Posts tagged Book of Job
Virtue, and the Doctor's Wife, Revisited

Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Gothic, Victorian, and Decadent readings behind me, I'm just now diving into the Modernists. Over the next few days, I'll be thinking about Death In Venice, Swann's Way, Ulysses, Orlando, As I Lay Dying, Nightwood, and Ficciones; but because these texts mark such a huge shift from the thousands of pages of (French/Russian) realism and (Gothic/Decadent) psychological realism I've been lost in recently, I want to sort of gather my thoughts here with a post on where I've been and where I think I might be going.

(Also, having copied and pasted this entire blog into a Word doc earlier today, for fear of losing my only record of exam "notes," I horrifiedly share that I've written about 38,000 words, close to 200 double-spaced pages. Yikes, right? I know. Anyway. . . )

One of the most obvious lines of inquiry to develop over the course of my historical reading, from The Odyssey to Anna Karenina, has dealt with representations in literature of wives, mistresses, and whores. Conveniently, these correlate respectively to liminal, marginal, and inferior subject positions of female characters; and common to all three is the significance of their so-called "virtue." Thanks to Mary Wollstonecraft, who often noted that "virtue" comes from the Latin word for "strength," I offer that wives, mistresses, and whores are equally virtuous — equally strong — women: 

Penelope (un)weaves. 

Job's wife stays. 

Sappho rewrites (Homer). 

Nelly Dean orates. 

The Wife of Bath divorces but the Princess of Cleves does not. 

Griselda endures.

Pamela resists but Shamela cons the system. 

Minerva represents us all, especially Maria, Jemima, all three Madame Bovarys, and the Minyades.

Anne Carson eulogizes and Gertrude Stein makes objects subjects.

Tristram's mother labors, Grete joins the labor force.

Emma believes, and Anna leaves.

Emily Brontë punches. 

And the doctor's wife takes charge. In my earlier post, I worried that I'd fooled myself, that she wasn't the strong female figure I'd always thought her to be. I wondered if more than anything else she had resigned herself to 24/7 mothering her husband and a band of strangers. While I am not abandoning those concerns, I acknowledge here that she is an incredible woman. Recognizing that I read Blindness way out of order, and that there are still several decades of history and writers and female characters and speakers ahead of me before she actually appears, I consider her now a tower of a character, a Minerva endowed with the wisdom and strength of all the women in literature who precede her. I've always loved her. I love her still. And not least of all because, in what I am sure is one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes in any of my exam texts, she takes sewing shears and stabs a serial rapist in the throat, while he is raping another woman, after he and his crew have systematically raped every other woman, healthy or infirm — every young woman, every single woman, every sister, every mother, every wife, every widow — in the building. 

A few days ago, I said, we can't look away from the characters we don't like or whom we fear, for instance, rapists and murderers, because they are in the world and we shouldn't ignore (or encourage) evil by turning a blind eye. We shouldn't gawk, curiously, either (like God in the Book of Job). If we need a model for how to proceed, we might look no further than Saramago's Blindness, in which the doctor's wife becomes more than a rape victim and more than a witness; the doctor's wife becomes jury, judge, and executioner. Yes, she becomes a murderer, and whether or not she is acting in self defense and/or to protect the helpless, are her actions justified? Should anyone, ever, under any circumstances, take the law into her own hands? Where do we draw the line for premeditated exceptions? And how does Saramago utilize the third-person narrator's distance to portray the event? Like a defense lawyer's, is his version of events intended to sway us? If yes, how? If no, is he objective and how and why would he have chosen to remain so for this? The ambiguity and the nuances are up to us, the readers, to consider.

And, as writers, if we have any interest in furthering the tradition of those great big sweeping epic social novels of the past, and if we wish to write them for our time, then like them we cannot look away. As Saramago's epigraph commands (from the Book of Exhortations): "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe." We must — we writers — like the doctor's wife who is graced and cursed with sight in a country of blindness, see, look, observe, acknowledge, assist, and, when necessary, with our words, avenge. We must attend. And we would do well to remember, too, what Annie Dillard once said: "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"  

Sappho: "Who ever desires what is not gone?"

In Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet, Philip Freeman tells us that Sappho, like Job’s wife, enjoyed a certain amount of wealth. It’s known that she married well, and had leisure time to write poems, but we have no record of who exactly her husband was. Until any poems about him are discovered, if they ever are, Sappho is completely unlike the wives who have appeared previously on my historical exams list. Penelope spends most of The Odyssey waiting for her husband, and Job’s wife spends most of The Book of Job waiting on her husband and wishing he would die (for whose sake, his or hers, I’m not sure). Penelope and Job’s wife are both, otherwise, silent and unseen. Their stories — if you can even call them that — are tucked neatly into the narratives that feature and belong to their men. Heroic men. Loyal and God-fearing men.

