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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bible as Literature (Not)

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/20/08 at 09:47 PM

I am reading James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible. Kugel’s Bible course at Harvard was famously popular, and this book seems, in the nearly 700 pages it takes to get to the endnotes, a record of pretty much every point he could have ever made in the twenty years he taught the course. Similar to Herbert Dreyfus’s Heidegger book, How to Read the Bible feels like making up for a lost opportunity, for those of us who could not attend the course (Dreyfus’s class, I admit, was not megapopular, but it had its fans). While it covers a big number of details, the tone is bright & conversational. One can see how Kugel was a popular lecturer.

Beyond the quite accessible main text, Kugel presents, in the nearly 90 pages of endnotes, something like a bibliography, with commentary, of the history of Bible studies, offering points of departure for further & deeper readings, that is, something for the more scholarly inclined. & in one of these notes he slams (slams, I tell you!) a revered figure in much of literary scholarship, Erich Auerbach & his renowned Mimesis. Well, he doesn’t slam the whole book. He says everything after the first chapter is “quite wonderful.” But that first chapter, “Odysseus’s Scar,” which also happens to be the most famous part of the book, not so much:

this chapter stumbles on precisely the point we have been making. Abraham and the other figures in the tale are not, as Auerbach claims, “fraught with background”; there is no background! There is only the schematic foreground, in which Abraham’s only “trait” is his willingness to kill his son, and in which Isaac barely exists as a human being at all; he is a mere prop. Indeed, Auerbach’s essay is a fine example of what happens when someone trained as a literary critic tries to read a text that is fundamentally not literature.

D’oh! But it’s such a fun chapter! Next he’s going to tell me donuts aren’t good for me. So what should we be believing instead, Professor Kugel?

How to Read the Bible is an extended compare & contrast essay, with three recurrent elements: (1)the original text,(2)the views of what Kugel calls the “ancient interpreters,” Biblical commenters from 300 BCE to 200 CE, and (3) the views of “modern scholars,” academic commenters from the last 150 years. One of Kugel’s important claims is that much of what we take the Bible to mean is not obvious in the original text and is in fact the work of the ancient interpreters. Their reading of the Bible could be said to have reconstituted it, to have created a new text. & of course the modern commenters have reconstituted the text yet again, or rather, de-constituted it, or at least disenchanted it.

But Auerbach isn’t disenchanting it. His version of the story is very exciting. So what mistake is he making? He’s failing to recognize that the Abraham & Isaac story is a “schematic narrative,” something that should be read in a special way:

A schematic narrative has a point to make, and the entire text is designed to make it….In such narratives…the various people who are portrayed are often less than “characters,” at least in the sense in which this term is used by literary critics….very little is ever said about their thoughts or feelings; usually, they have no inner life at all….What matters is what the people did ant the results of their actions, or the conclusions to which their actions led.

Kugel follows this explanation with an analogy, a rhetorical move he makes often in the book. Here again the reader gets to see what made Kugel such an effective lecturer:

some of the Bible’s schematic narratives might be compared to jokes or fairy tales in our own culture. No one cares what sort of people the three sailors in the bar were, or what Goldilocks had done before that fateful day.

& from this comparison, we arrive at the conclusion:

The points is that not every narrative, just because it tells a story, is ipso facto literature, nor is every person in a tale necessarily a “character”; some may actually be more like stereotypes, or mere ciphers.

What are we to think of this? My first thought is that any definition of what is or isn’t literature is going to lead to trouble. Not that I don’t recognize the distinction Kugel is making, but I don’t think mapping it onto literary vs. non-literary complicates rather than simplifies.

For example, I remember 1,000 years ago I was bumming around the library one afternoon, pulling an occasional volume off the shelf & taking a quick peek into it (you see, kids, this is what we did before there was an internet. We spent those hours wandering up & down the stacks, or hanging out at magazine stands), and I remember reading an essay that made a similar argument about Homer’s characters, that they too had a flatness about them, at least in comparison to characters from modern literature (whatever that is). Such possibilities would seem to draw us into queasy middle grounds. Where does the literary start? There are a few chapters in Mimesis, chapters Kugel has signed off on, between the ancient & the Renaissance. When did these psychologically deep characters first form?

