Academic journal article Antipodes

A Writer Makes Notes on the Ark

Academic journal article Antipodes

A Writer Makes Notes on the Ark

Article excerpt

The story of Noah's Ark is a tale of great transformations- from solid earth to unstable waters; from community to family; from freedom to loss and confinement; from social and biological complexity to the minimal existence of survivors. In simplified form, it is a story of rescue, salvation and fresh beginnings, with a filmic hero and great visual appeal: the weighty and protective boat, the paired animals, the father who listens to God, the God who speaks, the little dove that brings an olive branch back to Noah to show him that the water has receded. It's perfect for children's picture books, and there are lots of those on the subject of Noah's Ark. Perfect for visual artists of all kinds: Paul Richmond's painting, "Noah's Gay Wedding Cruise," has recognizable celebrity gay and lesbian couples- including Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, the latter with her hands outstretched to receive an alighting dove- all floating in a folksy wooden ship. It could almost be a picture-book illustration. The painting has plenty to say about heavenly blessings and punishment. Various critics of gayness are shown drowning in the waters below, apparently exemplars of evil, to be swept away and annihilated. Richmond is not the only artist who sees the story through the filter of his own situation. The story of the Ark is potent; a source of imaginative plenitude; a frame within which we may or may not picture ourselves. This paper explores some of the implications of the Genesis story, in particular in relation to animals. The way we think of animals- as, for example, docile breeding pairs under our command- has consequences for the actions we take and the stories we tell. To write about animals at all is to "see" them in ways that cannot be disconnected from a vital narrative inheritance of stories about animals, and this paper explores elements of that inheritance.

In the traditional Noah story the emphasis is on evil and salvation. The corrupt world is overwhelmed; people and animals are gathered closely together. They ride out the currents that, without the protection of Noah's mighty ship, would turn them into things: corpses bumping without breath or direction in the sundered timber and terracotta of wrecked civilization. Divine instruction directs proceedings, but salvation is also due to the faith and enterprise of Noah himself. Above all, the story of the Ark reinforces human authority over animals. When Harper's Magazine commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible by publishing the response of various writers to the scriptures, Benjamin Hale took issue with Genesis 1:26 on the grounds that "God makes man in his image [. . .] and puts all mortal creation beneath his feet"- thereby creating an influential and destructive hierarchy. Given the fact that writers are currently conspicuously preoccupied with the relationship between human and the natural world- Franzen is an obvious example- this is worth exploring further, as is the whole flood story in Genesis. The pre-flood civilization is, we are told, too "violent" for God, its creator, to endure. In the King James Genesis the problem of the pre-flood civilization isn't just violent acts, which would be bad enough, it's a human preoccupation with violence: "the wickedness of man was great in the earth [. . .] every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." The divine solution, it seems, is to extinguish life, to destroy everything except for the quarantined community of the "just" man Noah, his family, and the paired subordinate animals.

After the Ark is beached on Ararat, God renounces destruction of this kind. There will be no second flood. This is good news. The reason for his decision is not so good. He gives up the job of eradicating human evil, "for," as he says, or reportedly thinks, "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth [. . .]" This is more distressing than an expression of the futility of setting up a perfect human society. …

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