Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture

Article excerpt

by Robert Alter. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 198 pp. $18.50.

In this elegantly written volume Robert Alter reassesses the notion of literary canon as it has evolved in recent decades. He challenges the emphasis that has been placed on canon as an instrument of "ideological coercion," and he champions instead a vision of canon as "transhistorical textual community". Focusing on the Hebrew Bible and on ways in which twentieth-century writers have assimilated and imaginatively recast biblical materials, he sets out to show how a common literary heritage can inspire new and original artistic expression in a diverse range of texts. Scripture, he notes, serves not just as a source of doctrine and belief, but as a source of artistic models and of stylistic and imaginative authority. It is this "double canonicity" that gives the Bible such sustained inspirational power for writers of many subsequent historical periods.

Exploring these ideas, Alter examines uses of biblical elements in the fiction and poetry of three great modern writers: Franz Kafka, Hayim Nahman Bialik, and James Joyce. By way of introduction, Alter also illustrates his points through a brief analysis of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom and through readings of verse by Saul Tchernikhovsky and a number of medieval Hebrew poets.

The chapter on Kafka concentrates primarily on the novel Amerika, commenting also on other texts such as Kafka's reflections on the Tower of Babel. Kafka's interpretive wrestling with the Bible, and his transmutations of narrative motifs from Genesis and Exodus, produce what Alter calls "heretical midrash" -- a combination of serious spiritual and theological searching with modernist iconoclasm and narrative experiment.

The following chapter then turns to Bialik's "The Dead of the Desert" (1902). This poem takes as its point of departure Numbers 14, in which God decrees that the generation of Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt will die in the wilderness without reaching the Promised Land. Bialik presents those figures as heroes who, having met their aforetold end, return to life, take up arms, and rebel against God and their fate. Highlighting the poem's mythic qualities, Alter reads "The Dead of the Desert" as an affirmation of heroic will, a celebration of man's pitting himself against the forces of eternity in defiance of God's will. The poem merits special attention, Alter avers, precisely because it does not stand in "exegetical relation to the biblical text". While allusions to the Bible are ubiquitous in modern Hebrew literature, and while this poem takes biblical idiom as its basic building blocks, it uses Hebrew in a largely non-allusive way. Consequently, Bialik "drastically disrupts the canonical authority of the Bible -- by forging out of the biblical materials themselves a compelling counterworld to that of the Bible".

The chapter on Joyce lays out yet a further example of how modernism merges traditionalism with iconoclasm. Along with Homer, the Bible serves as a "fundamental allusive matrix" in Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses. Among the hallmarks of this novel are parody, playfulness, and chains of associative thoughts and images. As "snippets of Scripture circulate through this citational reality, severed from their function as ultimate source of truth, and more often than not misconstrued or misremembered", the result is that the novelist "tacitly puts aside [the Bible's] claims to transcendent authority, affirming instead its purely literary canonicity". …