Friday, November 07, 2014

The perils of reading

I have just been reading the United Nations' list of International Days, and have noted that two very important dates are fast approaching.

November the 19th is World Toilet Day; November the 20th is World Philosophy Day. I think that the United Nations' juxtaposition of the scatological and the epistemological is appropriate: as that dodgy Greek Diogenes acknowledged thousands of years ago, the art of thinking closely approximates the art of crapping.

If I have gotten rid of my hangovers from the shindigs on the 19th and the 20th of November, then I'll have to remember to celebrate International Day of the Bible on November the 24th. If a group of American evangelicals have their way, then the world's people will spend the 24th reading and discussing passages from the Old and New Testaments, in the sort of mass study session that Mao used to organise for fans of his Little Red Book.

I've never been a reliable churchgoer - I went nearly every week when I lived in Tonga last year, out of a mixture of loneliness, anthropological curiosity, and delight at hearing the singing and seeing the beautiful costumes of other worshippers, but I would switch denominations and venues constantly - and the Bible is, along with Joyce's Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow, one of those great books that I have always chosen, out of a mixture of cowardice and laziness, to read as a collection of fragments.

Yet when my Christian friends talk about the perils and puzzles of Biblical exegeses and theological argument, though, I feel a certain affinity them, because I spent years opening and closing the sacred and profane books of Marxist theory. I'm not sure if any scholar of the Book of Revelations or the Kabbala can rival Althusser or Bordiga for either exegetical pedantry or eschatological fury.

Whether they are studying the Bible or Das Kapital or old bus timetables, scholars of texts have to struggle with and against the exasperating and wonderful capacity of words, sentences, and chapters to change their meanings. Every time a book is opened the words are the same, and yet different. New contexts and new readers scramble and reassemble their codes.

The International Day of the Bible is supposed to create peace and understanding; given the nature of reading, I think that is more likely to foster vociferous disagreement. Let me offer some doggerel, as an advance contribution to the event.

Three Poems for the International Day of the Bible

1. Surplus Value

When Marx died
his books rebelled.
Letters, words, chapters
in Das Kapital
tapped to one another
like prisoners
in adjacent cells.
They crawled across the page,
changed places
and shapes.
Money became yeoman,
bourgeoisie turned to embarkation,
surplus was succubus.

2. Note on Some Remarks on Early Martyrs of the Church, Illustrated by Woodcuts

Tissue paper on the engravings
like bandages:

the book is old
its wounds won't heal

3. Hermeneutics in Tonga

In the centre
of Palenapa's fale:
the Bible lies
under a long-handled
bush knife,
as if the Lord's word
were a whetstone.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Good poems. Interesting. I don't think we can ignore the cultural significance of the Bible. I once read most if not all of it, when I was first reading T. S. Eliot (of The Waste Land). He quotes from Ezekiel and much else (St. Augustine and many many others including, I discovered recently, Gerard de Nerval). It is a chaotic book and full of contradictions. Marx's Capital only covers the bones of economics and he doesn't really see the complexity of human beings. His sense of the inevitability of Socialism is much in doubt. But the struggle is good. I only read the first page of 'Gravity's Rainbow', but I did read Ulysses one and a half times. It is a book from which much can be gained. The satirical parts (say echoing Swift, Dickens or Rabellais etc - and indeed also Meredith) are great. Each chapter is in a different style. I have a guide but I need a particular edition to keep track easily. The notes about Ulysses are as interesting as the book almost. I think I prefer 'The Portrait' and 'The Dubliners'...for 'Finnegan's Wake' I listened to a record of Joyce reading from it, that is marvelous. He reads wonderfully and it comes alive. On paper it is rather long and full of the words that keep changing so much!

I think Ted has a point about the step down to FB and Twitter - there is a step down and a reluctance for people to engage with serious discussion, just emotional effusions about dead horses on FB.

It is good for keeping up with families and good therapy but rather naive overall: full of noise. Blogs and books can be read more slowly and absorbed.

Perhaps we are descending.

10:51 pm  

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