of its own (46).”

  1. The type scene (49)
-          same story seems to be repeated several times in OT – is this duplication of sources?
-          Type scene= there are certain fixed situations which the poet is expected to include in his narrative and which he must perform according to a set order of motifs; convention requires scenes to be rendered in a certain way everytime
-          Ex’s of type scences: annunciation of hero to barren mom, encounter with future betrothed at a well, etc.
  1. Narrative event – when the tempo slows down enough for us to discriminate a particular scene; to have the illusion of the scene’s presence as it unfolds; to be able to imagine the interactions of persons

  1. The importance of direct speech in OT (65 ff)
-          narration plays a subsidiary role to direct speech
-          narration is often relegated to confirming statements made in dialogue, and 3rd person narration often fxns only as a bridge between narrative
-          biblical writers are less concerned with actions than the way characters respond to them, and speech is the main instrument for revealing the character’s responses
-          biblical writers avoid indirect speech (67)- when a speech is reported it is usually done in direct discourse- this has the effect of bringing the speech into the foreground…THOUGHTS are even reported as direct speech often times

*The importance of WORDS for the Hebrew is seen here: “With words God called the world into being; the capacity for using language from the start set men apart from the other creatures; in words each person reveals his distinctive nature…Spoken language is the substratum of everything human and divine that transpires in the Bible… (69-70).

17. Repitition

-this is the feature of Biblical narrative which is bound to look most primitive to us, especially verbatim rep
-necessities of oral rep. explains some of the rep in Bible, ie. When you hear a text read out loud twice it greatly aids comprehension
-most people were illiterate: oral reading was main way they could get comprehension

Kinds of repetition

1. Situational : symmetrical double plots as in King Lear; recurrent motifs
2. Reiteration of same word: “Absalom, Absalom”
3. Repetition of Key words: “the words carry meaning they have acquired in earlier contexts with them into their present context and future contexts- this complicates and interrelates concerns”
“leitwort” = word or root word that recurs significantly in a text

            18. The Art of Reticence

“Sparely sketched foreground implies a large background”
“Since art does not develop in a vacuum, these literary techniques must be associated with the conception of human nature implicit in Biblical monotheism: every person is created by an all seeing God but abandoned to his own unfathomable freedom…each individual is a bundle of paradoxes…The purposeful selectivity of means, the repeatedly contrastive or comparative technical strategies used in the rendering of biblical characters, are in a sense dictated by the biblical view of man (115).

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