For we all already know this, do we not? Men act and women react. Honestly, more than any other common problem that appears in a creative writing class (hell, it appears with even more frequency on the NYT bestseller list), men acting and women reacting is pretty much my main pet peeve. Man cheats on woman, woman eats prays and loves. You know? But how can I blame students when their canon begins with and is built upon men who act and women who react. Man sets sail for the Trojan war and doesn’t come home for 20 years. Woman waits. Man comes home and says he’s woman’s husband. Woman isn’t sure so tests him. Man passes test and makes love to wife after all these years. Woman has to listen to him tell her all about all the other women and goddesses he’s had sex with while he’s been gone. Best pillow talk ever? Hardly. Another man loses his wealth, his children, and breaks out in boils. Woman must beg to feed herself. Man recovers wealth, children, and health. Woman gives birth to twice as many children as they had before. These women’s stories exist, and their existence only matters, on the periphery of their husband’s far more interesting and far more subject-worthy lives written and recorded for posterity.

Sappho, a breath of fresh air in all this ancient misogyny, lives her own life, has her own thoughts and feelings that take center stage, always, and she even, unlike those mortals before her, has an intimate and personal relationship with the goddess Aphrodite. Furthermore, her very existence, and her subject matter, does away with the husband / wife and the male / female binaries that are simply taken for granted in The Odyssey and The Book of Job (and the NYT bestseller list)Sure, Athene switched genders several times in The Odyssey, but the rules of attraction are different for the gods and in any case she isn’t so much wooing or sexing anyone so much as she’s setting up her chess board and putting all the pieces and players in place so she can ultimately kill hundreds of would-be suitors, brutally and in gruesome detail. Leaving Athene to her bloodbath, I’ll return our attention to the main-character mortals we have seen thus far in the canon who are, without question, heterosexual and married. Frankly, I hope we never find any poems about Sappho’s husband. His absence in her body of work is wonderfully appealing, as his story doesn’t even exist on the periphery of his wife’s. It doesn’t exist at all. History has spoken. Give a woman a pen and paper and what will she do? Write her own story. And write her husband out of it.

I’m reminded suddenly of contemporary writer Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. “My husband moved to another city,” the narrator writes. “Let’s say Philadelphia. He went out the front door with a single suitcase and a portfolio full of plans, and that was the last we heard of him” (81). A few pages later: “I printed out the last ten pages to read them aloud, cross out, rewrite. By accident, I left them on the kitchen table overnight. This morning I came down for breakfast and found my husband in the kitchen. [… He] asked: Why have you banished me from the novel? […] You wrote that I’d gone to Philadelphia. Why?” The narrator answers: “So something happens” (83). While I love the meta-moment highlighting the power that a female narrator wields as writer, here again, though, the narrator’s desire for “something” to happen seems contingent upon the husband-character acting and those around him reacting. It’s an old goddamn trope and it’s tired. It’s worn out. Can we get rid of it once and for all? Please?

Thank god for Sappho. That she is in the canon revives my soul. Would I start a course with her, though, and ignore texts written before hers? No. Because her presence, and her absence, is felt more keenly in the context of the epics before and after her time. She is, of course, our first lyric love poet in the age of epics. And then along came the Romantics, who revived the lyric and established it as our dominant mode of poetry for the past several hundred years. In classrooms, I’ve often said I don’t think any kind of new poetry can come along and wipe out the lyric the way the lyric wiped out the epic. We love music too much. We love songs too much. We love love songs especially. But what if I’m wrong? Imagine what new mode might come along and edge out the lyric poem. In classrooms, I’ve also said that the lyric essay seems to be making a run for it — today, audiences read more nonfiction than poetry, and as the lyric establishes itself in the essay genre more firmly and securely with every new day it does seem possible that the lyric essay could potentially edge out lyric poems. But the lyric essay is not a new mode of poetry. It’s an essay form. If we even care about such boundaries between poetry and essay anyway. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I don’t. But that I’m trying, at the same time, to figure out how to navigate my way through a world that does.

In any case, Sappho’s lyric love poems have stood the test of time — in practice — far better than Homer’s epic. Even when we have only fragments. Even when we have only one complete poem of hers. When, in contrast, we have all of The Odyssey. What is it about Sappho’s work that so compels us, that so makes us yearn and ache for more? Why do so many women writing lyric poems and essays today make use of fragmentation and erasure, again and again? What is it about absence, about loss, that so ensnares our deepest sentiments?

