Darwinism, Genre Theory, and City Laments

By Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2000 | Go to article overview

Darwinism, Genre Theory, and City Laments


Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Drawing on more sophisticated understandings of Darwinism characteristic of contemporary biology, I address questions about the origins, evolution, and interrelations of literary genres, with specific attention given to Israelite and Mesopotamian city laments.

My approach to genre study and theory is essentially pragmatic and rhetorical in nature. That is, I regard genre as a tool of criticism. In positing a particular literary genre for a given text I assert that the posited genre most fully and precisely captures the tenor of that text, that it results in a more compelling and interesting reading than the genres used in previous critical discussions of the text. [1] Such a commitment to pragmatism also entails, as A. Rosmarin notes, the possibility that the genre analysis of some texts may require a potentially endless process of refinement, correcting, and further deducing of particulars. [2] In the present contribution I return to the general topic of my Weep, O Daughter of Zion--a genre analysis of the city-lament genre in the Hebrew Bible--with the specific aim of enhancing and refining the analysis of genre enacted there. [3] In that study I employed a concept of genre that foregrounded the analogy of family relations. [4] Such an analogy is especially well suited for getting at questions of definition, [5] and it was precisely at the definitional or criterial level that I sought to establish the presence of a city-lament genre in the Bible. The analogy proved helpful in allowing me to show that the Hebrew Bible contains texts (e.g., Lamentations, the "Oracles Against the Nations" in the prophetic literature, and certain of the psalms) which exhibit identifiable and coherent complexes of imagery, themes, motifs, and even poetic devices and structures that are used in compositions about destroyed cities and their sanctuaries and that bear certain strong resemblances to the Mesopotamian genre of city laments. But as with all analogies, the analogy of "family resemblance" does not illuminate everything equally well. In fact, a theory of genre in which the concept of "family resemblance" plays a formative role is not so well suited to address specific questions about the origins, evolution, and interrelations of genres. For such questions, as D. Fishelov compelling ly argues, we must have recourse to a different analogy. Fishelov takes up issues related to "questions of generic evolution and interrelationship" in light of the more sophisticated understandings of Darwinism characteristic of contemporary biology, [6] and it is my intent to utilize this general line of investigation to explore the same issues with respect to the city-lament genre.

The need to attend more intentionally and with more sophistication to questions about the origins and evolution of the Israelite city-lament genre and the nature of its interrelations with the Mesopotamian city laments becomes most apparent in the comments of some of the reviewers of my earlier study. Both W. C. Bouzard, Jr. [7] and A. Berlin, [8] for example, in mostly sympathetic reviews understand me to be making a strong case for the independence and even the "indigenous" nature of an Israelite genre. Bouzard at one point writes of my attempts "to maintain the idea that Israel's city laments represent a separate indigenous generic phenomenon." [9] And Berlin summarizes the central thrust of my thesis as positing "the existence of an Israelite genre of city laments which, although probably influenced by the Mesopotamian genre, stood independent from it." [10] While it was most definitely my intention to show that the Israelite genre had an integrity of its own, especially as it thrived on Israelite soil, I did not mean to stress the Israelite genre's independence to the degree that these scholars (especially Bouzard) suggest. At least part of the confusion results from what, in hindsight, was a poor choice of terminology. I used the adjective "native" several times to describe the city-lament genre in Israel and Judah. …

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