The Rhetoric of Suffering: Reading the Book of Job in the Eighteenth Century

By Jonathan Hoeber Lamb | Go to book overview

13
Conclusion: Job and the Epitaph

Nowhere is the book of Job more frequently or more variously reproduced in the eighteenth century than on tombstones, vaults, and mausoleums. Its popularity as a source of epitaphic sentiments is reflected in James Hervey Meditation upon the Tombs ( 1746), where the author marks almost every pause before the dead with a quotation from Job, ranging from the common choices for graveyard inscription ('Here even the Wicked cease from troubling' and 'This is the House appointed for all Living') to rather more vociferous passages, such as 'I shall never more see Good in the Land of the Living'.1 Similar inventories are to be found in Robert Blair The Grave ( 1786) and in George Wright Pleasing Melancholy: or a Walk among the Tombs ( 1794). The strong association between graves and the book of Job is owing to the verses beginning, 'O that my words were written', in which Job imagines that he might continue his complaint by having it carved on a rock and positioned between his dead body and his reader. With this vision of an epitaph Job presents the alternatives of reading as practice and as interpretation. As practice the words on the stone will work a change upon the relations of the writer both to the reader and to the world: they are implicated in what is about to happen. As a challenge to interpretation, the words present the reader with a code that has to be cleared; only then will the literal terms reveal a hidden message as prophecy or typology. Job's writing is read, then, either as one in a series of illocutionary events delivered in the first person which personally affect the reader, and which tie the future to an unsettled issue in the past; or as a figured promise of a general and equitable future which relies on a communitarian spirit and a forgetting of past injuries.

The same alternatives are presented by graveyard inscriptions. In the form of a name, a date, and a short summary of a life that has ended, they offer the reader a number of facts, inflected with varying degrees of pathos and optimism, capable of being treated either as the literal and self-evident testimony of a real person given to another, or as an exemplary fable whose moral is to be found out by interpretative effort. In literal language, the dead speak of their mortality as an unsettled injury, and with varying degrees of aggression appeal to the reader's interest in

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1
James Hervey, Meditations among the Tombs ( London: J. Rivington, 1746), 49, p. vi, 17.

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