& another thought: if you let a narrative sit around for a couple of thousand years, how can you not expect someone to make something more about it? Because it’s not just literary critics who’re making this mistake about Abraham. Watch the Trinity Network, listen in on the radio: the evangelist sermonizers do flesh out those ancient Biblical characters. It’s as if there were some kind of narrativizing impulse, trying to expand these scraps into some kind of simulacrum. Although this kind of thinking gets us into reader response, & that’s a thicket I try to stay out of.

So there’s the problem of whether or not the literary can be kept at bay. But that’s not the only confusing point. Because Kugel makes a curious shift, immediately after the joke/fairy tale analogy. It turns out that these schematic narratives give rise to special reading practices:

Since they are pared down to relativesly few sentences, every detail in them—even something that looks like an aside or a random observation—is likely to be significant….listeners or readers were expected to pick up on every slight detail in the narrative, every little wink of the text….

Very slight textual features get given a lot of weight, are sometimes made to carry huge significance. For example, in the story of the rape of Dinah & her brother’s massive retaliation, the last phrase of the sentence “Jacob’s sons came in from the field when they heard of it, and the men were indignant and very angry, because he [Sechem] had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, and such a thing ought not to be done” might describe the motivation of the sons, that is, their psychological state. But because there is no direct attribution of the phrase to the sons, the ancient interpreters decided that that phrase should be attributed to the divine narrator. Thus the massacre of the whole village was not the whim of mortals, but divinely sanctioned.

Such a super-close reading goes 180 degrees against the joke/fairy tale comparison. Because one thing about jokes and fairy tales is that there’s all sorts of different ways to tell them. Everyone who tells the joke tells it in slightly different ways. There are dramatically different versions of each fairy tales. Sometimes the differences are so great, the different tales blend into each other.

Of course analogies aren’t supposed to be perfect fits, but it’s curious that the schematic narratives are in a sense exactly opposite of jokes/fairy tales. So the schematic narratives, if they are to be read with such granular scruples, become something strange, something read in a way other texts don’t get read. There isn’t supposed to be anything other than what is in the text (no attached foreground), but everything that is in the text becomes massively significant, hyper-significant. I guess that’s why they call it scripture.


"I guess that’s why they call it scripture.”

Well… yes.  An interesting post, but a curiously anticlimactic ending.  Yes, I don’t think that anyone is surprised to find out that some adherents to the Abrahamic religions read scripture in a hyper-picky way that is not really the same as any other reading practice, not even a close reading of a literary work by an English professor.

But really the most important thing I took from this post was wholly unrelated to its subject, in an illustration of how writers don’t control meanings taken by readers.  The sentence “It’s as if there were some kind of narrativizing impulse, trying to expand these scraps into some kind of simulacrum.” That was a very useful sentence to me, because PKD wrote a minor novel called The Simulacra, and in general it’s an important theme in his work.  “Trying to expand those scraps into some kind of simulacrum” is demiurgy, really; it’s an attempt to reduplicate the Abrahamic tale of how God created man.  I’ve been thinking for some time about a sort of reading in which the model author is thought of as a demiurge, with SF in general and PKD in specific as a fertile source for these readings, and this provides a way to tie in PKD’s notable concern with what determines whether a simulacrum is a person or not.  His general answer—empathy—is of course impossible from a fictional character, but it is probably one of the main determining factors in whether a reader feels that a fictional character is “human”.  PKD’s concern with this in his books then becomes a kind of reflected concern with the problems of the author-demiurge.

By on 04/21/08 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree about the anticlimax. I tried to come up w/something cleverer, but nothing I thought of seemed accurate. Which seemed to raise the risk of being stupid & offensive at the same time.

& the reader too would seem to be demiurgical, at least in that the reader always makes more of the work than is there on the page. At least it seems novels rely on such inflation. The words prompt the reader’s imagination.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/21/08 at 11:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, that’s a good point.  A demiurgical reading really involves the reader thinking of the author of a work as a demiurge, of putting an idea of the author into the work as an implied character.  Few authors, except James Branch Cabell and perhaps Harold Bloom (who once wrote a triumphantly bad Gnostic SF fanfic novel, by the way) seem to have consciously written with that idea in mind.

By on 04/21/08 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Derrida has an essay in which he analyzes the relationship between Abraham and literature—he claims that modern literature is actually of “Abrahamic” rather than Greek filiation.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/21/08 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Why does the demiurgical reading require that sense of the author? Why couldn’t the reader just read the text expansively? (& I’d really like to hear your explanation, for my own understanding.)


