Reading the Bible "As the Report of the Word of God": The Case of T. S. Eliot
Warner, Martin, Christianity and Literature
Abstract: Eliot contrasted reading the Bible "as literature" with reading it "as the report of the Word of God." Central to "the Bible as literature" movement was the contention that the Bible is best approached primarily in terms of its language (usually in translation), style, and/or structure. Eliot's preferred traditional mode of reading, while not fundamentalist, treated the Bible as authoritative witness to religious truth. This throws light on the way the biblical resonances of his mature poetry are often more imagistic than verbal, pointing to an intelligently "God-fearing" poetic approach to the literary dimension of the Bible.
"I could fulminate," wrote T. S. Eliot in 1935,
against the men of letters who have gone into ecstasies over "the Bible as literature," the Bible as "the noblest monument of English prose." Those who talk of the Bible as a "monument of English prose" are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity.... [J]ust as the work of Clarendon, or Gibbon, or Buffon, or Bradley would be of inferior literary value if it were insignificant as history, science and philosophy respectively, so the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God. And the fact that men of letters now discuss it as "literature" probably indicates the end of its "literary" influence. ("Religion and Literature" 390)
Five years later we have a suggestive echo:
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark. The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant, The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters. ("East Coker" III) (1)
By this stage there is a distinct self-referential element. The somewhat irritating "eminent man of letters" voice is one we have just met:
That was a way of putting it--not very satisfactory: A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion, ... (II)
And indeed a voice we are shortly to meet again:
You say I am repeating Something I have said before. I shall say it again. Shall I say it again? (III)
In the second section of "Little Gidding" the verse, it seems, seeks to transfigure this voice through subjection to the discipline of Dante, but that is two years later still. What is relevant here is that "men of letters" has a certain negative charge for Eliot, such that placing at least one of his own voices in that category represents, not merely recognition of what he himself had become, but also what for "East Coker" is "the wisdom of humility" evoked three lines before the "fulmination," if that is the right expression: "O dark dark dark."
"Fulminate" is indeed in itself an interesting word, perhaps suggesting a certain self-mockery or at least self-distancing, analogous to that in "East Coker" which his critics seem to miss. An eminent man of letters such as himself could hardly have been altogether unaware of such put-downs as that of William Warburton's of "judgements ... fulminated with the air of one who had the divine Vengeance at his disposal" (II, v, 113). Literal thunderbolts not being available, fulminations have been primarily associated with ecclesiastical censure, so Eliot's use of the term is not wholly inappropriate, but we note that it is (perhaps wisely) used with a subjunctive.
More interest in this context has been attracted by the use of the word "as." Terence Wright, for example, has argued that in refusing "to accept the Bible as 'literature'"
Eliot seems intent on regarding the Hebrew Bible as a religious rather than a cultural product, as if the two could be separated, as if the Bible were not a form of literature, of writing. (30)
The context is not only that of Eliot's "Religion and Literature" discussion but also of his engagement with the Hebrew Kethubim or Writings, and later characterization of the Jewish contribution to European culture as "religious" rather than (as in the cases of Greece and Rome) "cultural." Thus the expression "Hebrew Bible," which does not exactly designate what Eliot is discussing in his essay, has not come out of nowhere; nevertheless neither is it entirely unproblematic, a matter to which I shall return. This term apart, though, the argument remains puzzling. Let us try it with one of the analogues Eliot offers, taking that with which he was probably most familiar, the great stylist F. H. Bradley's philosophical writing. If one were to refuse to accept Appearance and Reality, say, "as literature" one would, on this account, be treating it as a philosophical "rather than a cultural product, as if the two could be separated," as if Bradley's book "were not a form of literature, of writing."
Here one immediately smells a rat. "Philosophy as a Kind of Writing," Richard Rorty's early essay on Jacques Derrida, represents a particular philosophical position arguing, in effect, for Philosophy's (his capital "P") surrender to the opposition in what for Plato was already the "ancient quarrel" between philosophy and poetry (Republic X, 607b). (Analogously, insistence on regarding the historical works of a Clarendon or a Gibbon as a form, or forms, of literature is reminiscent of the sort of metahistorical perspective represented by Hayden White.) Appearance and Reality, like the Republic, is a cultural product, and both are writings, but this does not of itself show that they should be "accepted" as cultural products or as "writings," since "I accept" has a certain normative force. To "accept" the people one works with as cultural products (which of course they are) is rather different from accepting them as colleagues, and one might wonder whether the former "acceptance" might inhibit the latter. Analogously, to "accept" Appearance and Reality "as literature" might be thought to be in some tension with accepting it "as philosophy"; to praise a philosopher for his style is, in the absence of other forms of praise, usually taken as an insult. To use logician's shorthand, to accept x as [phi] is not equivalent to accepting that x is [phi]. If it were otherwise, that age-old advice of well-meaning friends with respect to a flawed suitor, "you should accept him as he is," would be little more than the expression of a singularly barren tautology.
So what exactly is involved in the claim that a written text is not only (and arguably tautologously) a cultural product, but also properly to be construed in terms of "literature"? As I have argued elsewhere,
Following Aristotle, "literature" is traditionally defined in terms of the genres of which it is composed and, although these are notoriously fluid, ostensive definition is possible: literature is a category made up of those genres that "students of literature" usually study--poems, plays, novels and their many generic subdivisions. No doubt there are many borderline or otherwise problematic cases, but there are also exemplary ones: here too example leads theoretical exposition. Nevertheless there are a good many works that one would like to include in even a strict notion of "literature," but which represent genres not ex officio literary: memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, letters, etc. Such forms are, as it were, honorifically literary--they become assimilated to "literature" if they exhibit markedly certain excellencies traditionally associated with conventional literary forms. Equally, genres that are closely related to traditional literary forms--as is the philosophical dialogue to the form of drama--may in certain circumstances be worth considering under the heading "literary." Thus the brief for literary criticism is always an open one: it being one purpose of literary criticism to help us decide which works are sufficiently excellent in the appropriate ways to be so classified. (Warner 48-49)
Such excellencies certainly seem to be what those advocates of "the Bible as literature" against whom Eliot was reacting had in mind, Ernest Bates arguing for "boldness" in rearranging and abridging the text on the ground that "the finest aesthetic qualities may be ruined by redundancy and irrelevance, and from the literary point of view the Bible is full of both" (xv-xvi). Similarly, Eliot's invocation of issues of literary value in his discussion suggests that he too saw their relevance to the issue at hand. His point was that such putative excellencies are in part to be judged in relation to what one might term the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of the work in question, and where this is …
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Publication information: Article title: Reading the Bible "As the Report of the Word of God": The Case of T. S. Eliot. Contributors: Warner, Martin - Author. Journal title: Christianity and Literature. Volume: 61. Issue: 4 Publication date: Summer 2012. Page number: 543+. © 2009 Conference on Christianity and Literature. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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