In A History of the Wife, Yalom writes:

Sappho’s poetry would have been unknown to almost all Greek wives, since most could not read, and all but courtesans were excluded from the male banquets where her poetry might have been recited. Some women, like Sappho, undoubtedly found pleasure in the arms of other women, as they do today, but then it would have been a very dangerous liaison indeed. The Greek wife was not her own property. Given by her father to her husband ‘for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring,’ she spent the greater part of her adult life being pregnant, nursing and tending children, preparing food, and producing cloth. She did not record for posterity the pleasures she might have derived from a lover. (25)

Sappho really was a special snowflake. I’m fascinated with her, her work, her life, her stanza. The way it was described to me is as a steady heartbeat that staggers and gets back up again. So when I saw an ad for Philip Freeman’s Searching for Sappho, I requested an exam copy from the publisher (thank you, Norton!) and received it quickly. I tore through it in an afternoon. And I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I’d expected, and it didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. (In my head, I was hoping to come away from Freeman’s book the way I’d come away from Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, knowing more about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and in a way that really supplemented my readings of their works. But Searching for Sappho is not a tell-all resource.) Slowly, it dawned on me: that’s exactly the point. The title says it all: we’re searching, and we may never find her. “The Greek word eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for that which is missing’” writes Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet. “The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting. This is more than wordplay. There is a dilemma within eros that has been thought crucial by thinkers from Sappho to the present day” (10). Later, Carson asks, “Who ever desires what is not gone?" She answers: “No one” (11).

Instead of a literary celebrity tell-all, Freeman speculates and attempts to piece together a portrait of what Sappho’s life would have been like, given what we know about women of a certain class in a certain time and place in ancient history. I have come to really appreciate how absent Sappho herself is in Freeman’s book. It’s sad. It makes me sad. Such sadness reminds me of how sad it is that so little of her work remains. Which reminds me of how little any of our work will remain. And compels me to want to say to young poets everywhere — sing your gorgeous hearts out, and do it beautifully, because I honestly don’t know what else could possibly be the point of our time here on earth. And don’t leave out the bad shit, because bad shit combined with gorgeous heartsong is, truly, life immemorial.

To close, here's one of my favorite passages from Mary Ruefle's "Poetry and the Moon": 

In the West, lyric poetry begins with a woman on an island in the seventh or sixth century BC, and I say now: lyric poetry begins with a woman on an island on a moonlit night, when the moon is nearing full or just the other side of it, or on the dot. Epic poetry was well established. The great men had sung of battles and heroes, whose actions affected thousands, and blinding shields and the wine-dark sea and the rosy-fingered dawn. Yet it is wrong to think that the clamor had died down. Historians tell us the times were not idyllic; in the Aeolian Islands, especially at Lesbos, the civilization was old but rapidly changing, torn by economic unrest and clashes between emerging political ideas and traditional principles. In the middle of all this then, a woman on an island on a moonlit night picks up some kind of writing instrument, or she doesn't, she picks up a musical instrument, or she doesn't, she begins to simply speak or sing, and the words express her personal feelings of the moment. Let's call her Sappho. One can hardly say these little songs have survived — for we have only fragments — but even this seems fitting, for what is the moment but a fragment of greater time? (13)

The Book of Job: "Curse God and die!"

"Curse God and die!" says Job’s wife, who quickly emerged for me as the most interesting character in The Book of Job. On the Internet, most Christians seem to read her as the embodiment of what Job proves not to be — breakable and bitter, angry, wrong — but some choose to read her as the most misunderstood woman in the Bible. The former seem to be working off the text provided, whereas the latter go off page to imagine and empathize with what hardship the woman must have endured. Sure, she’s lost all the material wealth that Job lost — which was considerable — but she, unlike her husband, remains able-bodied. Consumed with physical pain, Job is her chronically ill patient and she his sole caretaker. Without sons, and having lost her daughters too, this woman who was used to a finer life would have been reduced to begging just to support herself and her husband. Able-bodied, she must tend to the realities of their daily needs. For these reasons, many sympathetic Christian readers allow her this moment of verbal diarrhea, for they acknowledge that from within her personal suffering the temptation to “curse God” would have been strong.

In A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom points out that the exchange between Job and his wife:

draws from an antique Mediterranean tradition in which wives were often seen as foolish: caught up in the grief of their losses, insolent to indifferent gods, they were presumably unable to see the ‘larger picture,’ be it political or metaphysical. Like the Greek queen Clytemnestra who never stopped blaming Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, Job’s wife had no compunctions about cursing the God who had taken away her children. Whatever the prescriptions about wifely obedience, wives obviously opposed their husbands in the privacy of their homes, and even opposed the supreme patriarch — God himself. (10)

I’m reminded of another woman in ancient mythology, Niobe, who appears in Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and who loses her fourteen children because she dares to say that she, not Latona, should be celebrated — because although they are equals in all ways, she (Niobe) has more children. Latona sends her children, Apollo and Diana, to kill Niobe’s. First they shoot her seven sons, after which Niobe’s husband, Amphion, kills himself (unlike Job). And even as she cries, Niobe says she’s still got seven daughters. They’re all shot too. She grieves and cries until finally turning to stone. 