I’ve printed out the essay, but I’m not sure if I can get back to you quickly on it.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/21/08 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wasn’t necessarily expecting a response—just pointing it out for informational purposes.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/21/08 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seems like Kugel is taking a very 19th century view of character and narrative and using it to define literature in such a way that much of pre-Romantic fiction must be seen as non-literature.

Better to simply say that the nature of the verbal performance has changed over time than to have arguments over what is or is not literature. 

As Lawrence points out, a similar argument has been made for Homer’s heroes.  Peter Ackroyd makes the same point about Shakespeare in his biography: S’s characters are not characters in the modern sense.  We never know what has made Lady MacBeth so cold and ambitious, for example.

What Kugel calls a schematic narrative might also be considered a typological narrative.

By on 04/21/08 at 03:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence, I don’t really get what you mean by “reading the text expansively”.

At any rate… I’m not saying that what I’m calling a demiurgical reading is a required one, or necessarily a good one.  It’s simply a type of reading that I’m interested in.  It involves a Romantic view of the author as creator of a world, with a necessarily tragic element in that the author must always be conscious of their inevitable failure to create an actually living world.  The author is therefore a cognate of the Gnostic Demiurge.

It’s a kind of reading that I find satisfying for solving certain textual problems, particularly in SF, where “worldbuilding” is a term of art.  For instance, in China Mieville’s book Iron Council there’s a character, Judah Low, who (spoiler, I suppose) betrays a socialist revolution by preserving a locus of it within a bubble of frozen time that keeps it from, most likely, being defeated.  He’s then executed by one of his comrades.  All right, then, there’s a question: why was he killed?  The people holding him at gunpoint could have explained why he was wrong, tried to force him to remove the time bubble, etc.  And then the revolution would still probably have failed, but at least it would have had the element of surprise.  Why shoot him?

Well, it’s easy to make up a sort of within-world explanation.  The other revolutionaries are angry, they want revenge, they aren’t thinking clearly, etc.  People don’t always do what seems logical.  But that’s a sort of shoddy answer, making an obvious point about revolutions that the rest of the book isn’t really worth writing (or reading) in order to make.  What’s another possible answer?

Well, a little bit of reading Mieville’s own interviews confirmed what I suspected: that he didn’t feel that he could write a world in which the revolution either won (he didn’t feel he could depict the post-revolutionary socialism) or lost (that would be too crushing).  So his only real option was to freeze it.  Judah Low had to die because if he unfroze the revolution, then Mieville would only be confronted with his authorial problem again.  So Judah was executed as a sort of stand-in for Mieville himself, paying the price for the necessary authorial failure to make a world that could actually grow on its own.

In a certain sense, this reading goes beyond the usual biographical one of “the author wrote the book this way because he was a socialist writing during a very difficult historical period for socialism”, etc. etc.  It makes Mieville a sort of ghostly character in his own book.  He’s the characters’ God, basically.  And he created them, but he’s a limited God and they are necessarily going to suffer because of his limits, just as he’s going to suffer because he is unable to transcend those limits.  The Mieville-within-the-book need have nothing to do with the actual Mieville, of course; he’s a fiction, just as they are, but he’s a fiction that brings within the book the limits of fictional creation.

Does that make any sense?

By on 04/21/08 at 08:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I was not understanding your point, which you have explained quite well in the last comment. I was thinking in terms of a reader filling out what was missing from a narrative in order to make a fuller, rounder world w/fuller, rounder characters & such. I was quite at cross purposes w/what you were thinking. & I don’t think “demiurgical” applies at all to what I was thinking, so I was definitely mistaken there.

Your last comment reminded me of a question I once asked a novelist friend, whether or not wish fulfillment was a possible motivation for writing a novel. For example, one could make a protagonist that has all the clever retorts the writer was never able to make in real life. It seems obvious to me that there should be plenty of examples of such novels. None of them are coming to mind just now.

& I’m not saying that wish fulfillment is cognate w/your sense of a demiurgical author. It’s just an association your idea inspired in me.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/22/08 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"whether or not wish fulfillment was a possible motivation for writing a novel. For example, one could make a protagonist that has all the clever retorts the writer was never able to make in real life”

Sorry to ramble on within this thread about subjects that have nothing to do with the post, but anyway, pixels are inexhaustible.  Yes, it is possible to write such a novel, and in fact it is so common to write one within SF / fantasy that a term of art has come into being for it: the Mary Sue.  Mary Sue properly refers to a type of character rather than a type of novel, but works featuring this type of character as the protagonist are sometimes called Mary Sues.  A Mary Sue character is an authorial wish-fulfillment, making a sort of proxy for the author that is improbably witty, brilliant, lucky, loveable, good, etc. etc.—whatever characteristic the author seems to value.  For an excellent piece on Mary Sues, see here.

