Posts Tagged ‘The Bible’
February 25, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The rediscovered prison memoir of a nineteenth-century black man.
On the back cover of the manuscript of his prison memoir, which he completed in New York’s Auburn state jail sometime after 1858, Austin Reed pasted a clipping of the third chapter of Lamentations: “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath … / He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail. / He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old.” Around the thirtieth verse, the tone shifts to one of reassurance—“For the Lord will not cast off forever”—and then, by the fifty-fifth, to one of retributive anger. The last verses Reed excerpted are a plea “out of the low dungeon” for God to avenge the poem’s narrator against his enemies: “Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord.”
These lines suggest the tone and shape of a literary genre: a lament in which sorrow coexists with requests for divine vengeance. By placing them at the end of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict—acquired by Yale’s rare-book library in 2009 and published last month with helpful editorial comments by the scholar Caleb Smith—Reed was making a strong suggestion about the kind of book he’d written. The text itself, however, is an amalgam of genres that wouldn’t seem to combine: a picaresque memoir in which sermons jostle up against pulpy adventure anecdotes; dutiful recollections of fact move with little notice into fantasies and dreams; radical gestures of black empowerment share the page with the coarsest kinds of racial caricatures; and assertive denunciations of the prison system coexist with passages of meek and guilty self-recrimination. It’s puzzling to make sense of these apparent contradictions—to decide what Reed meant his book to do. Read More »
October 2, 2015 | by Max Nelson
On the long line of conversion literature from imprisoned writers.
In one of his later theological tracts, the sixteenth-century Nonconformist preacher John Bunyan interpreted a few lines from 2 Timothy—“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand”—as a kind of challenge. “Here we see,” he wrote, “that a Christian’s heart should be unclenched from this world; for he that is ready to be made a sacrifice for Christ and his blessed Word, he must be one that is not entangled with the affairs of this life: how else can he please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier?”
Modern Biblical scholars suspect that Paul didn’t write most of 2 Timothy at all (it was likely composed by the apostle’s acolytes some time after his execution), but Bunyan could just as easily have extracted the same lesson from any number of lines in the letter Paul wrote to the young church in Philippi during one of his several imprisonments by the Roman government. “My desire,” Paul confesses frankly early in the epistle, “is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Some verses later, he heaps scorn on the respected Pharisee he’d been earlier in life. On the road to Damascus decades earlier, he’d survived a violent conversion experience: Read More »
May 20, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- On the cover of a 1598 book, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, a historian claims to have found “the only demonstrably authentic portrait of Shakespeare made in his lifetime”; the editor of Country Life magazine is calling this “the literary discovery of the century.” The century, thankfully, is young.
- Pause to remember the garish bookbinding trends of yesteryear: “For a few years in the nineteenth century … papier-mâché books adorned with mother-of-pearl were part of a gift book fad, wherein a decorative tome of sentimental or religious poetry was bestowed upon a loved one, often around the winter holidays. The text was usually secondary to the gaudy cover, which was decorated to the extreme.”
- Is photography merely a matter of chance? “By the end of the nineteenth century, after Kodak has arrived … much of the role of chance migrates from the processing phase to the moment of exposure. That moment was always prone to chance—in the long exposures of early photography, a dog might wander in a street scene, or a young portrait subject might sneeze and blur the image. But with fast shutters and films, the so-called instantaneous photograph arrives, and chance takes on a new prominence in composition—to the point that even the word composition seems questionable.”
- Everett Fox is translating the Hebrew Bible—a tricky effort, given that the original is rooted in a deeply aural tradition. “I heard it, too. Short vowels twinkled and long vowels streamed by with showy tails. Consonants held crisp and true. The overall effect was of a simultaneously dense and sprawling thing, layered and alive and capable of surprising you. Fox has dedicated his life to giving the Anglophone ear a hint of that Hebrew drama … [He] uses every poetic means at his disposal: phrase length, line break, puns.”
- The glam SAHMs (stay-at-home moms, if you’re new to this) of the Upper East Side await wife bonuses from their husbands: “A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance—how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school—the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks.”