What’s interesting to note here is that, just like in The Odyssey (Greek), the gods in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Roman) are vengeful. Mortals and even other deities are punished for misdoings and/or for misspeaking. In The Book of Job, however, God and the Accuser are not punishing Job for losing faith, or for any reason at all. He is chosen, in fact, because he is so faithful. Job does and speaks no wrong. His suffering is without cause but for that Vegas-like bet between God and the Accuser. Many like to point out that God is unjust. Others offer that here we see a young God trying to figure out how to become the God that He’ll ultimately turn into, but after this, my very first read of The Book of Job, I kind of think God here is exercising His own faith in Job, His model creation. That the Accuser is the real bully and God simply a bystander does raise the excellent question of whether we should always speak up and act when anyone we know mistreats another. I think we would all agree that, yes, we should. In so doing, then, do we become somehow more just than God himself?

Even as Job’s friends victim-blame him (in, btw, a stunning onslaught of hybrid poems / speeches / chapters within a prose frame that begins like a fairy tale), he struggles to understand why God would punish him so. But he is not being punished. This bad shit is just happening to him because sometimes bad shit happens. Not everything has an explanation. (Even if in this case there is one, even if in this case it’s not much different from the dead religions’ gods and goddesses enacting their power and will over the lives of mortals, raising the question of whether or not God is as much a literary creation as Zeus? As Jupiter?) Job’s friends, who insist his suffering is punishment — as would the mortals in any ancient myth — are verbalizing what seems to be a logical fallacy. They are trying to explain the bad shit and make it Job’s fault. If Job doesn’t deserve this bad shit, then who’s to say bad shit can’t happen to anyone, at any time, for no reason at all?

Job’s friends, like so many among us, are desperate to believe good behavior is rewarded and bad is punished. For this reason, they will insist upon Job’s guilt. Job’s wife, however, doesn’t seem to care why this has happened to them — and even though she says to curse God there’s no evidence that she’s saying this in relation to God’s actions against them. Cursing God, at the time, was thought to result in one’s immediate death. Cursing God is not much different than her saying, “Jump off a cliff and die!” Or “Stab yourself and die!” All of which is really to say: Put an end to your suffering and die! Death is better than this. Presumably, hell is better than this. For if Job curses God before he dies, it stands to reason he won’t end up in Heaven. In any case, like the mythological gods, Job’s God can and does put an end to his suffering and, just like the ancient deities, even rewards Job with 140 years and twice as much property and family as he had before. His wife, who also benefits, nonetheless must bear twice as many children as she had before. Is this her reward? Or her punishment?

Or nothing at all.


To conclude, I guess for now I'm just thinking about the following: 

(1) How The Book of Job occupies a vague space between Homer's The Odyssey and Ovid's Metamorphoses, texts in which gods and goddesses inflict pain and misery on mortals who cross them. The difference is that in these ancient mythological texts, the actions of the deities are clearly either punishments or rewards for bad mortal behavior and disrespect. The author of The Book of Job, however, is really wrestling with the question of how humans are to act in a world made by a God who stands by and watches them suffer for no reason, even at the Accuser's (devil's) bidding.

(2) The edition I have suggests that the prose frame and the interior poetic narratives were written by different authors. If this is so, I'm interested in the idea of reading them separately. The prose frame, divorced from the poems, is pretty much a fairy tale. It begins like a fairy tale "in a land" far away, provides a succession of challenges that the protagonist must overcome, and ends like a fairy tale, happily ever after. My edition suggests the poetry within is an ironic commentary on the prose story. I haven't read too much about this yet, because I'm not sure how much more time or energy I have to unpack Job, but I do know that in my ongoing efforts to locate the "liminal" and analyze how these spaces are narrated, it seems likely that I'll have to return to the generic form(s) of the book overall.

(3) Perhaps my biggest takeaway for now is simply this: it is good to know that such an early canonical text breaks frames and forms and that, like The Odyssey before and Metamorphoses, Arabian Nights, The Decameron, Inferno, The Canterbury Tales, and so many after, The Book of Job is a story within a story that houses many stories. Again and again, my posts keep leading to the role and value of storytelling in ancient times. The ongoing question and investigation, of course, concerns how to tell stories today. Lance's question dies hard, because really, how, if at all, can we write the contemporary?