The appeal of writing a Mary Stu story to its author is fairly obvious.  But they can appeal to readers, too, if the character in question is drawn so that readers can vicariously identify with them.  One of the best articles here in the Theory wars—well, the funniest, anyway—was when John Holbo described Zizek as a sort of philosopher Mary Stu, whose appeal consisted of making his readers feel that they were brilliant for appreciating his obvious brilliance.

By on 04/22/08 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Better to simply say that the nature of the verbal performance has changed over time than to have arguments over what is or is not literature.


Though it rather foregrounds the question of just what is going on when we talk of “reading the Bible as literature.” Perhaps it means nothing more than reading the Bible, not as a sacred text in which one believes, but simply as a culturally influential text. This need not entail any special interest in how the Bible participates in “the literary.” But it could also mean precisely that, seeing the Bible as literary, perhaps as a strategy for framing it as something other than or beyond a mere cultural influence. If the latter, well, that’s when things become problematic.

By Bill Benzon on 04/22/08 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since it’s my post, I will forgive myself for further hi-jacking the thread, & ask:

what is the most famous Mary Sue?

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/22/08 at 07:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On another point, I find it interesting that the trichotomy of the original text, ancient interpreters, and modern scholars leaves out about 2,000 years of exegetical tradition.

By on 04/22/08 at 08:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I think Kugel’s claim is that the most important critics for our understanding are those very earliest & the most recent. Those periods resulted in the greatest changes in our understanding.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/23/08 at 12:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Part of the problem here is that the Bible is not a unified text. Parts of it certainly are literature by most understandings, parts are prescriptions for rites, etc. Strong cases have been made for considering the J writer as a literary giant. Although there are problems, imo, with Bloom’s The Book of J, he does a fine job of analyzing as literature certain sections, such as the Tower of Babel story.

By on 04/23/08 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d count most novels written by alcoholics about extremely charming, capable, or tough alcoholics as Mary Sues.

There’s a long tradition of poetry written to imagine oneself sounding like a poet. Readings sometimes remind me of the rehearsal scene from King of Comedy. But that slides into the sort of presumption/fraudulence required to achieve virtually any sort of ambition. (Such as starting a religion.)

My impression is that a fair number of novels begin with the goal of wish-fulfillment (even if only the wish to have written a novel), but the good ones get distracted. Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, Villette, is a magnificent case of wish-fulfillment gone dingo. In dreams begin nightmares.

By Ray Davis on 04/24/08 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No one has accepted my claim that “Pride and Prejudice” is a Mary Sue.

By on 04/24/08 at 10:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You might be interested in knowing that Dreyfus’ classes are immensely popular now. So much so, that his class for next fall requires an application in May (along with a personal statement).

Cheers from Berkeley!

By on 04/25/08 at 09:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d accept it, John E.  Of course, there’s a difference between one written by a great writer and one written as somebody’s first fanfic.  If you look at the link that I linked to in my first comment on Mary Sues, the point is made that in bad literature one can sometimes identify the hidden wellsprings of good literature.  You wouldn’t be able to find them in good literature alone, because good literature isn’t so obvious.

By on 04/25/08 at 09:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s your evidence for that claim, John? I don’t sense much author-wannabe wish-fulfillment in any of Jane Austen’s lead characters. Stephen Dedalus, sure. Elizabeth Bennett, not so much. I always get the impression that the only person Austen really wants to be or pictures herself as is the author.

By Ray Davis on 04/25/08 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By some ungodly coincidence, one of the print-outs I randomly grabbed to bring along on this business trip turned out to be Adam Kotsko’s translation of that Derrida essay. (Thanks for making that available, Adam.) And—speaking of what’s literature and what’s a joke—my first reaction on reading it was to wonder why I hadn’t yet brought Kafka’s letter to his father into my study of Son of Paleface.

By the way, does anyone care what Gregor Samsa had done before that fateful day?

By Ray Davis on 04/28/08 at 11:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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