February 13, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Authenticity: Do you have it? Do your favorite writers have it? Has any individual in the history of humankind had it? “What do we mean by authenticity? Since we can hardly ask for documentary accuracy from fiction, what is it exactly we’re looking for? … All Dickens is packed with orphans or people in uncertain relation to family groups, or clubs. It’s impossible to read anything he wrote without feeling that the question of belonging was a major issue for him … Whether or not we like the books and quite regardless of any verisimilitude, it’s clear that the author is writing directly from his personal concerns.”
- The Earl of Rochester wrote directly from his personal concerns, too. Those concerns included dildos, premature ejaculation, drunkenness, and scatology. He was very authentic.
- And Camus, who had a few questions of his own about this sort of thing, is perhaps more relevant than ever today, in no small part because of the Arab Spring: “For the many Americans who grew up with ‘The Guest’ and The Stranger, what lies ahead is a literary, political, and cinematic revival of a writer whose work has found new urgency in the embers of the Arab Spring. For readers and writers throughout the world, Camus remains an open book.”
- While we’re questioning some of the basic tenets of writing—what do writers owe their subjects? “Do we have the right to tell their stories at all? Such complications become even more vivid when we consider them through the lens of privilege: the privilege of the storyteller to control or shape the narrative.”
- Maybe it’s easiest to circumvent these questions by trusting the state to tell us which stories are okay to tell. They know what they’re doing! That’s why a Tennessee lawmaker is moving to make the Bible his state’s official book. It’s a classic, after all.
December 30, 2014 | by Caleb Crain
We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
Early in Darren Aronofsky’s new movie, Noah, the title character, played by Russell Crowe, comes across an antediluvian beastie, a cross between a dog and an armadillo. The beastie snarls because there’s a broken-off assegai tip in its flank, but Noah wins its trust and soothes it before it expires. Since Noah is famous as the Biblical patriarch who saved animals, a moviegoer might be forgiven for looking forward to more such scenes of human-animal interaction. Will there be an explanation about why the dogadillo didn’t make it on to the ark? Will Noah have to talk a lioness out of disemboweling an okapi on board? Will there be trilobites?
Uh, no, it turns out. Pairs of animals do stream onto Aronofsky’s ark under divine instruction, as calmly and trustingly as if Temple Grandin had designed their on-ramp, but once the creatures are in their berths, the Noah family wafts a censer of magical burning herbs, and presto, change-o—all the animals fall asleep. One of the most charismatic elements of the Noah story—in the opinion of most people under the age of six, the most charismatic element—is quietly euthanized. A stowaway descendant of Cain, looking very much like an escapee from Pirates of the Caribbean, does bite the head off of a dormant rodent and gnaw upon it with much sententious commentary, and a few implausible-looking CGI birds are deputized to scout for land, but apart from these brief episodes, the ark might as well be empty. Read More >>
September 30, 2014 | by Damion Searls
Remembering Saint Jerome on International Translation Day.
Raise a glass, say a prayer in a language other than Hebrew and Greek, or wear a donkey’s ear in your buttonhole: it’s International Translation Day, aka the Feast of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and libraries, schoolchildren, students, Bible scholars, and translators. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and died in Bethlehem on this day in 419 or 420 A.D.; he single-handedly (so to speak) created the Vulgate, a translation read as the sacred original for some thousand years.
He famously said that you should translate the meaning of the original text, not the words themselves, but translators must have always known this intuitively—even Jerome cites half a dozen predecessors. Because he was one of the early ones, though, he gets the credit, along with Horace, who said the same thing. Jerome made a partial exception for the Bible, whose very word order was a sacred mystery; his balance between the competing demands is what made his translation so good.
He was born in 331 or 347 in the town of Stridon, possibly in what’s now northwest Croatia; its only mention in history is Jerome’s comment that he was born “in the town of Stridon, now destroyed by the Goths.” He was also by far the crabbiest of the Church Fathers, as befits a man who earned sainthood by scholarship and rigorous asceticism, not working with people. As important a theological polemicist as he was a translator, he fired off letter after letter, volume after volume, from his library in Palestine, written in elegant classical Latin studded with choice insults. To someone who questioned his translations, he countered: “What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learnèd term pestilent minuteness”; a heretic, Pelagius, was “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.” Read More »